On Your Game

On Your Game

Dear Therapist, you’re still a good therapist even when you’re not on your game.

This is something I’ve come to understand through experience, but would not have believed when I first began work as a therapist. We all know that life happens and it throws us off. You know how those feelings of being preoccupied or worried about something seem to creep into your session and disrupt your focus? Or sometimes they’re actually happy, anticipatory thoughts of an upcoming trip or date or occasion that enter your mind and vie for your attention instead of the client’s issues and concerns.

Can you blame either these angsty or joyful interrupters? No, not if you accept yourself as a human and therapist, trying to do this meaningful therapeutic work of being present while juggling your own very emotional and embodied human experience. It’s what I call being a “whole therapist,” and when we show up this way we can work with our clients alongside our own struggles.

I’m not saying that there aren’t times when we need to step back, take a break, and do radical self-care to rest, heal and recover. I believe in that completely and have been in the quicksand of burnout myself from not taking action sooner.  What I’m really talking about here are our daily and weekly life experiences of ups and downs.

This happened for me just last week. The couple in front of me was disappearing back into their negative cycle while my thoughts kept returning to the funeral of a colleague which I’d be attending later that afternoon. My master’s level intern was also present in the session shadowing me, so my efforts at being a model therapist seemed to be falling short. Their escalation was enough to pull me back, validate their stuck place and ultimately get to their deeper pain, which I attribute in no small part to the deep ache of loss I was feeling. They were able to see the other’s hurt and risk some connection, so the session’s outcome was solid.

Was it a great, beautiful session with well-timed interventions and consistent attunement? Not at all.

Instead, it showed what it’s like to sit in the chair as a “whole therapist,” trying to do this sacred work from the mere position of being human. As my dear intern shared with me, it was a good teaching moment for how to be a therapist when you’re dealing with your own issues. Because even when you’re not on your game, that may be the very reason that you can still be a good therapist.

Why am I telling you this? For those times when you’ll have to work while being a little sad or very happy. It’s okay if you get distracted and experience emotions. Your clients will be doing that too. Our human experience unites us, as does our therapist experience with our colleagues.

Nurture them both.

In memory of W.L., who touched the lives of so many of her clients and was taken from us too soon. May her memory be a blessing.
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