Being a Psychotherapist 5: Work with your own process first
I received a thank you note recently that prompted me to reflect on just what it was that had enabled me and my client to connect in a way that had been so healing for them.
One answer presented itself unexpectedly in conversation with friends a few days later. We were reflecting on Victor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning, and how it was that Frankl had been able to survive in a Nazi Death Camp when so many others perished.
Luck was of course a significant element of this, but what was more striking in our reflections was the sense that Frankl had been able to accept what was happening. He had been able to look it full in the face, without shying away, and see it for the full horror that it was.
Fortunately, we are seldom called to sit with the existential terror and pain that Frankl and so many millions experienced in the holocaust. I do not make light of it in using it to make the therapeutic point explored here. I do find however that it speaks to me vividly of the work that psychotherapists do.
The capacity Frankl exhibited to make space for what was happening and not avoid it meant that he could find meaning in his reactions and experience and find a way to bear what was going on. This process of turning towards, accepting, and making meaning is critical to the work of psychotherapy.
Clients bring to us the things they can not bear, and can not face. The aspects of themselves that cause them shame and discomfort. Their regrets, their desires, the parts of themselves and of life that they do not want to accept.
Our role is to make welcoming space for whatever comes. We need to be willing and able to see it, to bring it into the light, to make good space for it, and to bring healing and compassion from the process of giving voice to the darkness.
If we can't face what comes, how can our clients? If we create, or collude with no go zones that clients deliberately or inadvertently create, then we reinforce the sense that there are things that are too shameful or too much, or ideas that the client is somehow inadequate or incapable.
To do our work with clients, we each must, in an ongoing way, do the work that is there to be done within ourselves. In reflective practice, in supervision, in our own personal therapy, we need to be transparent and open with what arises as we move through life, and to give it voice and space. As Milton Erickson would say, the client has the first induction. To help them, you go there first. So, healer, heal thyself.
I encourage all who work therapeutically to stay alive to the unspoken in therapeutic sessions, and in ourselves both clinically and in everyday life.. What is being expressed that is not brought into focus? What is running through you that can usefully be brought into awareness? What do you feel you ought to steer away from or overlook?
Paying attention to your inner experiencing, and your therapeutic sensing is critical to effective practice. How are you holding yourself to account in this regard?