Category Archives: Author’s Reflections

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?