I’m often asked about the psychological perils of working as a therapist. ‘It must be so draining, what do you do with all that emotional turmoil?’ ‘How do you not get burnt-out?’ It’s also often assumed that I’m in therapy too, and that I discuss the more troubling emotional aspects of my work with my therapist. I do happen to be in weekly therapy, although professionally I’m not required to, and it may well be that I talk about feelings arising from my work with clients. But unpacking the nuts and bolts of what I say and ‘do’ in the consulting room, and is largely done in supervision rather than therapy.
Supervision, unlike therapy, is a requirement of all practising counsellors and psychotherapists. That’s if the therapist is professionally registered of course – not all are (look for BACP or UKCP membership or other acronyms that you can Google). When in training, or newly qualified, you will need more than when you are a more confident and experienced practitioner – but it should never stop, however seasoned we become. We, like the rest of us, are an imperfect breed and need others to keep check on our emotional, technical and other skills and practice. I sincerely hope I don’t ever reach the stage of thinking I don’t need supervision, and I’d rely upon my therapist or colleagues to spot signs of my slipping into this narcissistic realm. I couldn’t rely upon my friends or family for this support, it’s confidential for starters, nor would they have the expertise to help.
Supervision helps in a number of ways. It may be for education – one supervisor happens to be an expert in eating disorders, domestic violence and self-harm in young adulthood. She’s taught me a lot about how to work with these clients, along with guiding me to helpful reading and further learning. What she knows that I don’t is always of potential use. Supervision is also a crucial emotional support – like a good manager or team leader who will spot your strengths and help build up any weaknesses. Often supervision for me is not what I don’t know about, but what I do know about – difficult or notable feelings I have for clients or the work that we are doing together. Actually, sometimes these feelings I don’t know about but they may emerge with the right questions – not all feelings are describable or even in the conscious realm.
So, for example, I may be feeling an intense frustration with a client – perhaps I feel I’ve been patiently trying to move him/her out of a particularly destructive set of thoughts and behaviours, but I’m defeated each week. I’m wary that my frustration may leak out and I don’t want to risk it landing harshly. Supervision may help me to understand my frustration in greater depth, including the chance that it may not be ‘mine’ after all – it could be projected by my client into me. We do strange things us human beings, without being conscious of doing so, including disowning feelings we struggle to approach and throwing them into someone else. If you don’t believe me, tune into how you feel around someone you know who is out of touch with their feelings (plenty in Britain, I assure you).
Conversations in supervision allow me to think about my clients differently, to take responsibility for what I may or may not bring to sessions and to develop and strengthen my practice. Therapy does for me what I hope it does for my clients – build my resilience, improve my relationship with myself, teach me to take responsibility for what I can, and learn to ease painful responses to past events.