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Remembering We Are Human Can Strengthen the Therapeutic Relationship

Person in therapy with dark curly hair shares something with hand on chest while therapist listensI will never forget the first time I felt like I had really failed a person I was providing therapy to. It wasn’t an error in thinking. I wasn’t being hard on myself. I really did mess up. But through a true, deep, painful realization of the error I had made, I learned so much. It was one of the most vulnerable experiences of my career. Even now, in fact, it feels quite vulnerable to share in this writing.

I first started my private therapy practice more than 12 years ago, while trying to juggle my already chaotic full-time clinical coordinator position at an agency. In my practice’s early days, I saw people on Saturdays and Sundays, which meant I was burning the candle at both ends, working more than 60 hours a week, at a minimum.

On this particular Sunday, I had no one scheduled and was glad of the break. I could rest. I could relax. I could also try and catch up on day-to-day tasks and other important things from my personal life that I kept putting on the back burner as my candle slowly burned down, threatening to scorch me.

As I look back, in hindsight, of course that was not going to end well.

I had settled down to relax with my morning tea when the phone rang. To my horror, it was one of the people I was currently seeing, calling me to say he was anxiously awaiting my arrival at the office. I recalled that he was scheduled that Sunday—the only person I had scheduled that day. But I had blown it. I wasn’t there.

I rushed to the office in a high level of distress; my anxiety was sky-high. How could I have been so careless to have not realized he was scheduled that day? How did I let such a thing happen? How do we recover from this? How would this impact our work together?

This mis-attunement on my part constituted a major “rip” in our relationship, I knew. To move into a place of true repair, I knew I would have to explore the next right thing for me to do. Not just to heal the rip in this therapeutic relationship, but to diminish my own overwhelm and begin to heal my own burnout.

For I was getting burned out, as a result of my desperate attempts to try and do everything. I had fallen out of tune with myself and not realized I was so overwhelmed, so overworked, so inundated with daily responsibilities that I had also lost touch with my own self-care. Though I had missed this, anyone from the outside world might have clearly seen it coming.

That being said, the bottom line is that it wasn’t the responsibility of the people I work with in therapy to know that. It was mine. My responsibility was to have not worked myself into the ground. I had so many plates spinning in the air that, inevitably, plates were going to hit the ground. In this case, both my work and personal lives were affected. The impact on my work life was that I had missed a scheduled appointment.

Repairing the Rip

I frantically sped through the office door, apologizing profusely, with a deep level of regret and compassion. The words couldn’t tumble out of my mouth fast enough. I owned my mistake, and I acknowledged his feelings. Our work together deepened.

What unfolded, through the process of sharing our feelings about what happened, was a richness of understanding and mutual compassion. The “repair” of this experience led to a deeper attunement, for he was able to share his distress, just as I was able to acknowledge my error. Thus we were able to come to a mutual understanding of each other’s experience. Of course, despite these results, I never would have wanted this to happen in the first place.

My acknowledging of my responsibility was also something that he had never experienced before. No one had ever “owned their part” in his history of trauma. The fact that someone he related to and cared about was willing to do so was completely new to him. Through this process of “rip and repair,” our therapeutic relationship deepened.

My humanness had got in the way, but for the first time, he also saw me that way. To move forward I had to remember to meet not only him, but also myself, with compassion, as opposed to beating myself up over my mistake. I think one of the hardest things for therapists to remember is that we are also human.

The reality is this: Therapists are not different from the people they work with. We don’t “have it all figured out.” When we forget we are human, when we begin to feel we are different or separate from the people we treat, this can sometimes have the effect of shutting down our compassion.

I think one of the hardest things for therapists to remember is that we are also human.

We all needed the “good enough” mother, and we also need the “good enough therapist.” We are not perfect. Yes, we have resources, education, experience gained from our own healing journeys, skills, you name it. But at the end of the day, we all put our pants on in the same way. We all have core needs and deep fears, and we all want to be loved, understood, and known.

As therapists and humans, what is key? What the people we work with need is for us to be able to attune. Because let’s face it—that is what relationship outside of the counseling office is all about. As Carl Rogers taught us, the therapeutic relationship is foundational, but it must also be based in reality. Rip and repair is the nature of what deepens relationships. We cannot be “in” a full relationship and never have rips. That is impossible. However, the ways the rips are repaired can deepen the intimacy and put a relationship back into its “working” stages. That’s a real relationship, on the relationship’s terms. That’s being human.

Relationships of any kinds can bring amazingly sweet moments, attunements, and deep understandings. It’s important to remember, though, that with any relationship, however strong or fulfilling, there is likely to be the occasional misattunement. This is a truly difficult realization, one all of us must acknowledge for ourselves. But (as was the case in my situation) it is each person’s openness to mutually sharing, holding space, and taking appropriate responsibility that brings the deepest personal growth. It is in the ability to hold that balance that relationships deepen, through repair.

Being able to hold space for other means also acknowledging that we, too, are human. No human can get it right all of the time. All we can do is our best and, when we mess up, the next right thing. In doing so, we are not only being authentically human, but we are also teaching the people we help that they, too, are only human.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sophia L.

    March 19th, 2018 at 10:50 PM

    Humans must be able to express the preferences and beliefs about integrating medicine to improve personal life quality.

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