Being a Psychotherapist 6: Having Containing Supervision
Updated: Feb 10
Being a psychotherapist is a wonderfully tough job. Many clients come to us because they are no longer able to contain what is happening for them. Their inner experience is likely painful, stuck and beyond their current capacity to transform.
The upside of the job is having the privilege of sitting with these clients as they create the connections and insights that they need to heal. We get to play a part in changing their experience, and at the same time we can learn a great deal about what it is to be human, about what works, and about how we can help. Clients are an inspiration, and our best teachers.
The downside of the job is that the starting place is sometimes visceral, intense pain and emotion that exists not only in our client, but in the relational field we share, and in our own beings, as we resonate with our client's way of being. Sessions can be tough, leaving you drained, and sometimes, carrying some of your clients wounds and hurting experiences with you. Some you may spot, some may be beyond your awareness.
This is where both personal reflection, and clinical supervision come in. It is ethically our responsibility to work only with that which we can contain. But how do we know what that is?
In our reflective practice, we are called to be with not only what we think or what we believe we know. We need to be with our body, noting where we are flowing and where we are blocked. We need to be with our emotional responses, checking out what feels like me, and where we are perhaps carrying additional energy. We need to be our relational self, alive to how we are and are not connecting and noticing the changing patterns in this.
Much of what we notice we can contain ourselves. Each practitioner will have their own regime of personal practice, be it meditation, reflective journalling, art, yoga, music, being in nature, dance...the list of what may ground and renew us is long and varied.
However, some of what is happening will not be contained and processed within us. Some of it will not even be apparent. This is the stuff of clinical supervision, and how supervision happens is critically important.
For the psychological safety of our clients and ourselves, we require a supervisor who can not only bring a depth of knowing and sensing to our relationship, but who can also safely contain what it is that arises. Can they go beyond the specifics of what is being described to help us uncover the relational patterns, the unconscious feelings and assumptions and that which we are physically holding beyond awareness? Is the relationship strong enough that we can bring anything at all into the room, and know that it will be compassionately and appropriately met? Can they be honest enough to help us see and work within our own limitations? Can they help us navigate the wider healthcare and mental health support system to ensure clients receive what they need when that is no longer us personally?
Clinical supervision is the last point of containment. If we are not contained there, then we can not contain our clients. To maximise the benefits of supervision it is important we do not refrain from mentioning, shy away from or water down what we bring. We are called to look squarely in the face our frailties and insecurities, and to explore them knowing that growth and healing are available when we do.
If your supervision relationship is now yet reaching the depth and breadth that your practice needs, then talk to your supervisor. Relationships arise between the two of you, if you change how you show up the dynamic will move, and more may be possible. If it is not, then perhaps change of a different kind is needed.