Starting out in any kind of human services work is heavy. We work with people who are coming to us because somethings is wrong. There is a risk in thinking that we are there to fix things. When the most important thing we can do, when we sit across from each person, is to hold the space, to see their pain and sit with them anyway.
When I look back at my early career, with only my undergraduate degree as training, I knew nothing. Nothing about real trauma, emotional pain and what people have had to endure. My university studies were important to understanding how we learn, memory, human development, group dynamics, and theories of personality, but what I didn’t learn at university was how to be present, grounded, and just sit with the person as they share their story. I knew this, but I didn’t understand the value of this until I gained experience. Especially in early private practice when some therapists feel the pressure to give clients “bang for their buck”. We need to resist the urge to come up with an answer to their pain. Although problem solving might be a strategy to implement at some point.
Earlier in my career I worked as a Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counsellor. Some of the stories were hard to hear. Sometimes it was the first time they had ever spoken about their trauma. There had been no one that they could safely tell their story to. Such vulnerability has to be “held” by the therapist. While you are working with people in this setting it is important to seek out a very experienced supervisor, and specialist training, to bring depth to your skill set.
CLINICAL APPLICATION: Use your therapist inner dialogue. Observe that a moment has arisen in session where you need to allow space for them to talk – uninterrupted. Allow longer pauses. Calm your breath. Ground yourself to be present in the moment. Remind yourself that this is their story, it belongs to them – it is not yours to shape or change. Breathe. Soften your eye contact, but maintain eye contact. Use your clinical judgement as to when you encourage them to continue with a nod or brief reflection of content (reflecting back what you have just heard them say). Hold the space open.
There is powerful therapeutic action when you can sit with your client while they share their experiences. Rogerian counselling skills teach us that unconditional positive regard communicates so much.
So now, with experience, I know that the most important advice I would have given my younger self is that it’s OK to have moments where you say nothing, but be truly present. Really present. This is their story not yours, you can hear it, you don’t have to fix anything, they need to know that you can tolerate what is being said – without trying to change their experience, their feelings, their take on what has happened or is happening. There will be a time to talk about strategy and counselling interventions later. But without a doubt the best advice I would give to my younger self is that you are being therapeutic even when you say nothing, by being truly present and to be a witness to their suffering.
NB: Always have regular supervision with a senior therapist to talk through anything that may have arisen for you in sessions.