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Two Invaluable Lessons I Learned As A Therapist

June 27, 2020
By:  Geneviève Laroche, PhD Candidate in Clinical Psychology

In recent months, most of us have experienced an unprecedented amount of upheaval. While some clients shared the experience of losing a loved one, others described a loss of financial security or the addition of responsibilities. More recently, clients described feelings of anger and hopelessness in the face of blatant injustice. Generally speaking, most therapy sessions encompassed feelings of loneliness, powerlessness, and anxiety. As one of my clients put it: “it feels like the world is on fire”. No matter what you are experiencing right now, there is no denying that the world currently feels chaotic and unpredictable.

Throughout these challenges, clients have also shared surprising and heartening experiences. Some have reconnected with loved ones whilst others have decided to start taking better care of themselves. Some started advocating for causes that matter to them whereas others helped out their neighbors. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the uprise of the Black Lives Matter movement, have been stark reminders of our vulnerability and humanity. These events have reminded us of how fragile our lives and the lives of our loved ones are. They have shown us what needs to change.

What is particular in this context, is that I, as a therapist, have been experiencing all of this alongside my clients. Although it has happened that a client shares something that I have personally experienced, it is the first time that we have gone through such experiences “together”. This situation has been interesting, to say the least. Surprisingly, part of what has allowed me to get through these trying times is the work I do with my clients. Unbeknownst to them, my clients have taught me two important lessons.  

LESSON 1: We can all benefit from more self-compassion 

When a client is having a hard time making sense of their emotions or behavior in a specific situation, I often ask: What would you tell a friend in this same situation? Clients who have never heard this question before often look at me quizzically. Their eyebrows scrunch up and they sit quietly for a moment before saying “Wow… I never realized how hard I am on myself. I would never tell a friend that.”. Others, who have heard this question before, chuckle and say, “I know, I know, I am much harder on myself than I would be on a friend”. Yes. We are often much, much harder on ourselves than we would be on a friend.

Frequently asking my clients “what would you tell a friend?” reminded me to apply this principle to my own life. This skill has proven to be particularly useful in the past months and I wonder if you, dear reader, could also benefit from more self-compassion right now.

LESSON 2: Awareness is key

Have you ever heard of the terms fight, flight, or freeze? During a recent group therapy session, a client of mine shared “I don’t understand why I am not reacting more strongly to the Black Lives Matter movement. I just feel kind of numb from it all.”. Another client quickly chimed in: “Really? Everything that has happened just makes me want to yell and fight”.

As both clients discussed this, I realized something important: witnessing the death of George Floyd and the protests against police brutality had led both clients to re-enact their go-to protective mechanisms. One client shut down and felt numb while the other felt compelled to fight. Making sense of these diverging experiences was quite helpful for me as their therapist but also allowed them to better understand their reactions and, ultimately, have a little more compassion for themselves.

Part of the work we do in therapy is to try to understand ourselves better. As I repeatedly tell my clients: the first step to change is noticing. To “notice”, we practice observing with gentle curiosity. Practicing self-awareness with my clients during the past months reminded me of our shared humanity. It reminded me to practice gentle curiosity. 

The Human Behind The Therapist 

Over the past weeks, many of us have been confronted by our “humanness”. We have felt worried, concerned, exhausted, and hopeful all at the same time. This mixture of emotions has led us to behave in ways that were sometimes hard to comprehend. Needless to say, experiencing this alongside my clients was quite special and allowed me to feel more connected as a therapist. 

That being said, being a therapist during the past months has been challenging. There were days where it was extremely difficult to hold space for others’ emotions. I remember feeling tired, overwhelmed, and quite discouraged with the state of the world. I also remember feeling extremely disappointed and confused by current events. This sometimes made it challenging to feel empathy and sometimes led me to feel impatient. After a full day with clients, it was often hard for me to show up for my friends and family. 

While I am still navigating the particular challenges of being a therapist in times of uncertainty, applying the tools that I share with my clients has proven to be very helpful. It has allowed me to experience firsthand the challenges that my clients face and taught me to be patient. It is my hope that experiencing all of this has also made me a better therapist.   

I have recently spent a lot of time encouraging my clients to practice self-compassion and self-awareness. Although developing these skills has always been important, in the current context, it seems critical. Throughout it all, it has been helpful to remind myself that I am human, just like my clients.  

What About You? 

Practicing self-compassion: Be kind to yourself. When going through a hard time, ask yourself “what would I tell a friend in this situation?”. 

Practicing self-awareness: Examine through the lens of gentle curiosity. Notice your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Remember, the first step to change is noticing.

READING SUGGESTIONS:

 

Blogs. Here at Connecte, we love practicing self-compassion. For more blogs posts on this topic, visit:

Books. 

 

About the author

Geneviève LaRoche is a Ph.D/Psy.D Candidate for Research and Clinical Psychology at UQAM in Montreal, Quebec, and is a supervised therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.