To open the New Year, I’d like to quote something written to me by a Babalawo in the Yoruba faith (the highest level of initiation possible; only a few are chosen). Speaking about what Yoruba priests are mandated to do, he said: “Ifa (the guide for followers of the religion) says … ‘As my life gets better, so should yours.’ Meaning that we are called to improve the spiritual, mental, financial, and environmental condition of the people we are connected to.”
I would add that this includes ourselves. Our own striving as priests to improve ourselves and develop what the Yoruba called “Iwa pele,” or “good character,” has a ripple effect on those around us.
It seems to me that this could easily apply to the work we do as psychotherapists and counselors. We are constantly called upon to not only examine our unspoken reactions and responses to people in therapy (called countertransference) but to be vigilant about how we communicate with them. An ill-timed response or an empathic failure can be not only painful but destructive and can derail or slow progress. A few of these over the years can ironically help the treatment—it leads to useful discussions of what it feels like to the person in therapy to be disappointed, and so on—but more than a few is not acceptable. As therapists, we must always be developing our Iwa pele.
I intuitively believed that our lives improve as a result of this challenge in all ways—spiritual, mental, financial, and environmental—and so does that of people in treatment. It took me a minute to think of the ways this actually works, particularly for those of us in private practice.
In private practice, the number of people we come in contact with in our offices is relatively small in the grand scheme of things. If we teach, lecture, or lead workshops, the number of contacts grows. Our numbers also increase depending on the number of years we are in practice. Nevertheless, in literal terms, it is still small.
However, our reach as therapists and counselors is greater than we might imagine. It was this that I considered when I pondered the meaning of what the Babalawo had written to me and how it applied to my work as a therapist and my life.
I thought of the people who had sat in my office for the past 14 or so years and how I played a role (sometimes very significant) in their lives. This is obvious. But what I also reflected on was how the changes in them affected those around them, and not only in their present circumstances. These changes would affect people in their lives for years to come. I recalled several who went on to complete PhDs (with great agony) and are now teaching or are therapists themselves. I thought about those who went on to marry and have children, and how our work impacted their mates and offspring. I remembered sitting with families whose dynamics changed as a result of examining their relationships.
I trust you get the point. The more I thought about it, the more the ripple kept getting larger and larger. I can’t say for sure what happened to most of them. Hopefully it was positive. For those with whom I work or those who have stayed in touch, I see the positive changes on all of those levels mentioned above. Their growth, their development of Iwa pele, helps me to continue to develop my own.
It is tempting as a therapist to focus on the people we may have failed or who just weren’t ready to do the work and left.
In the spirit of a new year, I, for one, will do my best to have a balanced assessment of my contribution to helping myself and others in our processes of transformation. I’ll also strive to do better.
© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kalila Borghini, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York
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