Many years ago, I was sitting with my clinical supervisor and another clinician hashing through a particularly painful dialogue I had with a client.
My colleague stopped me mid-story. “I can’t put my finger on it; but you sound weird…”.
Great. I sound weird?!?
“Like confused or timid?”
Our supervisor intervened:
“No–You don’t sound like yourself”.
And thus, the therapeutic shield was discovered. By me about me. As it turns out, I was speaking to the client in this, yes, weird, detached way. I was explaining to the client in a tone I thought embodied a good therapist. However, I was talking TO the client, not with the client. I wasn’t my usual self–somewhat chatty, direct with some humor. I was using terms I don’t use and the dreaded…”How does that make you feel?” (Which is fine if you speak that way, but I would say–”How are you feeling–What’s going on?”).
I was going to a Stuart Smalley place (youtube Al Franken–before he was a senator) that truly had nothing to do with me.
And since that time, I look for that in beginning therapists. What I know now is this: when you don’t know what you’re doing with a particular client, take a beat. Breathe, regroup and think about the authenticity of the moment.
“John, let me think a minute about what you’re saying–” And then, interpret in regular words, not some therapeutic language that sounds false, and not like you.
It’s ok to say; “Wow–That’s a lot. Must be hard to have that all rolling around in your brain.” Instead of a clinical observation: “You seem to have a lot of anxiety and rumination.” The first is empathetic, the second is a diagnosis.
I was afraid of saying the wrong thing to the client so I fell back on my helping sentence maps from the first class I ever took in graduate school. Or some central casting therapist type that seemed serene, with a low pulse and a calm that I only have while sleeping. That’s not me. And the client didn’t know that necessarily. But, I will. Building a relationship with your clients is about showing up as yourself. And, when you show up as yourself, the clients do too.