In this blog I’ve been sharing my recent sense of transition: to be meeting new insights about my “Self” and how I have come to be the way I am. Much of this has not been easy, yet there is an honouring that this material must come to light, and a certain inevitability about it to (the timing as it is post-retreat and ahead of the life event of getting married. I know that unless I investigate these deeper and (up until now) hidden aspects of my Self, they will remain in my Shadow and block a greater engagement in life and relationship with others. I also know that exploration – its process and outcome – will lend itself to my therapeutic work.
And this is what I have been pondering this week – in my transition, in contacting unknown parts of me, how does this impact my therapeutic work at this time? How can I use my vulnerability in the service of my clients? Is that even possible? What “status” of emotional well-being is ideal for work with clients? Does a therapist have to be “fully therapised” themselves to be a good therapist? Is “fully therapised” even possible? What does that look like? Its certainly not to be saintly and removed from and above this life.
One of the first influences of my career as a therapist was Carl Rogers. He developed the person-centred approach to counselling; one that was underpinned by congruence, empathy and unconditional positive regard for his clients. Even though I have chosen to move on to other approaches in the broad church of Humanistic psychotherapy, I still hold these “3 core conditions” as the basis of my work. If my practice of Gestalt is the house, it built on this foundation, and my use of Buddhist psychology has become the extension (I think specifically of empathy to compassion). Rogers’ 3 core conditions were merely part of “six necessary and sufficient” conditions for personality change. Here he extends the notion of congruence: The client is incongruent; the counsellor is congruent. In other words, the client maybe anxious or vulnerable and this is blocking contact with their experience. In this same relationship however, the therapist is not blocked to contact, in effect they are relatively more ‘okay’. In the view of neuroscience, this allows the client to ‘piggy back’ off of the therapist’s relatively more stable and calm nervous system.
And this is my sense of therapy and how it works. As long as I can sit in the room with my client and offer them my full presence, that offers an experience of relationship that is healing. I can still feel vulnerable, I might still carry certain anxieties and challenges in my life: it is only if these serve as pre-occupations and block my ability to fully be there will the client suffer.
I noticed post-retreat* how open I was to my clients. I came back with a tenderised heart; more in touch with my own human existence and what it is to struggle in life, and allowing that to open me to greet my clients stories and experiences of struggle. My clients may have noticed that, for instance the tears in my eyes as I listened. I allowed myself to be touched and moved, and I imagine that seeing I was impacted by their experience in turn changed their experience with me. An existential understanding of the givens of life combined with a Buddhist view of how these given pains needn’t become suffering helps me to help my clients navigate vulnerable moments in their lives. Yes, life can be painful; yet I can help my clients appreciate that it is how we respond to those pains that dictates our life experience.
When I started my therapy training, I think I somewhat mis-interpreted how therapy works. I thought I had to be totally ‘okay’ in order to hold my clients’ distress. This affected my practice – a rigidity, and a slight defending of whenever a client wanted to know more about me and my life. I was guarded, feeling I could only offer the best side of me. I had to be perfect, or why else would a client pay good money to see me? Being a educator of trainee therapists I see something similar in my students at times. I watch how they get so anxious so as not to reveal their vulnerabilities, their uncertainties. I encourage them to bring them forward, to use them to help the connection to their client.
Of course, we cannot be a ‘mess’ in the therapy room. Going back to what Rogers asserts – we must be congruent, we must be able to hold ourselves steady, steady enough that we can read what is going on both inwardly, and outwardly between our selves and the client. Holding ourselves enough to hold a sense of Self and not collapse in to merging with our client’s experience. Yet holding that separation with a quality of softness – to develop an ability for ‘fellow feeling’; to know what it is to suffer and bring that experience alongside another human being who is suffering (relatively) more than us.
I love Sheldon Kopp’s notion of being a fellow pilgrim on the path. In his book “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The PilgrimageOf Psychotherapy Patients” he explains how therapists are not there to give answers, nor are they there to be paragons of virtue or perfection. Therapists are not the guru, not the Buddha but rather another human being struggling too. He explains how understanding the shape of our own personal ills will lead therapist and client on a journey to recovery. A quote that carries a sentiment for my work “Love is more than simply being open to experiencing the anguish of another person’s suffering. It is the willingness to live with the helpless knowing that we can do nothing to save the other from his pain”.
So, is it okay that I am not yet “fully therapised”? I believe so. What is more important for my client than a model of perfection is a model of someone doing the work; someone who is fully therapis-ing rather than a finished product. The personal journey of being in therapy myself and in deepening my meditation practice has enabled me to hold the more fragile parts of me that have yet to be digested and composted. To know where I struggle, hold that with compassion, and still live a life. Then there is a gentleness, an allowing of things to unfold rather than a rush to get rid or push them back out of my awareness.
Maybe what does differ between the therapist and client is being a little down the path of understanding the human predicament and compassion towards oneself.
*and something of which is still present if not a little fainter. I still wonder how I can keep this alive, to not let it fade too much. Maybe what is fading is the trust I have in my Buddhanature, my experiences of it on retreat. As that fades, it is easier to bring up the defences when I am vulnerable; and that can be a block to contact with others.