John Duffy, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
During my internship, I was working with a man I found to be wholly unlikeable. He was mean. He hardly worked. He drank too much, and bragged about cheating on his ex-wife. I went to my supervisor, requesting a re-assignment of this client. He said no. Instead, he said, “Arrange another meeting, and this time, be curious.” When I asked why, he suggested I consider the fact that if I, a trained empathy pro, cannot connect with this guy, why might that be? Why does he put up such a façade? He helped me to slow down, place my initial impressions aside, open my mind, and find the connection. This curiosity has driven my work ever since.
[And as for the client], once I accepted him, he was far more likeable. His father, as it turned out, was much like he was himself: angry, dismissive, cruel at times. And he grew up with this model, and feeling rejected by his father as well. Who wouldn’t be bitter carrying all that around? One curious thing about this client is that I have not seen him in about a dozen years, and he sends me a very thoughtful, gracious Christmas card every year.
I love my work, but there are those days when I find myself stressed out. Maybe it’s because I’ve over-booked myself too many days in a row, or had a series of challenging sessions or maybe just one person I wonder if I’m really helping. On those days, before I decide to chuck it all and go work for Mary Kay, I remind myself of what Dr. John Ludgate, of the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Center of Western North Carolina, said at an advanced CBT seminar.
Therapists tend to be an idealistic bunch. Our professional core values reflect the demanding expectations we have of ourselves, like, “I must be successful with all my patients all of the time.” To reduce stress and possible burnout, he invited therapists to use CBT techniques on themselves. For example, instead of dwelling on “There is no progress. I am not helping this patient,” which only makes me anxious, I could write down alternate, more reasonable thoughts like, “Think about where that person was three months ago instead of just last week. There’s been plenty of progress!” Result: I feel better!
Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., psychotherapist, author and teacher.
I feel like the greatest help has come from those I’ve never met, the teachers and writers who offered their wisdom through their books and examples of how they have lived their lives. Martin Buber’s notion of I and Thou reminds me always to hold the space between myself and the client as something sacred and transformational in and of itself. That is probably the most important conscious awareness that I have as a therapist…
I once had the honor of sitting down to talk with my clinical and literary hero, Irvin Yalom. At one point he said that therapists must strive to maintain a curiosity about their patients and fertilize the patient’s curiosity about himself. Whenever I’m feeling a bit lost in a therapy session this simple idea brings back my focus.