Rob Stuart – integrative therapist/counselor in Utrecht
Not until the age of 50 did I find my vocation: to give therapy. People had often entrusted me with their problems, sensing they would be taken seriously on their own terms and not judged. The therapist’s core quality is empathy: being moved by the emotional suffering of others and wanting them to transform it into happy success. An effective therapist also has the requisite knowledge, experience, insight and decisiveness to guide clients of diverse backgrounds and personalities to their goal.
Rather than a ‘professionally distant’ clinician, emotionally suffering people need an empathic and encouraging listener who doesn’t shy away from their pain and ‘darkness’. They need to be understood by a caregiver who speaks from the heart, with clear vision, about what he sees and senses, who confronts them when necessary, but who never judges them. Personal judgement has no merit; it blocks self-discovery and self-empathy. Increasingly, my head-and-heart work focuses on how clients can grow to love and care for themselves rather than on conventional ‘diagnosis and treatment’.
Born in Yorkshire in 1958, I grew up in Warwickshire — Shakespeare and Tolkien country. Partly by the example of my parents, who worked for others’ welfare, I learned that ‘what makes people tick’ is far more interesting than competing to ‘win’. That lesson was reinforced by the negative example of the traditional, elitist boys’ school I attended, which was all about competing and winning. Far from being warm and nurturing, it was cold, repressive and disciplinarian — with regular psychological and physical punishment. Raised to be ‘a good Christian’, I became an atheist at age 13, though the compassion and non-violence of the human Jesus continued to inspire me. In my teens, I learned from prominent English socialists such as George Orwell and Tony Benn that solidarity and working for the common good is what gives life meaning.
I first came to the Netherlands in 1980, having failed the final year of my engineering degree — because I was busy partying and taking ‘mind-altering’ substances. Youth is wasted on the young! Unemployment was rife in Margaret Thatcher’s not-so-United Kingdom, but work was up for grabs here in the Netherlands, which seemed to be the land of milk and honey. I had planned to save money and travel overland to India. However, I was sidetracked by Cupid masquerading as an enticing and intriguing young Dutch lady who managed the job agency through which I worked. Young firebrands, we soon discovered a shared desire to work in ‘Third World development’ in Africa, inspired by Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Pan-African Socialism. This motivated me to return to England and complete my studies cum laude. We then married and travelled overland across Africa before working for three years at a technical secondary school in stunning northern Tanzania, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Living and working there was very challenging, with many dilemmas. Widespread corruption, oppression, rivalry and suspicion stifled cooperation and progress, and there was the pervasive threat of violence. To cut a long story short, I returned to Utrecht in the late 1980s, culture-shocked, disillusioned with much of humanity and my marriage in crisis.
Suffering from ‘a nervous breakdown’ – anxiety, insomnia, depression and suicidal thoughts – I was off work for 18 months. Weekly group therapy with Hans Knibbe (founder of Utrecht’s School voor Zijnsoriëntatie) helped me to get in touch with and release pent-up emotions. Thanks to bio-energetics, psychodrama, guided imagery and Gestalt, I gradually came home to my real self and felt grounded and present again. From this and my later experiences with transactional analysis, Mindfulness and integrative psychotherapy, I know how awful and lonely it can be to struggle mentally and emotionally, to feel desperate and powerless, and to urgently need a guide for the healing journey. The great advantage of that lowest point in my life is that I can readily relate to my clients’ struggles. You can rely on me to listen and understand, not as a clinician but as a warm-hearted fellow traveller.
I passionately believe that everyone can and should benefit from therapy, which I regard as the key to personal – and thereby societal – change. Those who suffer mentally, emotionally and spiritually should not be stigmatised but embraced and nurtured.
After recovering my balance, I worked in various professions for nearly 20 years, including technical writing, public relations, translating and editing, radio journalism, human rights work, and general and academic English teaching. Despite a stable but modest income, vocation and passion were lacking.
When I was 50 it suddenly dawned on me that re-training as a therapist was the way ahead. The trigger was the stab of jealousy I felt when a girlfriend told me she was going to train as an integrative therapist. I suddenly had a goal again; my whole life made sense! I realised that the many painful setbacks and ‘failures’ had just been preparing me for this step.
In 2012, I completed my professional training at the Dutch Academy for Psychotherapy in Amsterdam. It was a difficult but enormously enriching learning experience that gave my personal development a great impulse.
Since opening my independent practice for integrative therapy and counseling in Utrecht, I have gained thousands of hours of experience guiding adult individuals and couples with all kinds of problems through self-discovery, healing and growth. I find it hugely rewarding and deeply moving to witness fellow travellers stepping out of inner conflict, downheartedness and disempowerment into revitalisation, inner harmony and empowerment. They achieve major and minor personal revolutions through self-insight and self-healing. You can do that too!