Critical reflexivity: A personal account of my counselling career and journey

Author: Dr Heather Churchill

Publish date: September 30, 2021
Reading Time: 20 minutes


As I look back over my counselling career, I recognise that I have experienced resistance and suspicion from a number of Christians and Christian leaders in the UK towards counselling and counselling training. As I have reflected on this resistance, I have reached the conclusion that this response has often been driven by the belief that counselling will either challenge or weaken a person’s Christian faith and/or that Christian faith and beliefs will not be respected during counselling training (Clarkson, 2003: 203; Delaney et al., 2007; Winfrey, 2007; West, 2011, a; West, Biddlington & Goss, 2014).

In addition, I have experienced hostility and avoidance by some within the counselling profession to the notion of integrating a Christian worldview with counselling and psychotherapy. Whilst in recent years I believe the profession has become more open to spirituality (Bartoli, 2007; Delaney et al., 2007; Gingrich & Worthington, 2007), nevertheless, I agree with others that there remains a level of avoidance of working with a client’s religious and/or spiritual issues (Macmin & Fosket, 2004; Gubi, 2009; Harborne, 2012).

I believe the conflict I experienced from these two groups created in me a passion to create and develop three professional higher education counselling programmes, all underpinned by a Christian worldview/anthropology. However, in order to dig deeper and reflect more on my passion to create these programmes, over the last couple of years I have engaged more extensively with the task of critical reflexivity. In this short paper, I will endeavour to define the difference between reflection and reflexivity and explain how, in undertaking the task, it has assisted me to become more aware of how my history, beliefs and values have shaped and impacted my counselling work and career as a trainer.

My overall aim for this article is that it will help explain the importance of critical reflexivity for personal growth, demystify the process and encourage readers to engage with critical reflexivity in order to discover some of their own hidden motivations in their life choices and counselling journey.

A contentious concept?

It is important to acknowledge that the task of critical reflexivity has, at times, been a contentious concept in the world of psychotherapy: some people strongly appreciating the task and others believing it should be avoided (McLeod, 2001; Mruck & Breuer, 2003). Those who argue against critical reflexivity frequently come from a positivist position, which regards knowledge and truth as that which can only be verified by objectivity and observation and discovered through scientific enterprises (McLeod, 2003; Gemignani, 2017). From a positivist perspective, personal experience is thus viewed negatively and rather seen as a potential source of bias (Hansen, 2004; Ponterotto, 2005; Alvesson &Sköldberg, 2009).

Therefore, prior to defining the difference between reflection and critical reflectivity, it is important to briefly mention my own personal ontological and epistemological position.

My ontological and epistemological position towards reflexivity: A critical realist position

An ontological perspective is a way of understanding the core nature and being of a person (McLeod, 2001). Epistemology, on the other hand, is concerned with how we determine what is true, providing the rationale for the assumptions that have been formed and which underpin beliefs (Bager-Charleson, 2012: 86). Various ontological and epistemological approaches can be taken, where at one end of the continuum lies the positivist approach (where reality is perceived as objective and independent of human ways of knowing) and at the other end lies a relativist approach (where reality and human knowledge are seen as being socially and culturally constructed) (McLeod, 2001: 184; Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2009).

I believe that both my view of reality and my theory of knowledge (ie my ontological and epistemological assumptions) are ‘intertwined’ (Etherington, 2004:71) and sit between a positivist and a relativist position in that I acknowledge that there is a reality that exists independently from an individual’s perception. However, I also believe that truth can be socially constructed. It is for this reason that I have personally found the philosophical approach of critical realism convincing.

Critical realism, originating from the work of Bhaskar, is complex to define, since there are a variety of approaches and methodologies that fall under this approach (Archer, et al., 2016). Nevertheless, in basic terms, it is an approach that accepts that there is an objective reality, but also recognises that an individual’s personal and subjective interpretation plays a part in explaining and defining reality (Almashy, 2015; Taylor, 2018). Critical realism is therefore a position that sits between positivism (an approach which emphasises empiricism and objective facts) and social constructionism (which accepts a socially constructed view of reality) (Hansen, 2004; Peters, et al., 2013; Zachariadis, et al., 2013; Taylor, 2018).

I have found the approach plausible, not least because I reject a positivist approach on the basis that I believe there is a subjective element to knowledge that cannot always be explained by observable evidence and scientific findings (Costley et al., 2010). I also reject a purely social constructionist approach in that I do not believe reality should be totally, as Alvesson & Sköldberg point out, ‘limited’ to considering how it is socially constructed (2009; 37).

There have been criticisms of the critical realist approach; for example, it has been challenged for not providing a methodology as to how the two positions can be combined (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2009). Nevertheless, I find the approach credible and one that sits comfortably with my Christian faith in that I believe Christians should admit that they do not know or own the whole truth: ‘the truth is with God’ (Losch, 2018: 164). However, the position’s acceptance that there can be a subjective and socially constructed view of reality enables Christian faith to be seen as a ‘legitimate form of knowing’ (Martin, 2001: 248).

I have therefore adopted a critical realist position towards the task of critical reflexivity – a position that values the role of personal experience and perceives knowledge in part as co-created with others in the context of a story (Howard, 1991; Reason, 1994; Denscombe, 2003; Etherington, 2004; Li Mao et al., 2016).

Reflection and reflexivity; defining the difference

To define the difference between reflection and reflexivity, the work of Donald Schön (1983), considered by many to be the pioneer of reflective practice (Kinsella, 2007), is of value.

Schön differentiated between two activities: ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’ (Costley et al., 2010: 122). He described the former as having the capacity and ability to draw on knowledge and conviction in order to deal with changing events, a ‘thinking on our feet’ approach (Costley et al., 2010: 122). ‘Reflection-on-action’, however, he defined as the task of critically reflecting on experience after the event has occurred in order to gain a fresh understanding that promotes learning and improves future action (West, 2000; Kinsella, 2007).

Admittedly there has been some confusion over the precise meaning of the terms and Schön has been criticised for failing to adequately clarify the difference between them (Smith 2001; Brockbank & McGill, 2007). Nevertheless, Schön’s concept of ‘tacit knowledge’ is helpful, in that it recognises that a practitioner knows more than they realise and by engaging in ‘reflection-on-action’ they have the potential to discover some of the tacit knowledge that has guided their practice so far (Kinsella, 2007: 396).

Wright and Bolton’s (2012) distinction between reflection and reflexivity is also helpful. They define reflection as an exercise that looks ‘outwards towards others’, taking into account any relevant customs, traditions and surroundings that might be important (2012: 37, 38). Reflexivity on the other hand is described as paying attention ‘inwards’ almost a ‘dialogue with the self’ as a person critically reflects on their thought processes, their values and their actions (Wright and Bolton, 2012: 38).

To be reflexive, therefore, it is important to find a way of ‘standing outside of self’ in order to reflect on and question how one’s beliefs, assumption, prejudices and behaviour might have impacted practice (Bolton, 2010: xix, 13). In other words, reflexivity is a step further than reflection. It is a deeper process that a person can engage with in order to uncover the possible unconscious motivations that might have impacted the development of their work (Cresswell, 2007; Kinsella, 2007; Bager-Charleson, 2012; Etherington, 2017). Reflective practice has also been described as ‘single loop’ and ‘double loop’ learning, with single loop being a reflection that can challenge and bring about change; double loop on the other hand being reflexivity that can enable challenge and question of one’s own assumptions, values and practice (Brockbank & McGill, 2007: 51; Bolton, 2010).

Putting it into practice: Interpersonal process recall

To uncover any hidden motivations for my passion to deliver counselling programmes underpinned by a Christian worldview and to train students to integrate faith/religion/spirituality with counselling, I decided to adopt a narrative approach to critical reflexivity, one which facilitated me to retell and investigate my story (McLeod, 1997; Etherington, 2017). Since I am a visual and imaginative person, I decided to use a variation of the technique of interpersonal process recall (IPR), a model developed by Kagan and others (Kagan & Schauble, 1969; Wosket, 1999)[1], to assist me in engaging with this task.

Using IPR, in my mind’s eye, I took myself back in time to a number of defining moments in my career and replayed these events as though they were occurring in the here and now. As I did this, I paid attention to my thoughts, feelings, values and actions. My belief was that as I engaged with IPR, more material would be revealed because I was fairly sure that underneath my story, there was, as Rennie (1994: 242) notes with storytelling, ‘more going on than is being told’. In other words, I wanted to dig down and discover some tacit knowledge that I was possibly unwilling or unable to allow myself to access.

Unconscious intersubjectivity

In addition to using IPR, I also read Bager-Charleson’s comments on ‘relational research reflexivity’ and ‘unconscious intersubjectivity’ (2016: 58-70; 64). As I allowed myself time to reflect back on my counselling journey, I recalled two key events relevant to my professional life.

The first event occurred right at the very beginning of my counselling training (which was in a secular context) in the mid-1990s, and, as I visualise it now, I can remember it as though it was yesterday. In the training session, the leader played a tape recording of a counselling session, during which the counsellor started to proselytise and tried to ‘convert’ the client to their Christian faith. I remember feeling embarrassed, partly ashamed of being a Christian and incredibly uncomfortable as my peers started to discuss how appalling the counsellor’s behaviour was. At this point in time, I had not developed a clear understanding of what was ethical behaviour, or not, and just remember feeling silenced, saying absolutely nothing.

The second incident occurred about a year into my counselling training. The course required me to have personal counselling and I duly formed a therapeutic relationship with a counsellor in my locality. Whilst I found the counselling immensely helpful (in that it assisted me to stand back and consider my childhood experiences from a more objective stance), the issue that troubled me most was one that was directly related to my Christian faith. However, I felt I could not discuss this with my counsellor (even though I was aware she was a Christian) because I believed it was not acceptable to discuss my faith issues in therapy. The issue was that I had become a Christian at the age of 15, having come from a non-Christian background and whilst I had discovered a faith that was very real and important to me, I constantly struggled with the feeling that God was disappointed with me. So I took the problem to my pastor, who merely told me that God loved me and I was to accept this in faith.

With hindsight, and with so much more understanding and clarity now, I realise that, as a Christian, whilst I profoundly disagree with Freud’s assumption that faith in God is a mere ‘wish fulfilment’ and something to overcome (1927/1973), I believe he was right in determining that faith, at times, can be a projective system; this supposition being supported in later years by much independent research (Rizzuto, 1979; Brockaw & Edwards, 1994; Kirkpatrick, 1999; Aten & Leach, 2009)[2]. In my case, in childhood I had experienced both my mother and father as being constantly disappointed with me and it would have been of immense therapeutic value if I had been able to explore in therapy the link between my early life experience and my relationship with God.

The impact of these two events on my motivation and passion for creating higher education counselling programmes, which train students to competently and ethically integrate Christian faith/religion/spirituality with the practice of counselling, seems blindingly obvious now, but until I had engaged in the critical reflexive task, they had both remained largely unknown. In undertaking the critical reflexive task, it also assisted me to consider in more depth how much of my counselling development and my career as a trainer has been undertaken at an unconscious level in order to resolve some of my own past difficulties.

Further motivational factors

Over the years, I have faced considerable opposition (within the counselling profession and within my Christian community) to any notion of integrating Christian faith/religion/spirituality with counselling. Again, as I allowed myself to go back in time and replay some of the early events in my counselling career, I remembered the level of frustration I experienced and how, at one point, the opposition seemed sufficiently difficult that I felt like giving up on the whole process.

As I questioned and asked myself what it was that had made me doggedly continue to pursue this path, I became convinced that, in the main, it was the work I had undertaken with a number of my clients. I have assisted many clients over the years when their religious/spiritual issues have impacted their psychological difficulties. I have personally witnessed the subsequent therapeutic change that has occurred as a result of exploring these issues in therapy. In addition, I have sought feedback from clients when we have concluded therapy and asked them what aspect of therapy they felt had been the most helpful. With all my Christian clients, the answer has invariably been the work that we have undertaken together in the spiritual area. (The work has ranged from helping clients to explore unhelpful spiritual beliefs, expressing anger towards God, discovering God’s unconditional love, and working with spiritual abuse.) As I critically evaluated my work, I realised how much this was a significant influence and motivational factor in my passion for training students to ethically integrate Christian faith/religion/spirituality with the practice of counselling.

Acknowledgement of faith

I recognise that permeating many of the reflections in this paper has been the importance of my Christian faith. I believe it is important to acknowledge this for three reasons.

Firstly, as West (2011, b,196) notes, Christian faith and spirituality are topics that evoke fervent reactions and responses. Secondly, I believe it is important to recognise that holding a faith and Christian beliefs points towards a lack of neutrality (Robson, 2002). I am in agreement with West’s epistemological position that, for Christians, it can be ‘exceedingly difficult’ (2011, b:196) to adopt ‘a neutral position’ on the issue of faith. Furthermore, I agree with Bergin (1980) that attempting to adopt a ‘value-free’ position is completely unattainable (1980, 97).

Thirdly, as Bager-Charlson (2016) points out, it can be valuable for researchers to ‘position their knowledge… in a sociocultural context’ (2016: 61). This is of particular relevance to me in that, in recent years, those holding a Christian faith have been identified as belonging to a specific socio-cultural group (Knox et al., 2005; Cragun & Friedlander, 2012; Greenidge & Baker, 2012). As I have reflected on my efforts and motivation to combine the two paradigms of faith/religion/spirituality and counselling, I have been struck by how, in many ways, this has mirrored my own personal internal journey. In order to be true to myself, over the years I have felt the need to acknowledge to myself and (when appropriate) to others, the ‘spiritual’ and ‘Christian’ part of myself, since that is core to who I am as a person. On the other hand, my ‘professional self’ has also demanded recognition. Integrating these two parts of self has been a parallel process in many ways to that of my passion to train students to integrate the paradigm of faith/religion/spirituality with the paradigm of psychology and psychotherapy.[3]

The Waverley integrative framework

Before concluding (in this, the first issue of the Waverley Abbey College Journal), it seems fitting and important to make some mention of the Waverley integrative framework and the task of critical reflexivity.

I believe the critical realist and relational approach to reflexivity, as set out in this paper, fits well with the Waverley integrative framework for a number of reasons. Firstly, the holistic approach taken by Hughes takes into account a number of areas of human functioning, including the relational and spiritual area (Hughes, 2002). Secondly, the framework’s ontological underpinning recognises human individuals as being created in the image of God: imago Dei (Hughes, 2002:139) and thus human beings can be perceived as relational at the core of their being (Green, 1999; Vanderploeg, 1981; Miner and Dowson, 2012; Hobson, 2019). Thirdly, Hughes proposed that all human beings are driven by deep needs/longings for security, self-worth and significance (Hughes, 2002:139). The search for love, security, meaning and purpose is congruent with the writings of many other theorists (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980, Cassidy, 1999: 3-20; Gerhardt, 2004). Finally, the approach is integrative and open to both theological insights and psychological insights (Hurding, 1986: 300; Hughes, 2002; Kallmier, 2011: 131-181) and thus takes into account Christian faith (which might be considered subjective and socially constructed) and psychological understanding (based on observable facts).

Concluding reflection

In conclusion, I admit that undertaking the reflexive task is not for the faint hearted as, at times, I have found it to be a painful and poignant experience, often reducing me to tears. I certainly have realised the truth of Josselson’s argument, namely that reflecting on our work is sometimes a task we ‘must do in anguish’ (Josselson, 1996, as cited by McLeod, 2001: 198).

In addition, as I have engaged with the task of critical reflexivity over the last couple of years, I have realised that the task takes time (Dyer and Hurd, 2016). Memories have taken a while to surface and it has made me appreciate even more that this is not a cognitive exercise, but rather a pulling out of memories, some of which are quite deeply buried and some intensely painful, even traumatising. My experience has been that described by Bolton (2010: 8) when she observes that the more one tries to focus and reflect, the more ‘elusive’ the memories can be.

However, whilst painful, I have found the task of critical reflexivity has been of great value, enabling to reflect deeply on my personal and professional journey and to become more aware of how my values, beliefs, experiences and context have influenced and impacted my work (Alvesson, et al., 2008; Bager-Charleson, 2012; Etherington, 2004).


[1] Interpersonal Process Recall (IPR) is a model developed by Kagan and his colleagues, which assists counsellors to reflect upon their work with clients and to discover unconscious perceptions and motivations that the counsellor is often not immediately aware of (Cashwell, 1994). The main aim of IPR is to increase self-awareness in order to benefit the therapeutic relationship and the work the counsellor undertakes with their client (Kagan & Schauble, 1969; Wosket, 1999).

[2] The research gives evidence that a person’s relationship with God can sometimes correspond with, and mirror, the quality of the attachment relationship they experienced with their care-givers in childhood.


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About the Author

Heather Churchill MTh. (Middx); BA (Hons. Brunel) – Registered Member, MBACP (Senior Accredited) Counsellor/Psychotherapist; Registered Member, ACC (Accredited Counsellor and Supervisor)

Heather Churchill has many years of experience as a trainer, counsellor/psychotherapist and a supervisor. She has co-authored two books (Insight into Helping Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Insight into Shame) and has published a number of articles in the Accord Journal of the Association of Christian Counsellors. In her private clinical practice, Heather specialises in counselling adults who have experienced abuse in childhood. She is currently conducting a reflexive audit on the work she has undertaken in developing higher education counselling training within a Christian paradigm.

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