Psychotherapists are some of the most compassionate people I know. Many of us are temperamentally sensitive and predisposed to caregiving. By the time we hit graduate school and our professional training, we have already learned how to attend to the needs of others in many ways. Learning the skill of compassion, or the ability to feel with another often comes quite naturally to those who have chosen this career path.
But are therapists able to harness that same whole-hearted approach when it comes to themselves?
There is an old saying “the cobblers children have no shoes.” The sentiment offers the insight that one does not always benefit from the product of their craft. For therapists, compassion and empathy are the tools of our trade. But when we use them only for our clients and fail to use them personally we are depriving ourselves of the healing salve that we may be needing the most.
But why wouldn’t we be self-compassionate?
Perfectionism, Hard Lessons and Inner Critics
Perfectionism runs rampant. It predates COVID as a pandemic. If you aren’t a perfectionist yourself, you likely know someone who is. And therapists are no exception. We are in a line of work where, once we leave the nest of our graduate institution, few of us ever get direct feedback from peers or supervisors about our work in action. To some degree, we are operating in a vacuum with no real sense of if we are truly good therapists or only mediocre ones. Perfectionism and being hard on ourselves is often an effort to keep us aiming to reach higher standards.
A mistake with a client can result in dire consequences. Depending on the severity of the mistake we may lose the chance to repair the rupture with the client, or we may lose a sense of ourselves as competent. Do we forget about these folks? Rarely. More often, they become the ghosts that haunt us as they continue to teach us in absentia. I’ve learned some of my toughest lessons in private practice from the clients I couldn’t help, or the sessions that I failed to provide what the client most needed. Choosing whether to beat myself up for those missteps or to take them in stride, as the lessons they were meant to be, is sometimes a case-by-case process as they arise in my memory.
Some of the people we work with may experience high-reactivity, narcissism, chronic rage or possess other qualities that can make us feel insignificant, inept, or like complete imposters from the moment they walk into the room. (Thanks mirror neurons!) When the clients we see have an unconscious way of undermining our confidence we can find ourselves disconnected from the skillful professional persona we’ve worked so hard to curate.
I teach my perfectionistic clients self-compassion as an alternative way of relating to themselves. First, we allow ourselves to get really curious about the inner critic that drives the perfectionism and explore it’s main desire: to protect the client from embarrassment, failure, shame, etc. Then we move into the lengthy process of cultivating self-compassion. This happens over time, with my both directly teaching positive self-talk and meditative techniques that promote self-acceptance and non-judgment and my expressing and role modeling my own compassion for them. I know things are working when they report back to me “I could hear your voice inside my head, it said to be gentle/to be kind to myself, etc.”
The Revelation and The Practice of Self-Compassion
Learning to be compassionate with oneself is often a revelation. When we start treating ourselves like someone we love and admire, like we’d treat our own best friend, we start to feel better. It is also a practice. And, like anything else we practice, if we stop practicing, we regress to an earlier, more primitive or unconscious state of being.
Meditation teacher, writer, and psychotherapist Jack Kornfield says that as therapists “we are together in holding the heart of the culture and the possibility of human wellbeing and transformation.”
This is tremendous work we’ve undertaken.
Let’s take care to remember the wisdom and beauty in the practice of self-compassion and to hold our own selves in the light of this love and kindness. If you forget how, or get overwhelmed in the process of living in these crazy and uncertain times, call a fellow therapist for a gentle reminder.
If you are a therapist looking for a therapist’s therapist, drop me a line. I’d love to support you.
I am excited to share that I am now a Florida Holistic Tele-health Provider! South Florida is where I grew up. I know its geography and residents quite well. I am grateful to be able to provide psychotherapy for Floridians who are ready to undertake the healing journey!
Since the quarantine started this spring I had to shift my holistic psychotherapy practice to be completely online. This has significantly changed my views about the merits of telehealth as I have seen clients consistently show-up for their therapy, share their experiences in depth and be willing to experiment with this strange new way of connecting.
A few questions that I have had and that I know others are wondering as well:
Does teletherapy work? Absolutely.
Is it as effective as in-person meetings? Yep.
Here are some more questions answered:
If you are interested in teletherapy, you can reach out to me with questions about the process. I would be happy to talk you more about any concerns you may have. I look forward to connecting!
Things have really shifted since last week’s announcement of the fist cases of COVID-19 here in the US. Schools have closed, restaurants are only allowed to offer take-out and delivery and many businesses have shifted to online platforms to create continuity for workers and consumers whenever possible.
I have also made the switch to working remotely and am utilizing telehealth platforms to continue to see clients.
I’ll be honest here and say that frankly, I was dreading having to do this. However, I have been pleasantly surprised to say that telehealth works and is quite like the “real thing” of being in the office!
I have gotten similar feedback from clients as they have expressed feeling that our sessions are equally as productive as in-office sessions. Telehealth for the win!
I am using Doxy.me, Zoom (when necessary) and phone sessions (when internet is unavailable).
Looking these definitions for confrontation, particularly that first one, it is easy to see why so many of us “avoid confrontation at all costs,” a quote I hear regularly from my clients.
What is toxic communication?
Toxic communication includes being sarcastic or snide or using critical or demeaning language. Denying another person’s experience as the truth is also toxic. There is a special term for this called gaslighting. Being loud, using invasive body language to intimidate, or closed off body language to avoid absorbing new information are also unhealthy ways to express yourself or deny someone else the ability to share.
Another form of toxic communication is passive aggression. This is sometimes thought of as “The Silent Treatment.” Not saying what is on your mind in an effort to take control of a situation or outcome is also toxic. Withholding hurts and offenses until a specific moment in time when you feel threatened and then unleashing your pent-up feelings in an effort to absolve yourself of any wrongdoing is not only destructive, but often confusing.
It takes courage to talk about feelings, and not everyone has the skill or awareness to honor that vulnerability. Choose your audiences wisely.
Is being assertive the same thing as being aggressive?
No. Being assertive means knowing what you feel and think and communicating those thoughts and feelings in a calm, clear-headed manner while considering the well-being of the person that is listening. It allows both parties to maintain a sense of wholeness and humanness while communicating. No one person is all “right” or all “wrong.”
Sometimes, when there is a lot of emotion around the idea that we have to convey, and we are out of practice with speaking the truth in our hearts, we may struggle with being calm, per se. The first time you say something that has been weighing heavy on your heart it can be incredibly challenging to just get the words out through the emotion. Often these thoughts have been taking up space in your psyche for years. As the quote goes, “your voice may shake” and tears may fall when you begin to express what’s true.
As you practice saying what is true you will find that over time it gets easier.
Being aggressive is an entirely different animal. Aggressive communication lacks awareness, understanding and compassion for your listener’s experience. Aggressive communication can be an effort to vent anger, control another person, or establish superiority.
Being assertive is not the same thing as being aggressive or confrontative. It is a conscious way of connecting with others through conveying ideas that are important and meaningful for you. Assertiveness is the key to Healthy Adult Communication and Healthy Adult Relationships.
You can speak your truth without hostility. Some would even say that in order to enjoy emotionally satisfying relationships you must.
According to Schema Therapy, all of the psychological problems we encounter as adults have their roots in childhood and adolescent experiences. Specifically, there are 5 Core Emotional Needs that all children have, and when those needs are not met, what results is any of a number of different long-standing beliefs and patterns of relating to others aka schemas, technically termed Early Maladaptive Schemas.
Schemas are thoughts, feelings, sensations, core beliefs, images and memories that serve as organizing principles to interpret information and solve problems. They create the condition that we go through life encountering the same types of relationships, or we repeat the same crappy scenarios again and again. Sound familiar? We’ve all got them. As is often discovered with some pain in adulthood, these schemas are dysfunctional and self-defeating.
Schema Therapy aims to increase psychological awareness, increase conscious control over the schemas, and reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of schema-triggers.
I’ll be sharing more about specific schemas including what they look like and how they work. In this post, I am sharing those 5 crucial childhood emotional needs.
The work of getting to know oneself is some of the most important work that we can do. A big part of this process is getting to know your own needs. We are in a time in our culture when we have grown accustomed to deferring to family, friends or the media to tell us what we need (think advertising, tv, radio, the internet, magazines, etc.). This tendency has completely alienated us from ourselves and our true needs.
So often when I ask the question of my clients “what are you needing?” their knee-jerk reaction is one of confusion or surprise. “Am I supposed to know that?” is the implied response.
The process of getting to know our needs serves us, largely, because once we can get clear about what we need, we can employ our natural creativity to begin to find ways to get those needs met. When we have what we need, we feel and exude a sense of peace, wellness and wholeness.
If you have no idea what you need, start with this list. Look at each category of needs and see what resonates for you. What are you longing for in your life?
This list was inspired by the work I do with my brave and beautiful clients in my psychotherapy practice. If you are interested in doing the work of self-exploration and think we would be a good fit for therapeutic work together, you can reach out to me here.