My client, the one I have been seeing for over five years, is cutting her session short. She is too angry to talk and too careful to let it come fully up and out. My limbic system is responding as it always does in conflict. I freeze. No help here. She leaves my office, gets in her car and drives away. That is the last time I see her. A year later, she drops me a small note. She has started a new business and thanks me for the days when I encouraged her to do this. I talk to my supervisor, then write her a small loving note back. I never hear from her again.
Another client brings her boyfriend to her appointment. She did not call to ask if this was all right with me. I graciously ask them in. I point out to both of them that this is her session and I will not presume to counsel him. I can support her ability to share needs and longings with him. This goes fairly well until I discover that the boyfriend is a raging psychopath. Every time she owns her part in things, he pounces cruelly with his version of “You’re right. You’re wrong.” She freezes. Alert to this state of affairs from my own mistakes, I help create good boundaries. I tell him I feel pain when he uses that tone of voice. He gets up and leaves. We finish her session, gently. Three weeks later, she returns and tells me he has attacked her and she has intervened with the police.
During my healing training program, I was asked to give a lecture on chronic pain. I had studied, developed programs and sat with this subject for several years. I had taught in several hospitals, worked with hundreds of patients, and lived through my own long chronic illness. I was upbeat, positive, and realistic. I was holistic and patient and clear in my lecture. I talked about helping people over long periods of time and their need for on-going support. Another teacher spoke to the school after I did. He thought what I said was very interesting, but in his practice, most chronic pain patients got well after one session. I was furious. I remember all the energy I put into trying to convince him that this was magical thinking, an unfair burden to put on students. He disagreed. Was I failing or was he?
I have been seeing clients in the counseling healer/helper relationship for twenty-one years. Most of my clients come back. I know I have helped change the course of lives, for the better. And yet, my mistakes have forced me to go deeper, look harder and ask more questions than anything else. They have shocked me, scared me, humbled me, and convinced me of the value of supervision. I write this to Snowlion students not to scare you out of practicing your chosen profession. Instead, I offer to sit quietly with you when you find the healing process going all wrong.
If I could give you a gift to take with you, it would be the knowledge that you must survive your failures. This is the heart of the therapeutic process. In the case of my client who left angry and never came back, how I wish the container had held. If she could have finally vented her rage at me, the world, her mother, AND our relationship could have survived. What I learned from her was to notice as a client comes close to enacting a difficult childhood pattern with me. To talk about inevitable failures early on, when I am still the good mother. To build into our relationship room to become imperfect, human and paradoxical. So that the black and white world, the borderline dilemma, can heal. I have also worked in therapy and supervision on my own fear of conflict, how my traumatic past shows up in the healing room, and how I can care for those parts of myself before I freeze.
With my second client, I learned how problematic it is to meet the partner. My client and I have a special relationship, one that can make the partner feel left out, talked about behind his or her back, uncertain and defensive. No matter how good I am at making them comfortable, secrets and unspoken confidences fill the air. Who is loyal to whom? It is too much to ask of the container, of the safety we are trying to build. For the most part, I do not do this any more. If I see a couple, I see the couple. Otherwise, I only see one partner. I have learned that my healing room cannot cope with these transferential complications in one session.
With my colleague who healed people in one session, well…I still believe I am right. Healing chronic pain takes time. But can I make room for his miracles? Can I live in a paradoxical universe, where opposites exist without explanation?
When I was teaching healing to young professionals, I always did a section called “Ask Your Supervisor.” While it made a fun slogan to yell at each other, I was and still am deadly serious. If part of our oath, like all healing professionals, includes Do No Harm, then I need help. My imperfections inevitably show up and dance about. I need to talk with someone who knows more than I do. And who has made mistakes and survived them.
Continuing education is also part of the bargain when we become healers. What I still don’t know fills the ocean. What has helped most, for me, is continuing to study depth psychology and early childhood development. The psychological world has put its great intelligence to work looking at what is happening between you and your client. Don’t miss learning this. Because hands-on healing inevitably invokes the helplessness of childhood, learn how to help the child inside your client. Every day I must listen anew to each client, learning what it is that they need in the moment in order to feel safe.
And this small message is my contribution to the ongoing safety of our professional work, our community and our integrity. I am happily available to celebrate your successes. And I am always here when you make a mistake.