Category Archives: Author’s Reflections

Applying Therapeutic Knowledge to Ourselves

sunset_1One of the benefits to being a psychotherapist is the opportunity to apply the knowledge we learn about human development, suffering, and relationships to ourselves and our lives.  Many people choose the field of psychotherapy after engaging in their own process of self-discovery through therapy and others, like me, choose it as a result of studying psychological concepts and theories in an academic setting.  In this blog post, I will explore the intersections between self-knowledge and therapeutic skill over the course of my career so far.

In the early years of my training, I focused a lot of my attention on developing basic therapeutic skills.  In many ways, it was also a way of exploring the nature of relationships that involved sharing and exposure of vulnerability.  My Midwestern family roots involved more emotional reserve than expression and more hiding than sharing of emotional pain.  As I began to work with clients, I felt honored that they were willing to talk with me about their struggles and to let me into their internal world so that I could understand their experience through their eyes.  I read Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” which describes the deep respect inherent in an I/Thou relationship as contrasted with an I/It relationship.  His book described what I had begun to feel in my own therapy and what I hoped to foster in my relationships with clients.  In that same period, I began to deepen my friendships with graduate school colleagues.  As my fear and shame lessened, I found myself comfortable showing aspects of myself beyond the highly driven, achievement oriented, focused side of my personality which had constituted my primary way of relating to others.  This exploration of the feelings of connection that are possible in relationships reverberated through my life for a number of years.  It continues to surface from time to time when I meet a client for the first time, when I begin supervision with a new therapist in training, when I seek a new therapeutic experience for myself, and when I take the risk of being vulnerable with a friend.

Another intersection of knowledge applied to myself and my work has been in developing a more complex understanding of family dynamics, especially the parent-child relationship.  Like many new therapists, I found it easy in the early years of my practice to see what my clients had needed from their parents and how their parents had failed them.  Although I was usually able to refrain from overtly blaming the parents, I definitely saw the family situation from the perspective of my clients’ unmet needs.  This was the case in my own therapy for some time also and was probably a necessary stage since I had spent a long time not knowing or valuing my needs.  Over time, as my children grew into adolescents and young adults, I became more aware of the differences in our perspectives on situations of conflict.  I understood the inevitability of being a disappointment to my children and the ways in which we experienced and remembered things differently.  I developed more empathy for my clients’ parents and was more often able to imagine the situation from the parents’ point of view.  This didn’t lead me to overtly side with the parents when my clients were expressing their hurt and feelings of loss, but my responses became more even handed.  I was more likely to say something like “despite your parents’ love for you, it seems you felt let down by them” or “I can imagine your parents did what they felt was best for you, but it didn’t fit what you needed at that time.”  I found that my shift in perspective allowed my clients to acknowledge the importance of their attachment to their parents while also expressing their feelings of hurt, anger, and disappointment.  Their understanding became more nuanced as mine did, and I believe I was able to be a more effective therapist when I held my clients and their parents with an attitude of compassion rather than judgment.

In the last five to ten years as I have entered the final third of my life, I find myself sharing a life cycle perspective with my clients.  I can reflect on the changes in developmental priorities and challenges that accompany the different decades of adult life, and I often provide a framework that places the client’s individual concerns in a developmental context.  Some examples include supporting a client’s refocused attention on her creative interests as her children leave home to enter college, suggesting that a client’s feelings of regret about the past are consistent with the life stage review that often begins in the 60’s, and encouraging a client to become more familiar with parts of her/his personality that have been dormant or unexpressed in the first half of adult life.  These comments represent the integration of my personal experience with my knowledge of developmental stages and issues.  Despite differences between my life experience and that of my clients, I am able to hold a broader context now than I could when I was in mid life myself.

As always, I hope this blog post has sparked your thoughts about the ways you have experienced the intersection of self-knowledge and therapeutic skill and how you might like to carry that into the future.  I am interested in any responses you would like to share with me.

Decisions to Limit Practice

There are times in the life of a psychotherapist when our own life circumstances or recent events make it difficult or unwise to see clients with issues and needs that come too close to what we are dealing with personally.  Decisions to limit our practice are individual and personal, and there aren’t any general rules to follow.  In this blog post, I will share some of the issues that have arisen for me and the decisions I have made at different times in my professional practice.

As I was completing my post-graduate hours for licensure and anticipating the establishment of my independent practice, I made a decision to limit my practice to adult psychotherapy.  I had some training in child and family therapy, though it was a minor focus for me.  At the time I became licensed, I had two children and realized that my temperament was better suited to dealing with the complexities of parenting and child development in my personal life only.  I enjoyed what was usually a somewhat less chaotic environment in my work with individual adults and couples, and it was helpful to not have the frequent need for consulting with other parties as is necessary when working with children and families while I was raising my own children.  I was both a better mother and a better therapist by keeping that separation.  When my children were older and out of the house, I saw a small number of adolescents as referrals came my way and I found it comfortable to take on the challenges of working with parents and children in that developmental life stage.

I came to a second decision when I faced a separation and divorce.  I recognized that I felt less confident in working with couples as a result of the end of my marriage, and didn’t do any couple therapy for a period of a few years.  When I felt I was ready to resume seeing couples, I got some training and consultation to add to my skill base and to ensure that I was looking clearly at the issues being presented by my couple clients.  My work with individual adults has continued to be the primary focus of my work, but I have seen a small number of couples over the subsequent years.

Another decision that arose for me was related to a single client, when I initiated the end of therapy.  I had worked with this individual for more than a year when she began coming to sessions with a pattern of regularly berating me and the therapy.  She didn’t seem open to examining the origin of her feelings or to reflecting on the meaning of her anger toward and blame of me.  I worked with this pattern for a number of weeks, then came to realize that I had begun to dread the sessions and to shut down my emotional openness to her and our therapeutic relationship.  This troubled me, since I know that I use my emotional connection with the client as the most important aspect of the healing relationship between us.  I worked with my sense of emotional distance but found I was unable to shift it.  I didn’t feel safe being open with her when I was met so often with criticism and rage.  This issue touched on experiences I had had in personal relationships, which I had resolved and were no longer active.  However, the residue of those experiences as well as my own personality and interpersonal patterns didn’t allow me to move beyond my response of self-protection.  I decided I couldn’t continue as her therapist, since I knew I wasn’t able to do my best work with her.  I shared this decision with her, telling her that I had become aware that I wasn’t able to feel open and connected with her and under those circumstances, it wasn’t ethical for me to continue working with her.  I acknowledged that this was an issue that was specific to me and that other therapists might not have the same response.  She was unhappy and angry with my decision, but I remained clear and spent several sessions completing the therapy and providing recommendations for her to continue her work with someone else.

A final issue that came up in my practice more recently was when my father had a serious health crisis.  At the time he became ill, I was in the early stage of work with a client whose father had died 4 months earlier.  She was in a very intense state of grief and her therapy was completely focused on her father’s death.  My father’s health crisis lasted a couple weeks after which he improved slowly over the next few months.  I had a few sessions with this client in which I was somewhat preoccupied with the similarity between her situation and mine, but this lifted quickly.  If my father had remained ill or had died, it would have been difficult for me to continue with this client.  I’m not sure what I would have done, but I would have needed to consider whether I could provide the treatment she needed.  Getting additional consultation might have helped, and increasing the frequency of my own psychotherapy would have been wise.  If I decided that my own preoccupation was a serious interference, I would face a decision about whether ending the therapy was in the best interest of the client.  Ending the therapy would have presented her with another loss, but continuing might not have provided her with the best care.  More than likely, I would have explained the dilemma to my client and asked her to join me in thinking through what would be best for her.

I share these examples as illustrations of how I have navigated decisions about my practice based on events and issues in my personal life.  Other therapists have navigated similar decisions in different ways.  As I said earlier, there are no general rules.  However, throughout our professional lives, we need to exercise our skills of self-awareness, seek consultation from trusted peers and mentors, and notice when our personal issues arise in our work with different clients.

Personal Experience of Therapy

dianesuffridgeI attended a writing workshop in Porto, Portugal in May 2018 and this led me to begin a new series of blogs that combine exploration of professional topics with reflections about my personal experience and life related to those topics.  This series will be posted once a month, alternating with previously published posts. I look forward to your feedback on this new venture.

Personal psychotherapy is often required or recommended by training programs for psychotherapists.  This provides an experiential perspective on psychotherapy, gives the student an opportunity to reflect and focus on unresolved issues that may arise in the training process, and serves as a support for the many questions and emotions that accompany the early stages of working as a therapist.  My own psychotherapy journey has taken place across many years and has contributed greatly to my professional as well as personal growth.

My first experience as a client in psychotherapy was in graduate school.  My program didn’t require personal psychotherapy, but most of my peers saw a therapist while they were enrolled in the program.  I was in my 20’s, had given birth to my second child within the prior year, was beginning my third year of a demanding doctoral program, and had developed symptoms of depression a few months earlier.  I recognize now that this was my third episode of depression, but at the time I was more aware of my painful feelings of despair and overwhelm than the clinical meaning of symptoms.

I had no exposure to psychotherapy of any kind before graduate school, and although I was in training to become a therapist, I held feelings of shame and fear about being vulnerable and acknowledging that I needed help.  I initially kept my shame at bay by telling myself I was doing what everyone else in my program did, and I managed my fear by seeking therapy with someone who was known to other students in my department as both a therapist and a supervisor.  My first impression of therapy was a feeling of amazement that someone would give me his full attention for the 50-minute session. I hadn’t had that experience before. My parents were overwhelmed with caring for three children under the age of 5 while they were in their mid-20’s, and the refuge of unconditional love I found at my grandparents’ house didn’t include talking about the things that troubled or concerned me.  

My first therapist helped me identify the repetitive patterns I had carried from my childhood and encouraged me to try doing things differently.  I examined the stringent expectations I held for myself as well as my pattern of only showing what I considered to be my strength and competence to others around me.  I told a graduate school classmate that I was going to take the “stop and smell the roses” path for the rest of graduate school. It turned out that this didn’t delay in my progress toward graduation, but it did allow me to make active choices rather than being compelled by unexamined assumptions.  Since that first experience I have returned to therapy a number of times, sometimes when the combination of life circumstances and my internalized patterns have resulted in distress beyond what I could manage on my own, and sometimes when I have identified areas of my internal and external life that I want to change with the support of someone wise and caring.  

One lesson I have learned from my various experiences in therapy is that it can be difficult to find a therapist who is an optimal match.  I have had both positive and negative endings to therapy relationships, and the negative ones have been very painful, ending with impasses that were irreparable despite the best efforts of both of us.  These negative experiences shook my faith in psychotherapy for myself, even as I continued to practice successfully with my own clients. However, after time passed I found myself ready to take the step of vulnerability and trust again, and I have gained something from each experience including those that ended without mutual understanding and resolution.  

Another lesson I would pass along is that psychotherapy is only one of many paths to increasing our self-awareness and to integrating confusing or conflictual parts of ourselves.  I have benefitted from mindfulness and meditation practices, somatic practices like acupuncture and chi gung, relationships with wise mentors, intimate friendships, and membership in a spiritual community.  

Regardless of your own experiences with personal psychotherapy, I encourage you to stay open to opportunities and relationships that will contribute to your journey as someone who heals and is healed with others.

Therapist Fears About Silence

sunset_4My first fear as a new therapist, and the fear of every new therapist I have trained or supervised, was that there would be silence in a session.  At the beginning of our training we live in dread of the conversation getting stalled and not knowing how to get things going again.  Over time, if we are fortunate to have skilled, compassionate trainers and supervisors, we learn that silence can be an important part of therapy for some people at some times.  The universal nature of this fear has led me to reflect on what it is about silence that feels so scary and how there are many nuances to silence between two people that range from unbearably tense to deeply intimate.

In reflecting on my own fear of silence as a new therapist, I begin with my family background.  I grew up in a family that didn’t speak directly about emotionally charged issues or any type of discomfort.  I knew my mom was upset when I heard the pots and pans in the kitchen clanging with more than the usual amount of force and noise.  She was silent but the house wasn’t.  I remember being unable to speak about the many thoughts and questions I had about my interpersonal world around me, and I didn’t know how to start a conversation or keep it going with someone I didn’t know well.  When I sensed a wide gulf between what I felt or thought inside and what I was able or willing to express to others, I felt tense, awkward and embarrassed.  That was my worry as a new therapist: that I would again be faced with a moment of wanting to say something but not knowing what to say or how to say it.  I told myself I was afraid of letting down my client, but I was actually more afraid of the feelings of self-consciousness and shame that were familiar to me in moments of silence.

After I had developed the requisite skills for handling many therapeutic dilemmas including becoming comfortable with silence, I remembered that I actually had an equally powerful but contrasting experience with silence in my family.  My maternal grandfather was a quiet man.  He was a reserved Midwestern man from a farming family.  My memories of him contain few if any words but are filled with a sense of being valued and cared for.  I always felt special in his eyes, not because of what I had accomplished but simply because I was his granddaughter.  It’s hard to describe how he did this, but I felt his presence and attention without expectation or agenda.  In this way, my grandfather prepared me for the intimacy of silence in the therapy room that goes beyond words and that allows for the emergence of deep feelings that need space and time to come to light.  I never felt hurried by him, and I can embody that patient attention when I sense my client is holding a memory or emotion that is waiting to be expressed though neither of us knows in advance exactly what it is.

In my years of practicing psychotherapy, I have had many poignant and sometimes painful conversations with clients that have included words, tears, and moments of silence.  My grandfather is still with me in those moments, as I find the strength that goes beyond words.  I hope my reflections lead you to think about the different experiences you have had with silence outside the therapy relationship and how they have shaped your comfort and fears about sitting in silence with a client.

Choosing Psychotherapy as a Career

I attended a writing workshop in Porto, Portugal in May 2018 and this led me to begin a new series of blogs that combine exploration of professional topics with reflections about my personal experience and life related to those topics.  This series will be posted once a month, alternating with previously published posts.  I look forward to your feedback on this new venture.

sunrise_vert_1I teach in a graduate program in which most of the students did not major in psychology in college, and many of them have had one or more careers prior to pursuing a master’s degree and further training to become a licensed psychotherapist.  My path, however, was different from this.  I decided to major in psychology as a high school senior, and my direction hasn’t changed in the more than 45 years since.  Despite the differences between me and my students, I think there is an intersection between intellectual interest and personal searching that is common to all who pursue psychotherapy as a career at any stage of life.  This blog post traces this intersection in my career path.

When I was a senior in high school, I needed to take an additional social studies class to meet my graduation requirements.  Psychology was offered as a one-semester elective, so I signed up without much thought or expectation.  I found myself fascinated by the material almost immediately, especially when we were introduced to the ideas of Freud and the unconscious.  Before the end of the semester, I had decided on psychology as my college major, though I didn’t have any idea what I would do with that knowledge or even what career possibilities might exist.

I had been a child who was observant and tried to understand the reasons for the individual behaviors and interpersonal interactions around me.  I was often puzzled or distressed by what I observed, but I had no language for any of this.  There was no discussion in my family about anything related to psychology, emotion, motivation, or relationships.  So I was left with questions and rudimentary hypotheses that I couldn’t resolve and didn’t know how to pursue.  When I began reading my high school psychology textbook, a door opened onto an entire world in which there were answers to some of my questions and words for phenomena that I had sensed but couldn’t understand or express.  I began to understand that we are influenced by forces that remain unconscious but are powerful in shaping our experience and behavior.

Although my response to psychology was obviously part of an emotionally based yearning, I viewed my pursuit of psychology as primarily an intellectual exercise.  Education was a strong family value, and the consequences for not responding to my mother’s call for help in the kitchen were different if I was reading a book than they would have been if I had been playing a game with my sisters.  Reading was my favored strategy for exploring the world from an early age, and I was rewarded for my academic accomplishments.  Books were accessible to me from weekly trips to the library, and I tried to use them to learn about emotions, relationships, conflict, how to navigate differences, how to create closeness, and how to express what was inside of me.  Prior to my exposure to psychology in high school, I had used biographies and novels to explore these concerns.  As a psychology major, I had whole textbooks and semester long courses through which to focus my attention on these compelling interests.

During college, I developed a plan to become a therapist knowing this would require a graduate degree.  At this point, the balance between intellectual interest and personal searching tipped toward the personal side but without my conscious awareness of all of the factors leading me to this career path.  On the surface, I was moved by books describing children and adults who were imprisoned by deep sadness and pain that was explored and healed in the therapeutic process.  I was also intrigued by my study of family systems and the powerful forces on individuals within the family system.  Below the surface and outside of my conscious awareness at the time, there were episodes of unacknowledged depression in myself and other family members which led to mostly unsuccessful attempts to provide solutions to a problem that couldn’t be named.  My introduction to family systems theory led me to notice how my sense of identity and my behavior were influenced by relationships in and outside of my family.

In time, of course, I would become more familiar with the emotional forces that made my choice of study and profession so compelling.  This knowledge came gradually, as I found the support I required to help me understand and face the impact of my early life.  I was fortunate to have intellectual and educational pursuit as an internal and family value to lead me to the time and place when I had the academic, therapeutic, and personal support to integrate the personal part of my professional journey.

What aspects of your intersecting intellectual interest and personal searching are brought to mind as you read about my journey?