When Your Sh*t Shows Up in Session, and 3 Ways to Handle it...
YES, I SAID IT... And you all know EXACTLY what I am talking about. If you don't, let me help you!
Have you ever had a client that totally took you on an emotional roller coaster? I'm talking about the client you dread seeing, not because of the depth of their trauma, but because you find yourself reacting so emotionally to whatever they're talking about that you have to verbally restrain yourself each time. I'm talking about the client that you start feeling like you want to save, and all of your therapeutic skills go through the window when they come in.
Yes, that client.
If you're reading this and shaking your head out of embarrassment, then your sh*t is showing up right in front of your face, and this is called countertransference!
Countertransference occurs when a therapist transfers emotions to a person in therapy, and is often a reaction to transference, a phenomenon in which the person in treatment redirects feelings for others onto the therapist. (Goodtherapy.com)
If this sounds messy, it is, but you can develop your skills to stop or redirect the energy created when transference/countertransference occurs.
I first noticed I was being triggered by my clients when I started my internship in a Domestic Violence shelter for women and children. I was freshly out of a relationship with my son's father where we struggled with codependency and his long standing depression and alcoholism. I literally walked into my internship the day after moving back in with my parents, and my emotions were RAW!
When I met with my clients, I was captivated by their stories, not because I was interested or concerned about what they were going through, but because so many of their stories of neglect and emotional abuse within their relationships were a mirror image of what I had been going through. I felt myself drawn to what they were saying, wanted to save them, or join in on the conversation like two girlfriends sharing their stories.
IT WAS TORTURE!
Transference and Countertransference was standing at the door during each session and it took everything in me, and lots of debriefing in supervision, to get the help I needed.
I realized this was not conducive to providing therapy that was beneficial to my client, so I wanted to address this immediately. I did two things... I processed this with my supervisor after every session, and during group and individual supervision, and I GOT MY OWN THERAPIST!
Doing these two things were game changers for me!
Here's three ways I learned to address this phenomenon when my sh*t starts to show up in session:
1. Hold the Self-Disclosure: Be SUPER CAREFUL about this! I took the very drastic measure of NOT SELF-DISCLOSING at all. Their stories just hit too close to home, and I didn't want to make the session about me. I've been able to heal from a lot of my own trauma and now I self-disclose only if it benefits my client. I think it is done tastefully at this point, but I always pause and think before I do. You see, with self-disclosure, you can strengthen the therapeutic relationship and have yourself present as more human and relatable, but it can easily turn into a casual conversation that has nothing to do with the healing of the client. Too much of this can be a waste of time and can possible stunt your client and your own progress, so if you find that contertransference is a huge struggle for you at this moment, just stop with the self-disclosure all together (for now)!
2. Why are You Asking this Question? Think... Think... Think Before you speak! I found myself asking questions because I was being nosy. Yes, I admit it! When I was listening to the stories of these women, there were so many things I wanted more information about, so I asked. But once I noticed what was going on, and with the help of my supervisor, I realized that I was asking nosy questions and not questions that deepened the insight of the client. So what I do now is evaluate the reason for my questioning. Is this going to help my client or is this a nosy question?
3. Use Your Resources: Yes, use your resources to get help! I knew that this was a struggle for me so I utilized my time in supervision to really dig deep into what was showing up in session. In addition to this, I sought out my own therapist. I wasn't in the best of places emotionally, so I needed to stabilize myself so that I can show up in a healthier space with my clients. You have to treat yourself well, and check-in often in a field like this, so use what you know to grow!