Judgment to be made?

The thought is in my head: I’m a cheat, a liar. No, worse than that, I’m a phoney and a fraud 

The thoughts come fast because, in the moment, I know the conflict between my human self and my professional role is in play. I’m also in trouble because I’m quite sure congruence has deserted me.

Although the thoughts are challenging ones to be throwing at myself, if you knew what I was thinking about the person sat looking at me through the screen you might agree with my self-assessment. The difficulty is not just that I’m suffering a lack of congruence but that I’m deeply caught in negative countertransference and so my empathic response has taken absence without leave. 

Without being able to reach for empathy, the therapist’s chair feels a lonely and dangerous place.

It’s difficult to hear things from him that make me consider him in a new, negative light. My inner human self is ranting at him: What did you expect to happen? Could you not see your own stupidity, your own selfishness?

My supervisee isn’t giving me time to gather my professional thoughts; a set of words about how responsible he feels has just collided with his own self-loathing about the choices he made. But his split doesn’t mirror my own internal human/professional dust-up.

The space that the two of us have relied on in all our years of working together feels closed off. I’m still wrestling with these thoughts as he starts to emote deeply. He looks disorientated and his face has become red and mottled as if he were an alcoholic sitting on a park bench, complete with bottle of Bucky wrapped in a brown paper bag. As I hear his intake of breath and moan of grief, the tears and snot that were hanging off the end of his nose drip out of the lense’s gaze.

Unlike many of my colleagues who, perhaps erroneously, only think of in-room work as ‘face to face’, the 371 miles between Alastair and myself has never seemed a vast distance. Indeed, how much more face to face can you be than the 40 centimetres between face and screen on each side. I can see the threads of blood in the whites of his eyes.

Over the years we’ve worked collaboratively, I’ve watched him deal with some dire moments as a therapist and a human being. When his sister was killed in a road traffic collision we worked so carefully and trustingly together on his departure from, and return to, his case load. The loss of a long-term patient to motor-neurone disease was another moment when my admiration for his care and thoughtful practice grew. His attention to that patient seemed to make so much difference to the end of her life. He felt pain and I shared some of it with him in the supervision space.

I’m working really hard for the supervisory couple. I’m fighting for us. I feel the need to converse with my own therapist. He may have died years ago but he’s often with me in the room as an internal supervisor. We talk in the shadow, considering how, in the collective unconscious, there are some serious waves of communication going on between Alistair and me. And then my old clinical supervisor is sitting on my shoulder, asking me – no, interrogating me – about my lack of tolerance in the room.

I’m monitoring my breathing pattern. My body is just engaging with the kinesthetic memory of deep relaxation. And I’m back. I’m in my professional-self.

This is better. Feel the space! The walls have moved far away. Some of my other consultants over the years flow to the space – from therapeutic and supervision engagements. It’s quite a team to have on my side.

Spaces in the therapeutic profession are very considered and complex things. There are the outer ones, the room, the being together in a space and then there are myriad ever-changing inner ones. I know what I have to say, with congruence reintegrated; I know it will feel risky but we have always worked with honesty and I will have to let him judge me as I might still be judging him.

I begin to talk, my professional risking forward what I hope will be considered a balanced tone – something my inner human had temporarily been without. ‘I’m hearing in all this that you feel, somehow, it was definitively you who brought Covid into the family. That you contracted the coronavirus from your in-room work and that made you responsible. Now, you’re heartbroken. It’s not only the loss in your family – it’s also because you aren’t in a place where you can support your patients with the trouble they’re experiencing in life while you are stuck in your own guilt and grief. Perhaps, given that you know I’m only working online during the pandemic, you’re also wondering if I’m looking down on you from a point of judgment?’

There is a pause.

He breathes deeply …

Duncan cogitates …

The above raises what can be a deeply uncomfortable reality: the binary split between human-self and professional-self in an encounter. 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

All character-based realisations contained in this post are either of a fictional nature or have been derived from heavily disguised, consensually given information. 

The Zen of Frank

As a student in the 1980s I had a Critical Analysis teacher who rarely turned up on time for lectures …

In fact, he often didn’t turn up until the very last moments of a session but always managed to hush his students’ chorus of criticism by turning the negative comments back on his accusers. 

In his first term of teaching me, I was as indignant as any other student. But as the months went by I observed his behaviour. With his educational conjuring, this quiet and charismatic man began to gain more and more of my attention. It seemed to me that Frank wasn’t skiving or avoiding teaching; he was watching us individually and as a class – sometimes from a vantage point elsewhere in the college. He enquired of us why it was we wasted the time he was ‘giving us’. Why did we ‘generally loaf around, smoke in doorways or hang out of windows’, especially as there was obviously so much still to learn?

It was the final term of the first year before Frank began to attend as many classes as we, his students, did. Several of us were still some way off working with the set texts our course was supposed to be about. And yet those same classmates were now engaged in infantile battles with Frank over whether he really did know the meaning of every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from memory, he was never foiled). 

Youth and naivety potentially led us to waste a lot of our time along with projecting onto others the blame for our individual lack of performance.

The last time I saw Frank was, appropriately, a few moments before I left college for the final time. It was a hot summer’s day – the sort many small boys enjoy because of the huge numbers of flying ants building up to their nuptial flight. As I walked through the gates and headed for my motorbike, I caught a glimpse of Frank kneeling on the ground observing insects with more of an amused look of a young boy than a 60 year-old man.

I ambled over to him and we began to converse. A few sentences in, I delighted in telling him that I thought I’d probably learned more from his non-lessons than I had from all my other subjects combined. He smiled, and I continued: ‘And I think I understand what you were trying to do for us. It was all about taking responsibility for our own actions, doing our own work, seeing things how we see them and making use of that knowledge.’

I stopped and smiled back at him. He put out his hand, I accepted it, and we shook with vigour. ‘Keep thinking; keep watching; keep looking,’ he said. He turned away and got back down on his knees to continue his insect observation.

Almost 40 years on from the lessons of Frank, I suppose he will certainly have passed on from this mortal coil. However, his facilitating approach hasn’t. The unconventional methods deployed during those Critical Analysis lessons would be impossible to use in a teaching role this century – and yet from a therapeutic chair they still look deeply valuable. Frank’s style was rooted in creating informed, personal growth. For some of us at least, the approach lay good grounds for the development of complex grey thinking in a world of blacks and whites, but there was much more in it than that. 

These days, when Frank crosses my mind during a session I can be pretty certain that the work of growth is deeply in play – the focus in those moments will so often have turned towards becoming truly, richly, deeply the person they were looking to become before everything else got in their way. Frank didn’t appear to care for the ego of attribution of knowledge, only that you learn and find the things you need for your journey. But once in a while I like to mention his name, to tell others of a great teacher who has stayed with me – as relevant in therapy as he was in the arts. 

Duncan acknowledges …

… with thanks, a recent session where he saw the growth of another and was reminded through this the roots of his own continuing development.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.