I have been seeing a 35-year-old woman for about six months at my practicum site. I left the last session feeling at a loss about how to help her. She was sexually abused as a child, and I’m afraid I don’t have enough experience to be an effective therapist for her. How can I decide whether to refer her to a more experienced clinician or get more training myself?
It sounds like you had a strong emotional response to the recent session with this client that brought up questions for you about your effectiveness. Before making a decision to do something different in the treatment, I would suggest reflecting on your emotions as a way to understand the client in a deeper way. Your feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt may reveal something important about the client’s experience in relationships and her view of herself.
The first step I recommend is to take some time to identify your emotional response to the client more completely. In addition to your own reflection, you may find it helpful to talk about this with your supervisor, therapist, and colleagues. When we feel uncomfortable emotions during and after a session, it is tempting to ignore or avoid them and to take action to reduce our discomfort. Instead, take time to go more deeply into your emotions by identifying the thoughts, images, and physical sensations that accompany the emotion. If you have a mindfulness practice, use that practice to engage with your emotional experience without judgment.
After you have a more complete understanding of your emotional response in this recent session, review what you know about your client’s history, developmental trauma and losses including the sexual abuse, and her current relationship patterns. All of these experiences may be relevant to the emotion that has been stimulated in you. Think about the connections you can make between your emotions and the client’s experience. It is likely that your emotions mirror a painful experience from her past and present relationships. Ask yourself when your client has felt inadequate and ineffective with others. She may or may not have been able to talk directly about these feelings, so you may need to make inferences about feelings she has kept outside of her awareness and aren’t accessible verbally. Supervision is helpful in identifying links between your emotions and the client’s.
Last, identify ways you can respond therapeutically to your client in the face of your feelings of inadequacy. It will help to think about capacities she needs to develop or how she could manage her feelings of inadequacy with greater strength and confidence. An example might be for you to say “it may feel daunting to face the impact of your past but I think our work together can result in you developing different ways of handling the triggers when they arise” or “I wonder if you sometimes feel like giving up and it’s hard to believe things can get better.” If your client is directly questioning your capacity to help her, you can acknowledge her worry along with your commitment with a statement like “you may worry whether your difficulties are more than I can handle and I think that’s an important issue for us to talk about together.”
As you respond therapeutically to the client using your understanding of your emotions as a connection to her experience, you will notice changes in her way of relating to you and changes in your emotional response to her. She may begin talking more directly about her feelings of inadequacy, she may deepen her engagement with the therapy and the pain of her abuse, or you may notice that you’re feeling more sadness about the impact of her trauma rather than worry about helping her. All of these changes are indications that you have used your emotions to further the therapeutic process. If your questions about the effectiveness of the therapy continue, talk further with your supervisor about whether a different therapeutic approach or a referral to additional services would be indicated.
I hope you find this helpful in using your emotional responses to understand your clients. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.