One thing about being a therapist is that I’m able to work fairly quickly through my own ‘stuff’. So I’m writing this having returned to a place of relative peace (with a twinge of sadness) after having my own ‘reaction’.
But it’s worth remembering that your therapist is human too, has feelings, thoughts, beliefs and reactions to the world and other people, including you, just as you do.
Once in a while I’m in session with a client who, for whatever reason, has turned up that day in a difficult or even antagonistic frame of mind. Projection abounds, and as therapists we’re often the ‘repository’ for all feelings, negative ones included. So anger, frustration, sulks, hopelessness, tantrums, hate and all sorts of unpleasant feelings that the client is suffering/enduring, can be projected towards the therapist. Whilst in full understanding that this is what’s happening, indeed it is absolutely a useful function of our job itself, sometimes – as you can imagine – it’s not a pleasant experience.
I’m pretty good at holding the space for that, so that the energy of it can be held and spent, so that those feelings can lessen, quieten or pass, so that we can regain a good place of open communication again.
Once in a while it presses my buttons, because I’m human too, and I find myself on the odd occasion going through a mental process that looks something like this (only at superspeed, because as I say, experienced therapists are always analysing ourselves first, and I got pretty good at it!).
- Self-pity (why is this being directed at me; I don’t deserve this)
- Self-questioning (did I do/say something to provoke/invite/deserve this?)
- Anger (how dare you/why do you think it’s ok to talk to/behave towards me this way)
- Self-righteousness (I’ve given up my time, my energy and my best efforts to help you, wtf)
- Self-reflection (hmm, my reaction to your behaviour is nothing to do with you and everything to do with me)
- Self-enquiry (ah yes of course, [historically] I’m reacting to anger/resentment/aggression towards me, it makes me protective of myself and angry/afraid/sad/reactive accordingly, and expect to be blamed/not good enough again, presses my ‘unfair’ button, usually whilst rolling my eyes at myself)
- Self-soothing (this isn’t about me, no need to take it personally, you know this can be a helpful part of the job, which you signed up for, breathe, relax, allow the process)
- Resolution (this is ok, you are ok, I am ok, this may be unpleasant, but this is ok)
(not necessarily in that order!)
That may take some folks days to work through, hours at the very least, but generally it’ll take me under a minute or two, whilst a client is raging/rampaging/projecting etc. and usually before they ever notice. I become fully and consciously aware again once I breathe and relax my body, and then we can continue, with me gently holding, or softly challenging, or occasionally putting down a firm boundary if I feel it’s necessary (i.e. with gentleness, kindness and understanding but firmly; I’m ok to hear all of this, but swearing ‘at me’ or raising your fists at me is not ok, [for example]).
Only twice in my therapeutic history has anyone ever ‘walked out on me’ (i.e. both times I was hung up on mid video call]. That absolutely leaves me running through this process!
It feels really rubbish… and even after that process, can leave me mostly a little sad, that a session didn’t end well, that the client is in such a bad place that in that particular moment I’m part of the problem rather than help towards a solution, and that the client is simply in a bad place. It leaves me a little heartsore.
Also worth noting here; there are times where I grow as a therapist through this process, realising that there may well have been an action or some words of mine that did indeed play a part in the client’s reaction and behaviour! Sometimes a challenge is good, sometimes the client isn’t ready for it, or open to it, sometimes it’s simply the wrong time. And that is a good reminder to me; to always assess and reassess whether something is in fact appropriate for this particular client, or on this particular day. Do no harm, the very first rule.
We live and learn too, as humans, and as therapists, always.