I am the daughter of a Pākeha father, with lineage to England, and a Samoan mother, who was a migrant to Aotearoa.
As a result, I negotiate Western and Samoan spaces daily. In this short article, I seek to articulate my professional counsellor identity by integrating a Western concept, Volf’s drama of Embrace, with an Afakasi poem by Taylor, “Navigating Spaces.” Four Christian virtues underpin my identity – hope, love, grace, and justice – each of which inform my practice.
Act One: Opening the arms Where I’m from
Open arms is a sign Exists within differences
that I have created space Everybody’s other
in myself for the other to come in Nameless
and that I have made a movement out We are woven hard
of myself so as to enter the Pretty frangipani flower of
space created by the other man-made plastic creating culture
Knowing who I am and being comfortable with that has been an important journey for me because now when I sit with a client, I can “adjust my identity to allow for the other” while being authentic. Because I am not afraid of readjusting, I can encounter a diverse range of people. Taylor’s poetic words of existing within differences and everybody’s other speaks into my journey of embracing both my Samoan and Pākeha lineages. There have been places where I have excluded my Samoan identity so that I can be heard, or I have denied my Pākeha side so that I can fit in. Volf suggests that the exclusionary practices of assimilation, domination and elimination emerge from our need to find our identity.
Although I experience this exclusion to be true, I have been able to make meaning of these experiences throughout my counselling degree. As a result, adjusting myself to make room for the other is an important value because I don’t want people to be nameless like I once was. My process group in the counselling degree saw this value and mentioned the way I adjust is “not one size fits all” and that my approach is “tailormade to the clients.”
Considering this, I look upon Jesus and his way of being with people; the way in which he was curious about the people He met and connected with them using their frame of reference. He also adjusted the way He met with people according to their needs (Luke 6:6-11; John 4:7-42; John 8:1-11). I deeply value His creative approach when encountering different groups of people; the beautiful imagery and powerful metaphors in the parables He shares which can remind us of the hope he offers for all. I, too, want to embrace this creativity. My goal is that I don’t stay stagnate with one approach but can adjust my way of being as I meet my clients so that it fosters them growing as a person. Hope stories are unique and so it requires creative ways to connect and keep hope alive.
I have chosen to align hope with Volf’s Act One of open arms, because hope as a practice is to be done with others. In this same way, according to Volf, the opening of one’s arms expresses a desire for the other. He writes, “I do not want to be myself only, I want the other to be part of who I am and I want to be part of the other.” This commitment highlights the relationality of the open arms and hope. My work as a counsellor is to foster this hope, McGoldrick and Hines describe hope as to “help people explore their experience in ways which link their past, present and potential future, creating hope for transformation.” This is one of the reasons I have tried hard to learn the narrative maps (a core counselling approach in the counselling degree) and make it as my own. I use narrative maps because I see the value in how narrative therapy repositions someone within their story by making meaning of their experiences and in turn is hope-giving. I have enjoyed collaborating with my clients to help them find ways for their preferred identity to be richly described and re-told to others, I have come to realise that there are always alternative stories.
Act Two: Waiting Where I’m from
Waiting is a sign, Resides not in one soil
that although embrace may But three spaces at one time
have a one-sidedness in its An elusive navigator
origin it can never reach its Dancing between known
goal without reciprocity And being unknown
It is in this in-between-space, or as Taylor describes it, three spaces at one time, that I find myself. I have found myself connecting and disconnecting within these three spaces as I navigate each context – Pākeha, Samoan, and Afakasi. Hence this is why Taylor’s poetic words of elusive navigator, dancing between known and being unknown resonates with me, because of the movement I make, in some cases to fit in, to be known or stay invisible. Moreover, it stands out because it reminds me of the theological concept of perichoresis, of which is one of the main underpinnings of my counsellor identity. The mutual indwelling that is experienced between the three persons of the Trinity is one of perfect community, existing in perfect love with and for one another. According to Seamands, “understanding Trinitarian personhood should commit us to a journey toward wholeness in relationships with others.” I think this speaks loudly into the Samoan concept of vā.
Vā is referred to as the space between, and for Pasifika people, the relational spaces between people are sacred, and therefore there is an importance to nurture these relationships – teu le vā. Similar to Seamands’ call to commitment to a journey, fostering the vā between the client and I also takes commitment to move between what is said and what isn’t. Embrace cannot be fully actioned if it isn’t reciprocal, which also describes the nature of the vā; both the client and I are responsible for the sacred space because it is our relating and connecting that can foster this space of healing. In the same way, “Following the pattern of the trinitarian relationships, such relationships are characterised by mutuality, give and take, and they enable the self to be known most fully in the process of knowing another.” I also appreciate Bowden’s bold statement that I have made into a personal commitment of mine: “The dance of connection, creativity and difference in counselling needs reclaiming.” We are invited into this dynamic and creative dance with God as our dance lead. Quite rightly, Vanier states the more we become aware of the uniqueness of others the more we become aware of our communality as “it is a movement of the heart.”
My clinical supervisor and my Placement Liaison Person who oversees my practicum have highlighted how the nurturing of the vā is obvious in the way I meet with others. They understand this is important to me because of the conversations we have had together. I make a point when discussing client work with these key people that I commit a section of that time to “check in on the vā, ”for example, power dynamics, and obstacles that might be hindering the depth in connecting. They have also witnessed this by the way I am able to engage with both students and staff members and build trust, rapport and strong connections. God’s love bestowed on me is what drives me. Knowing I am deeply loved by God is liberating. I take on McMinn and Neff’s stance about integration: “that God’s presence in our world ultimately informs and transforms our presence with one another.”
Act Three: Closing the arms Where I’m from
In an embrace We never sit on tables
a host is a guest and They are sacred – tapu
a guest is a host Reserved for talanoa – dialogues
“It’s part of who Tala is, she is so hospitable and very conscious of being the guest that she doesn’t impose, but she invites us to invite her in” is a comment a process group member made in reference to her experiencing me as a hospitable host and invited guest. Anderson highlights the importance of the host’s actions, responses and tones as they communicate to their guest their deep prizing and valuing of them; while also recognising the sensitivities and respect this role as a guest in their life also brings. I liken this host-guest metaphor that both Volf and Anderson offer to Taylor’s reflection that a table is sacred because it is here that tapu talanoa is fostered.
Talanoa is a two-way partnership that encourages mutual reciprocity, which according to Faleolo, is vital to maintaining Pacific social spaces. This echoes Volf’s explanation of Act Three: “Though one self may receive or give more than the other, each must enter the space of the other, feel the presence of the other in the self and make its own presence felt. Without reciprocity, there is no embrace.” This metaphor is at the very core of who I am and what I value – respect. In fact, fa’aaloalo (respect) is one of the three foundational values in the fa’asamoa culture. I was humbled when a classmate noted I show true integration. For him, this approach is shown by the way I respect the client, respect the profession, and respect myself for doing my job well. It is from this place of respect and humility that I join with my client; it is in this metaphor of closing the arms that I simply be with.
In the beginning of my third session with a Year 10 client in my school practicum, I noticed the swelling of tears before she voiced her cousin’s name. I turned off the recording device to respectfully tend to her and ensure she knew she was in a safe and sacred space to share deeply. In this space she shared that her cousin took his own life the week before. I asked if it was okay to sit side-by-side, and so I physically moved to honour this withness. I like to think that through this action and thereafter, one could see Moltmann’s words in action, when he described God’s persistence in being present: “This is a God in the trenches with Israel, suffering alongside, taking on their shame. And this sort of ‘being with’ brings consolation and hope in the midst of deep anguish.” Just as Jesus entered our world; my hope is that I too enter into my client’s world as a guest in their experiences.
Before entering the counselling room with my high school clients, I invite them to make toasted sandwiches and milo with me. A process group member highlighted something I said as a passing comment, “I feed them well.” She saw this as more than feeding my clients physically put tending to all parts of their wellbeing. Providing them sustenance is more than just food, it is feeding them relationally by offering to know them and be known by them. “I can imagine Tala having a large table with a place holder for everyone’s name at this table, this is Tala’s kind of hospitality, that in God’s grace and kindness she makes room for the other” was another comment. This imagery illustrates Volf’s statement that “Embrace is grace.” There is an element of vulnerability here, for both the client and I, but God’s tapu grace offers peace as I inquiry with grace-filled questions and talanoa together.
Act Four: Opening the arms again Where I’m from
The end of an embrace Is always my future
is in a sense already a Because I am not one
beginning of an embrace I am of people
Two process group members offered a new word to my counselling identity formation – “cheerleader.” In their experiences of me, the way I support and come alongside others reflects a cheerleader positioning. I was intrigued by our group facilitator’s question to one of them, “is there a connection between the cheerleader and Tala leaning into narrative therapy?” Upon reflection, I think there is, and this is how I have interpreted my facilitator’s wonderful analogy. In the cheerleader-idea, the client is the “team,” I am the “cheerleader,” and the audience of preferred stories is the “crowd.” My role as the cheerleader is to hype the crowd on behalf of the team. In a therapeutic setting this means that through outsider witnessing practices, I collaborate with the client to bring forth this community of care to support and “cheer” on the client. Acknowledging our identity is socially constructed, Fox describes the value of outsider witnessing as a way for our clients to experience themselves and their preferred identity as part of a community of acknowledgement. I consider it as my ethical duty to enlarge this circle of community of care. Hence, I have aligned this with my value of justice, “We need other people who will call forth what is most beautiful in us, just as we need to call forth what is beautiful in others.”
O le tele o sulu e maua ai se figota, e mama se avega pe a ta amo fa’atasi, is a Samoan proverb meaning, “My strength does not come from me alone, but from many.” I use this in acknowledgement that when I entered this counselling degree, I did so not as an individual, but with my aiga (family) and nu’u (village). Moreover, my counsellor identity has been and continues to be influenced by a community of people. One of them is my process group, and it became apparent during the group exercise that I too have had an impact on their counselling journey. Tears were shed as I listened to their honouring of my journey and how this has influenced them too. “It’s a real gift for us to see it in action ... you’ve been an awesome model” one member commented as she described the way I have integrated my learning with my practice. The Samoan word for “gift” is meaalofa. Seiuli uses the meaalofa concept as “the gift of counselling,” signalling it is a gift to be shared. I agree that I have a responsibility to honour my client because they are a gift and what we do together also is, and just as important is to equip them to share their meaalofa with others.
As this writing demonstrates, holding both my Pākeha and Samoan values are important to my professional counsellor identity. It is in these narratives that I draw my values from and inform my counselling practices. As I continue my counselling journey, I acknowledge my identity will also evolve as it is a way of being rather than something I simply do. Teu le vā, “fostering the sacred space between,” is what I’m trying to do in the world.
This is my meaalofa.
Tala Page-To'oala is the daughter of Raleigh Page and Iraisa So'oalo-Page. Married to Gavin To'oala who hails from Nga Puhi and Samoa. Tala is the Guidance Counsellor at Auckland Girls' Grammar School. She received her B.Couns from Laidlaw College in 2022 and while there, she enjoyed wrestling with the Western ideologies and offering a Pasifika lens to it. This has led to Tala studying towards a Master of Counselling from the University of Waikato, to find ways to speak about wellness in languages, images and metaphors that reflect our diversities and our histories in Aotearoa.
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).
 Afakasi is Samoan for half-caste (half Samoan, half European)
 Grace Taylor, Navigating Spaces (2012), https://youtu.be/u00bZQCnLtY, video recording.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 121.
 Taylor, Navigating Spaces, stanza 2.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 91.
 Kaethe Weingarten, “Reasonable hope: Construct, Clinical Applications, and Supports,” Family Process 49.1 (2010): 5–25.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 122.
 Monica McGoldrick & Paulette M. Hines, “Hope: The Far Side of Despair,” in Hope and Despair in Narrative and Family Therapy Adversity, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation, eds. Carmel Flaskas, Imelda McCarthy and Jim Sheehan (London: Routledge, 2007), 56.
 Michael White, “Maps of Narrative Practice” (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2007).
 Alice Morgan, “What is Narrative Therapy?” (Adelaide, SA: Dulwich Centre Publications, 2000).
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 122.
 Taylor, Navigating Spaces, stanza 6.
 Jack Balswick, Pamela King and Kevin Reimer, The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).
 Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian service (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 44.
 Le Va, Respectful Relationships: Pasifika People Living Our Values (Auckland: Pacific Inc, 2020).
 Balswick, King and Reimer, The Reciprocating Self, 41.
 Roy Bowden, “Cultural Counselling: Beyond Method and Modality,” in Pacific Identities and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, eds. Margaret Agee, Cabrini ‘Ofa Makasiale, and Philip Culbertson (Otago: Otago University Press, 2013), 160.
 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (New York: Paulist Press, 2008), 83.
 Mark R. McMinn and Megan A. Neff, Embodying Integration: A Fresh Look at Christianity in the Therapy Room (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 210.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 124.
 Taylor, Navigating Spaces, stanza 8.
 Harlene Anderson, “Collaborative Relationships and Dialogic Conversations: Ideas for a Relationally Responsive Practice,” Family Process, 51.1 (2012): 8–24.
 Ruth Faleolo, “Talanoa Moe Vā: Pacific Knowledge-Sharing and Changing Sociocultural Spaces During COVID-19,” Waikato Journal of Education, 6 (2020): 125–134.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 124.
 Melani Anae, “Research for Better Pacific Schooling in New Zealand: Teu Le Vā – a Samoan Perspective,” MAI Review, 1 (2010): 1–24.
 As part of counsellor education, counselling students sometimes ask a client’s permission to record a session, either for an assignment or to play to their clinical supervisor. Recording only occurs with written permission of the client.
 McMinn and Neff, Embodying Integration, 214.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 127.
 Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 125.
 Taylor, Navigating Spaces, stanza 12.
 White, Maps of Narrative Practice.
 Maggie Carey and Shona Russell, “Outsider-Witness Practices: Some Answers to Commonly Asked Questions,” The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, 1 (2003): 67.
 Vanier, Becoming Human, 95.
 Byron Seiuli, “Meaalofa: Making Samoan Counselling Practice Accessible and Visible in Aotearoa New Zealand,” New Zealand Journal of Counselling, 30.1 (2010): 48.