Recently ZHUCHI ran a small competition asking people to tell me in 500 words or less, what their most profound experience as a therapist had been. It was a tough challenge. The competition was judged by an independent person who lives with a mental illness - in this instance, bi-polar disorder - I asked them to judge on one criteria only - what resonated most with them, as someone who has and does access therapy for ongoing help and support.
Both the first runner up and the winner are published below, and in that order. Since this is about the message NOT the author, both will remain un-named.
Writing about my most profound moment as a therapist is tricky. Writing about a particular event with a client feels almost impossible. For a start, I think profoundness in therapy is often accumulative for clients and therapists, and ‘aha’ moments are not as common as slow and steady accumulative changes in perspective. Secondly, when therapy is rolling well profound moments happen often, and it’s a challenge to notice them and honour them. Thirdly, profound moments often arise out of relationship with a client and it’s not easy to write enough context to hang it together without risking a breach in confidentiality. My work as a psychologist has changed me profoundly, but few distinct ‘moments’ of change come to mind to explain how I’ve been changed.
So what is it about the therapy process that takes me past the superficial and brings me to a place of great depth? These days it’s working with people who are dying. Every time I sit with someone as they encounter their powerlessness to prevent their own death or the suffering their death might cause for people they love, I get recalibrated by the experience. Brutally recalibrated at times. The realisation of the fragility of human life drags me to a particularly stark headspace, where my everyday stresses seem absurd and even insulting to the clients. I tell my friends that this stark end- of-life headspace is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Particularly when I’ve got young kids, and I spend my days emotionally connecting with people who have a rare illness with a crap prognosis and a terrible quality of life. My current role has taught me that the sort of profound experiences that come from being a therapist are not always life-giving.
I guess there are also the sorts of profound moments that I’ve had in all therapy contexts, the ones where big shifts occur in the room sometimes without warning. Moments when I am dragged by the back of the neck to face my own inadequacies, particularly how I duck and weave from certain kinds of pain just like everyone else. Or when a client gifts me with a clear statement that I have somehow managed to help them. Or when I’ve offered every therapy strategy I can think of and nothing gets us moving, and then we sit together for a while in the shitty feeling of stuck. Profound moments happen in every session, or at least the bud of them sprouts. On a good day I show up to engage with those moments. On a bad day I simply drop the catch and miss them.
I think working as a psychologist has made me a better person. If that is due to the intrinsically profound nature of the work, then I am grateful for that.
There is a lot written about the concept of “flow” in the creation of art, writing and music. This is often described as a channelling of a muse, a spirit or a God through someone in order to inspire others. It has also been described as an unconscious process, likened to our hands or words being driven by something other than ourselves.
This is what I have most learned in twenty years of therapy. Once we have the courage and the confidence to let go of the need to have the answers, to solve the problems, to get the diagnosis spot on, we can open ourselves up to our client’s needs. It is then we start to really listen, to be absorbed in the client’s invitation into their world view and tie what they are feeling to our knowledge of what can help. When we allow ourselves to really listen, we allow the flow to come though and mysteriously the words we say, the challenges we throw out and the empowering statements we use can help a person arrive at a place in which they find their own answers.
The client leaves with a sense of control and ownership, and (hopefully) recommends you to all their friends! I am not saying this happens every day, or every week, there does not seem to be a regularity but just occasionally when the planets align or the balance between home/work/challenge/confidence hits a sweet spot – you can have the session from heaven.
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