I love clinical teaching. A part of my job involves teaching people to do psychotherapy. Some days I complain about my job–like pretty much everyone. But some days remind me how fortunate I am to have work that I love. Last Tuesday was one of those days. We had a chance to brush aside the nonsense and to sit at the intersection of tremendous longing and tremendous self-doubt.
No matter the stories our clients bring us, they come stuck. Sometimes they come stuck for many, many years. If you allow yourself to truly grasp the potential meaning of being a therapist, you will, at times, feel completely out of your depth. You will feel lost, hopeless, and stupid. You will wish you had chosen a very different career. I have felt that. And, still do some days.
Maybe you are a therapist and you know what I mean. (Or maybe you are a client and wonder what is going on in your therapist’s head!) What do you do when overwhelmed shows up knocking at your door. When you listen to a client’s story and are completely and utterly baffled. Or, maybe ashamed at your incompetence. Do you get busy? Do you start assigning homework? Do you go off in your head with endless self-monitoring? Do you work really, really hard to “get it right?” And then do you double back and evaluate whether you did “get it right?” Or not?
There is another way.
You can pause right there in the middle of all that uncertainty.
You can allow that sense of being overwhelmed to well up around you. You can recognize that your client has just helped you come face-to-face with what it is to meet up with your own deep caring and deep not knowing. All at once. With equal and overwhelming force.
“Not knowing” usually takes center stage in awareness as caring recedes into the background. Of course, “not knowing” would not really matter if not for deep caring. If you did not care deeply, it would not matter that you “do not know.”
The intersection of deep uncertainty and deep caring need not be your enemy. No more so than standing at a bend in a road that is new to you, not knowing what is around the bend. Look as hard as you might, you cannot unbend the road. You cannot see beyond the bend, except by traveling.
In between you and new things. In between your client and new things….lies a region of dense ambiguity. Deep uncertainty about what is next and even deeper uncertainty about whether you (or your client) will be up to the task.
If you can learn to welcome uncertainty, and wonder, with them, at what new thing might be waiting….you have found the portal to growth.
With Italian students…..look at these beautiful faces. I fall in love again and again.
In that moment, having paused, offer them your heart. Express your own longing to know them at the deepest level. The expression of your longing to know them is an invitation. In your invitation, your client may find a place where they can allow themselves to know also. If you can coax some expression of that from them, both you and they may hear it for the first time. Sometimes our deepest longings lie outside our awareness. Sometimes the only thing scarier than not knowing is knowing.
Beneath the din of day-to-day complaints, including our complaints about ourselves, lies something more elemental, more human, and entirely lovable. Beneath the din lies as desire to grow, a wondering what we might become. And, a fear of the same.
Clinical supervision was human and beautiful this past Tuesday. The student I worked with was courageous. I am honored by his trust, as I invited him to sit in the midst of his own uncertainty. The other students in the room were present, with him, flitting in and out of what the exchange between me and this student might mean for them, for their own work. But they were there too. You could see it in all the eyes in that room. We sat together. What it might mean to our clients to find themselves in the presence of the deepest kindness, a kindness so deep that there was room within it to even forgive ourselves?
So. today, I am pausing to acknowledge the amazing courage and willingness of my students. I am pausing to thank them, the ones in that room Tuesday, but also all of them over the years. I grow weary of committees and meetings and the many accounting functions of being a college professor. But, I shall never weary of my students and the humanity they have shown me. Each day like this helps me to remember that my life is not the sum of my biggest insecurities and irritations. There is more to me than that. And the possibility of passing that on to my students seems work worth doing.