Supervision – support for the therapist

viewimageSupervision – essential support for the therapist.  I’ve been thinking about supervision since another death occurred in my life recently. I took another hit with the sudden loss of one of the people who was most central to my personal and professional stability these last six years: my supervisor, the Jungian Analyst Margaret Caulfield. In my work, as in life, I need to have someone who has my back. That’s where supervision comes in.

Even after more than thirty years’ experience, or perhaps because of them, I know there is a strong risk of me developing blind spots about my work – perhaps over-assuming about situations I hear about and what dynamics lie beneath them; perhaps cutting off the data gathering process too soon before jumping in to intervene or make a suggestion; perhaps not taking enough time to consider how I might be unconsciously reacting to a situation or contributing to it because of my own issues. There are a myriad of ways that therapists can over-assume what we know, and worst of all, assume that we are being objective and ‘making a clinical judgment’ when we’re not.

For me, supervision has always been a mandatory part of my work.  I vowed when I was doing my Masters research nearly twenty years ago that I would not become one of those therapists I interviewed who, after about fifteen years’ experience, told me that they didn’t think they needed regular supervision, that their professional knowledge and clinical experience were sufficient to support them through almost anything they might encounter in their day to day work.  Margaret was one of the therapists I interviewed for my research, but she didn’t hold that opinion.

I remember walking out of her office after an intense three hour interview that had gone way beyond the semi-structured plan I had arrived with.   I was awed, inspired, excited, full of respect and admiration, stimulated and full of ideas. I felt met and respected as a peer, despite the very clear disparity in our years of experience.  Margaret was almost twenty years my senior. I loved her generosity of spirit and courage in revealing her personal self in answer to my probing, provocative questions. I loved that she didn’t get defensive or shut me down in the face of questions that asked her to consider sharing potentially sensitive material about herself with a complete stranger. She seemed to genuinely engage with my questions, with my comments, and I loved her willingness to put herself on the line like that. I loved her willingness to consider my questions from a very personal place in herself, rather than hide behind a raft of theory or rules, or a professional persona. There was an immediacy to her answers that showed me that she was seriously considering my questions in the moment, and not just trotting out pre-prepared answers. At times, she took the risk to express views, share certain experiences that we both knew would be frowned upon in some professional circles.  There was courage in that and an authenticity that resonated deeply with me. She was real. Yet we had never spoken prior to that day.

I remember thinking: “Wow! When I grow up (as a therapist), I hope to be something like her!”  Twelve years elapsed before I returned to ask her to be my supervisor.

Over the course of my career, I have always sought supervision to support me and help to keep me accountable – to my clients, to my profession, and to myself. Supervision to me has been about an ongoing mix of support and challenge; a review of my skills and rationale for taking a particular course of action with a client or couple; it’s been about developing my knowledge and skill base, my understanding of certain issues and challenging my assumptions and blind spots where necessary;  it’s been about my need to have someone to discuss things with when there might be ethical issues I need to consider, whether I have recognised that or not; and it’s been about my own personal self and how therapy with various clients impacts on me as well as tracking how my personal life issues might impact on my work with clients at certain points in my life.  To me as a therapist, supervision is an essential professional and personal requirement of my trade, not an optional thing.

For me to engage in this level of accountability and exposure requires an environment where I experience a very high level of safety. Margaret provided that for me. She provided a place where I felt I could say anything I wanted (and did) and it would be heard, rather than judged. I felt that Margaret never lost sight of the fact she was, first and foremost my ally, and not the professional police. When we first contracted to work together, I offered her what I thought would be parameters that would ensure that she could be confident that she knew anything of significance about my practice, about me.

I wanted her to feel one hundred per cent free to say what she thought. I told her: I want you to be straight with me. If you have a concern, I want to hear it. I f you think I’m doing something with clients you don’t like or think is wrong, I want you to tell me.  If you think I’m missing something with a client, or repeating a pattern with a client or couple that’s counter-productive, I want you to tell me. Similarly, I want to be able to let you know the unvarnished truth about where things are at in my personal life so you are aware of how I’m going as a human being in my own life. I didn’t want to have a facade with Margaret – I wanted to be real. Vulnerable. Utterly honest.  I wanted to hold nothing back about myself, and to have no topic off limits for our discussions.  I was blessed that this is exactly how it was for me. I told her: if you think that my personal life is having or could potentially have a negative impact on my work, I want you to tell me.

I built in certain mechanisms for Margaret to know she was seeing as much of the total picture as we could manage. I discussed my weekly effectiveness scores across my practice. I undertook to present for discussion any case that prematurely ended, or where the outcome might not be tracking the way it needed to go. And I undertook to raise with Margaret any issue I might become aware of with a client or couple where I could feel myself reacting in a less than helpful manner, or where the client(s) challenged me for not being helpful.

I have always related to the Hippocratic Oath that doctors are required to take.  The framework I negotiated for my relationship with Margaret was the only way I could think to try to build in a mechanism to try to ensure that I would “first, do no more harm”.

She never got threatened by my knowledge, interest or experience in areas unknown to her. She simply listened, asked questions, and considered how useful my ideas and interventions proved to be in any one particular situation.

Margaret was willing to examine her own part in difficult situations, including our own relationship; that made it safe to challenge her as well as to be guided by her. I know I benefited just as much from opposing her and backing myself up in the face of her formidable intellect, opinions and experience when I disagreed with her, as I benefited from her guidance and support, her faith in my judgement, or her challenges to my assumptions and perspective when I saw the value of her influence.  Margaret was sufficiently secure in herself that she never reacted defensively with me – I never felt I had to make myself small to be in her presence. Margaret made it clear: the world was big enough to hold our two larger than life personalities with strong opinions!

There are some people who I know I will never be ready to part from.  Given that Margaret had to die now, I am profoundly grateful for the fact she left me stronger, wiser, humbler and more realistic about my limitations, more secure about my ability, and enriched by totally different ways of thinking to those I pursued before meeting her. Humanly, I feel very keenly the benefits of the greater depth and breadth Margaret brought to my life as well as to my perspective on my work.  To the degree one can be equipped for life and its challenges, Margaret not only helped me through some of the roughest terrain of my personal and professional life in the time I knew her, her legacy lives on in me in the ways she left me even better equipped for life’s vicissitudes. Words cannot express my gratitude at the amazing privilege of meeting her, getting to know her, learning from her, and leaning into her support.

In the face of Margaret’s untimely death, I hope the people I leave behind, my clients and my supervisees, were I to depart in a similarly sudden way, would also feel better prepared for life and its challenges than they might have felt before we met. The greatest compliment I can pay Margaret is for me to strive to leave behind my version of the kind of legacy Margaret left with me. I hope that, now that she’s gone, I have been granted my wish all those years ago. I hope I have become something like her – only, my version.

If you are looking for supervision, and you are clear you’re ready for a real relationship where you can bring all of who you are, where you will be met, supported, as well as challenged when needed, where you will develop personally as well as professionally, contact me.