safety

When Therapists Stumble - Finding the Opportunity in Disconnection

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How many of us have been in the middle of a session with a client when, all of the sudden, the air in the room changes and we realize that things have taken an unexpected turn? Perhaps we’ve tried to guide the conversation in a direction that the client did not want to go or maybe that uncomfortable counter-transference has crept into the room. Our palms are sweaty, the blood is rushing to our faces, and we can feel our voice start to shake a bit. Regardless of what prompted it, the reality is that a rift occurred within the therapeutic relationship, and now you’re feeling the ‘yuck’. What do we do when this inevitable phenomenon happens?

Whew, just in writing that I can feel my anxiety increasing as I don’t know that there are many things more uncomfortable that can occur during a session; I’m confident, though, that I’m not the only therapist that has experienced this. For me, it’s helpful to ground myself first and foremost – I grab my little fidget spinner, take a quick look out the window, or do a few strokes on my beard to get myself back into the room. The first few times that I experienced this, I would immediately think that I had done or said something that caused the flow of the conversation to change. Perhaps I did; maybe I did push things in the wrong direction or it’s possible that I had verbally or non-verbally responded to the client’s last statement that was perceived as invalidating. I’ve learned, though, that making the situation about me plays in opposition to the point of each and every session. Therapy sessions are not about me, they’re about the client and the relationship that forms between myself and the client. Part of my job as a clinician is to model healthy relationships and healthy communication. With this in mind, the rift that occurred didn’t involve just me; it involved the both of us.

Now comes the hard part – bringing this ‘yuck’ out into the open. Of course, every situation is different so, naturally, every response will be different. Regardless of this context of the situation, I always try to remain authentic and honest. I may say something along the lines of, “well that flopped”, “something shifted; did you notice that too?”, “I think I need a minute to get my thoughts together”, or “I think we’re both having some feelings about this right now, would it be okay if we talk about that?” If I had done something that caused the rift, I’ll own it, and if the shift occurred on the client’s side, I’ll provide them with an opportunity to talk about it. I’ve learned that there is no rule book for navigating through these situations. Experience seems to be the only thing that fosters more comfort in sitting with the uncomfortable. I can’t help but think back to my grad school days and hear my first field instructor saying, “We’ve got to find comfort in sitting with the discomfort.”

If any of you have been following my previous blogs, you’ve likely picked up on the fact that authentic and genuine communication is one of my core values and key pillars in therapy. In bringing this ‘rift’ out into the open and providing a safe space to discuss this relational break, I try to model effective communication to the client. Not only is it helpful for the two of us to find a resolve to the situation, my hope is that the client will be able to utilize and take that experience outside of my office walls and apply it to personal relationships. There’s also tremendous value in utilizing the uncomfortable situation in a positive manner for the both of us. The modeling of conflict resolution is tremendously important for a client: by demonstrating my ability to appropriately and effectively talk through the ‘yuck,’ I am able to teach my client healthy ways of resolving relational rifts.

Breakdowns within relationships are a normal and expected thing to happen; therapeutic relationships are not immune to this. We, as therapists, have the ability and obligation to use these uncomfortable experiences as teachable moments. Moments to show our clients that we care enough about them that we will hold their discomfort while we talk through and resolve the uncomfortable, yet expected, ‘yuck.’

 

LifeTip: Connection

Photo by  Mathyas Kurmann  on  Unsplash

Since the bombings that have occurred in Austin, I have really started to think about human connection. True connection. I happen to live in a neighborhood where two of the bombings happened and it was terrifying for obvious reasons. Fear was the biggest emotion to consume me, however, as I sat with this fear and explored it I began to think about the others who may be sharing this feeling with me, my neighbors. As I thought about the people literally closest to me, I had a realization: I don't know who is living next door to me, across the street, down the street or anywhere in my vicinity that could be sitting with this as well. Yes, I know their faces, their cars, their general schedules but that's it. As I sat with this a little longer, I began to wonder what it would have been like to know them before, during, and after these events. Could I have or would I have walked next door and checked in on them? Would they have checked in on me and my family? Would we be sharing our feelings together? I know I am not alone in this because others have shared a very similar story.

So what does it mean to know that I am not the only one who does not know who they live next to? To me, this is a very large sign that we need to CONNECT with each other--our neighbors, our community. We live in such an isolated society, even though we are more "connected" than ever because of social media. How does this even make sense?!? 

Many of us are using social media platforms to share tiny bits of information about our lives with others in order to "connect," but in reality, we are distancing ourselves from REAL LIFE-- from TRUE CONNECTION. Could you imagine knowing your neighbors' names instead of knowing what that person you met once at a networking event is eating for dinner? Or knowing what your neighbor does for a living instead of knowing where that person from high school went on vacation with their "perfect" family of four (you also know each family member's name) that you never really liked anyway? Maybe you do know what it's like to know your neighbors, so you may have insight on this, but if you don't, what do you imagine this could look like? What do you imagine this could look like when there is danger nearby? Just the idea of knowing the people that surround my house causes a shift in my body to feel a little calmer, feel a little safer.

I recently finished the book, Lost Connections, by Johann Hari, and there is an excerpt I want to share with you because it has really resonated with me in the wake of the Austin bombings. In this excerpt, Hari is writing about John Cacioppo's research on the effects of the outside world on the brain in regards to loneliness:

Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact, he found. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most. John calls this a “snowball” effect, as disconnection spirals into more disconnection. Lonely people are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, so no one will help them if they are hurt. 

YES. So much YES. As I read on in the book, I learned that this can change. With a little bit of effort, this snowball effect of loneliness can be reversed through face-to-face connections. By having conversations with your neighbors, your friends, and your family, you can decrease loneliness and feel safer. The great thing about neighbors. specifically, is that you have many opportunities to connect with them since they live in such close proximity to you. So, why not begin the connection with them through conversation? To give you a chance to feel a little safer and a little more connected. 

For those with social anxiety, I see you. You can do this. I can help you or you can find someone that can help you. For those who do not have social anxiety, please be aware that human connection may be scary for some, but you can be there to help them when they are ready. We are wired for connection,  y'all.*

Much metta.

*It has taken every ounce of me not to quote Mr. Rogers, so feel free to do so now. 

invasion of privacy

We came across an article today that got us thinking about when, if ever, it's appropriate for a parent to invade their child's privacy and snoop around. Parents ask us about this often, and really struggle with balancing limit-setting, independence-seeking, trust and respect for their child's privacy.

Kids this age are striving to create their own identity, to become the masters and mistresses of their own lives, and they deserve to be spared parental intrusion into areas they wish to keep private.- via ParentingAdolescents.com

While you may or may not agree with what the author states above, the truth is that there are real risks for the parent/child relationship when parents decide to snoop. Parents often talk with kids about their need to be trustworthy. It's just as important for parents to demonstrate trustworthiness to their children, and one way to model that behavior is to respect their right to increasing privacy as they get older.

With a young tween, it may make sense to have supervisory authority over their email and facebook accounts, and to share that with them. Whenever parents are going to access potentially private information, it's critical to be upfront with your tween about what she can reasonably expect to be shared with you. Limit setting and boundaries are still an important aspect to raising responsible kids. As they get older, you can begin to allow them more and more access to privacy, and then respect those limits to model your own trustworthiness.

We want adolescents to develop autonomy over their bodies, thoughts, beliefs, values and hopes. Trusting them to their age-appropriate privacy is one way to help them get there.