When the Therapist Gets Stuck
by Rikke Kjelgaard
Do you ever find yourself getting stuck in your own thoughts and feelings as a therapist?
For sure. You are there to help your client. You are there to do therapy. You have the best intentions. No doubt about that. And still sometimes you get caught in your own inner world of discomfort, right?
I know I do.
I work with this thing called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). It’s a model that includes openness to your inner universe of thoughts, feelings and sensations. Awareness of the here and now as well as the workability of your behaviour. And engagement in whatever it is that makes your heart sing. This probably should mean that I kind of “have my sh*t together”, right? Because, well, basically I would know how to live a vital and meaning full life with whatever experience your mind throws at you.
So here’s the thing. (And I know that you know this. Just consider this a friendly reminder, my dear). Just because you KNOW stuff doesn’t mean that you actually DO stuff.
So allow me to invite you to some of the darkest corners of my shameful moments as an ACT therapist. My hands are literally shaking as I type this and discomfort in all it’s various colours and shapes are breathing down my neck. You will soon see why.
Some time ago a suicidal client came to see me. She was obviously not feeling well. She felt so lost in this world that she had actually written a suicide note for her kids. Can you imagine this? Feeling so bad that you are convinced that you would do the world in general and your kids in particular a great favour by taking your own life? And then imagine actually having the guts to share this with your therapist. That, my dear, is bravery! And so she read the letter out loud to me. Her hands were shaking and tears came down her cheeks. She looked so little and so fragile and ever so helpless.
And. I. Just. Totally. Lost. It.
My mind was playing louder than a heavy metal concert of “horrible thoughts and worst disasters ever” and my entire register of uncomfortable feelings was dancing inside of my skin. I felt lost. I felt scared. I felt incompetent. I felt insecure. I felt unbelievably sad. And I did not know what to do or what to say. So I did what I do best. I talked. And talked. And then talked some more. I got up to the whiteboard and started drawing charts and boxes and gave her a little lecture on “something that sounded smart”. And then I told her about ACT. (Note that I did not actually DO anything that remotely looks like ACT. But I did talk about it!). So I told her about acceptance. I told her about stepping back from thoughts. I told her to be here and now. I told her to see herself as the larger context and not as her stories. I told her to set a direction and engage her behaviours in that direction. Oh yes. I gave her The Talk. And halfway through that I actually noticed myself doing just that. But I felt completely unable to stop myself. So not only did I give her The Talk – I simultaneously pulled out my big metaphorical hammer and banged myself in my head for being the worst therapist ever. And even the worst person ever. And so it went on for the entire session. I was talking. Quietly bullying myself. And she just sat there and witnessed it all. So little. So fragile. So lost.
We were both completely stuck.
By great fortune she chose to come back to me at the following session. Later, when I asked her why she would even consider coming back she told me, that “I was her only hope”. Really? That was the best she could get? Oh, the shame. And oh, the heartbreak. Cause you know why? Because THAT person – the chatty lecturer that starts to dance whenever my inner demons tells me to is truly NOT who I want to be. I want to be of service to folks. I want to be kind. Towards other and towards myself. I want to be brave. I want to empower people. I want to make a difference in this world, and I truly believe that ACT is a method that can DO that for folks. But not if you just talk about it. See, while I was giving her The Talk I was at the same time modelling the complete opposite of ACT. I was telling her about acceptance whilst trying to control e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I was preaching mindfulness while being soooooo full of mind. I was asking her to set direction and put her feet down in that direction while taking the road to hell myself.
And this is where I chose to do something different. And (in my own humble opinion)
a little brave. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and connected with my own vulnerability and shame. Not because I felt sorry for myself. But because I wanted to walk the talk. I wanted to show her ACT. I wanted to sit with her inside of the darkness with kindness and compassion. She was not alone. Nor was I.
And so I apologised. I truly, truly apologised. Not for feeling lost and scared but for showing her the opposite of what I asked her to do. And I silently gave myself an apology for beating myself up too. I promised her that I would not be able to take away her darkness but that I would always choose to sit with her in that. I promised her to respond with awareness and to hold both of us with compassion. And I cried. Tears of shame and sadness. And she did too.
See, this was not in the service of getting myself off the hook. No, not at all. This was in the service of me being the therapist that I truly want to be AND – most importantly of all – in the service of being the vicacious hope that she needed. Showing her that she was not alone. Showing her that she matters. Letting her know that this CAN be done and that I have hope for her. Letting her see herself through my kind, loving and compassionate eyes. And THAT made a difference. It totally changed the path of the sessions we had together. And – for me personally and professionally – it stands out as one of the most shameful and yet most important learning lessons that I have had in my career.
So why am I telling you this?
My intention is to let you know that you are not alone. You might not have had this particular struggle when doing therapy, but my guess would be that you do know struggle. In your life in general and at work too. And you might feel shameful or regret the choices that you’ve made. My invitation is that you ask yourself what lessons you could take away from whatever experiences you have had of being stuck? For me, it was a profound experience of finding values inside of a deeply painful event. And might you offer yourself some kindness and compassion for being human? Maybe you felt compassion towards me for sharing this shameful story. What would it look like if you gave yourself the very same gift that you so easily would give to me?
Don’t just think about it. Practice actually doing it. You are not alone and I will willingly sit with you in your darkness as you just sat with me in mine.
You’ve got this, fellow traveler.
And you are not alone.