“The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals.” —Carl Jung
A year ago I sat at this very table faced with the onerous task of writing a final class paper. Again, I have the same chore in front of me, albeit for a different class. Back then, I had to write a proposal for a group therapy group. Now I must reflect upon my time as a practicum student, as a fledgling counselor seeing clients for the very first time. What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? (No, it doesn’t say weaknesses, the assignment says “areas of growth” but we all know what that really means). What did I learn about my clients? How did I experience myself in supervision, and how do I want to grow in this area?
Let me just say this at the outset: seeing clients for the first time, the first two, three, four, five times is flat out terrifying. I’ve had two years of classes and coursework preparing me for sitting in a room with someone who wants help. I’ve participated in numerous role-plays and fish bowls and practice sessions with my student colleagues. I’ve had more personal therapy than the average bear over the last twenty-five years, and still. What can I possibly do for the anxious or the depressed, the overtaxed, the under functioning, the overcompensating, the abandoned, the unloved, the overachieving, the lonely, and the traumatized who sit in the chair across from me?
How can I possibly help?
For years I wanted nothing more than to be a therapist. The women I most admired were the ones who had listened from that chair as I unburdened myself of my anxieties, depressions, anguish, loneliness, and traumas. I thought about how amazing it would be if I could bring the same sort of listening ear, the same sort of compassion, the same sort of hope to others that these women had given to me. But I didn’t think I was healthy enough to be a counselor. I didn’t believe that I had the capacity to help myself, let alone anyone else.
But then in the spring of 2013 I had a chance encounter with the author Claire Messud who wrote The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children. We chatted about her character Nora and what happens to us as we age and begin to realize that perhaps our previously unlimited horizons are shrinking. At some point, Ms. Messud said to me, you wake up and realize that you simply don’t have enough time left on this earth to fulfill all of your dreams. Where once so much was possible, you begin to grasp the reality that you’ve reached a point where that is no longer the case.
That is when I understood that regardless of what I thought about my own mental health or lack thereof, if I didn’t do something about pursuing my dream my horizon would shrink even further. If I didn’t enroll in school soon, my dream might slip away. I signed up for the necessary prerequisites and enrolled at Antioch a few months later.
And what I’ve learned in the time since then, and particularly this quarter as I’ve worked directly with clients, is that my experience on the other side of the couch, my years as a client, what I previously saw as my greatest weakness, is actually my greatest strength and most valuable asset.
What I have learned in practicum and in supervision is that I am enough. Who I am is precisely what I need to be to be effective with clients. I haven’t learned this from my clients. I’ve learned this from my peers primarily, and from my instructors, and from my own therapists. And slowly I’m beginning to see it for myself, from within myself. And that’s the thing—we usually can’t see in ourselves our own strengths. As I move forward into my second quarter of practicum and then into a full year of internship, my greatest opportunities for growth will be in recognizing my own strengths and trusting my own wisdom, sourcing my confidence from within rather than looking to others to reflect my strengths back to me.
I’ve learned from my clients that they too have all they need within them and simply need to be heard, to be given a chance to lay their vulnerabilities and fears out there in order to sort through them, evaluate and ponder, decide what’s working and what’s not, learn how to hang on to the useful and discard the useless. While self love and self compassion are the ultimate goals, sometimes we need external validation from someone we trust, someone whose values align with our own, someone who can see what we’re seeing and tell us we aren’t crazy or imagining things. Sometimes we just need to be seen and heard in a world that seems to be ignoring us.
I learned basically the same thing in supervision that I learned from my clients—I learned to trust myself, that I didn’t need to put on a persona or be an all knowing font of wisdom or channel the great mystics of the ages. I learned to be real, to be myself,
to trust my instincts, and to be present. I learned that I am enough and to bring my self to the sessions. I think my greatest learning this quarter came when I was seeing my own counselor and parsing through my anxieties about practicum and seeing clients. She stood up and walked over to a cabinet near me, opened the glass door and took out a porcelain Pinocchio statue. She set Pinocchio on the small table between us and asked me what Pinocchio wanted more than anything.
“To be real,” I answered. “He wanted to be a real boy.”
“Exactly,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to be real, Pam. When you are real, you are enough.”