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“Daring Greatly”

As I prepare for the start of another training year, reviewing the syllabus, checking reading lists, reflecting on how I will invite trainees to engage with different topics, I am pondering the question “What do I really want people to learn, above all else, what is therapy really all about, and what is being a therapist really all about?”. OK, yes, that’s questionS plural isn’t it so my Be Perfect driver isn’t as Be Perfect as it once was…that’s progress isn’t it?! Don’t think less of me because I made a mistake, please!!

And there you have it, the answer to my question(s), right in this moment, in my shame and my defence against my vulnerability.

I think this is what therapy is all about, and it’s the most challenging aspect of becoming a therapist – learning to live with my vulnerability, to face my shame and allow my defences to soften and occasionally dissolve, so that I am seen for who I really am. I love what Brene Brown writes about this process, (in the book whose title I have “borrowed” for this blog), suggesting that we are all battling with our sense of inner scarcity, our scripting that tells us that we’re “not enough” – not good enough, clever enough, beautiful enough, important enough etc, and how our vulnerability becomes shame when we expose these “failings” to the world and remind ourselves of all those messages about our lack of worth.

As for becoming a therapist, well, this journey often starts with the secret hope of having found a way to escape being vulnerable – after all, therapists are sorted, calm, balanced, together, no longer vulnerable to the disappointments of life……….aren’t they? As a therapist myself I can definitely say we are not! And I am wholeheartedly grateful for that fact. As a human being I believe that life is here to be lived in technicolour, and that means the challenging, devastating stuff as well as the joy. As a client, I need a therapist who will be vulnerable with me, will make mistakes and own them, will feel my impact on them, and sometimes be left uncertain what to do or say as a result. I need them to know the territory of shame that we are crossing together, from their own experience, not from a book or a course, but from having lived through this awful naked place in their own life, and survived it, and learned how to face these challenges without relying totally on defences and denials – the things we call Drivers in TA. I definitely do not need a clever observer who seems impervious to it all, and who offers only a model of getting away from vulnerability as soon as humanly possible to retreat behind the false safety of knowledge and professionalism, even if it is dressed up to look like new strategies to control and manage unpleasant feelings.

What I want trainees to know and experience is the value of vulnerability, the power that lies in being willing to feel uncomfortable and uncertain, and still find a way of being present and taking part in living. I think we sometimes talk about developing the capacity to “contain” difficult emotions with our clients, which leads to a misunderstanding – somehow we should be there to put walls round challenging feelings, and keep them under control. For me “containing” actually means “sitting in without being overwhelmed” and “discovering that I am ok even when I feel horrendous”. I have had moments as a therapist when I have felt disturbed and distressed alongside my clients, living some of their emotional experience in the very fibres of my being, feeling unsure about the best thing to do, and needing to work hard to stay open to the sensations and feelings that came up for me without listening (too much) to the voices that are trying to tell me that I have lost control and am proving that I am no good as a therapist. I’ve also experienced the results of this way of working – deep contact with my client, soothing and healing of distress, settling and dissipating of shame. This is being vulnerable and strong at the same time, refusing to accept those old stories of failure and lack of worth, noticing the shame that comes but remembering, with compassion if possible, that it is a misguided and outdated response to a real experience. When we can do this we have real deep strength because it is rooted in truth and humanity rather than “false self”, defence and Driver behaviour.

This is a life long process I think, learning to tolerate emotion, developing compassion for self and other, “showing up and being seen” even in the middle of feeling vulnerable and on the edge of shame. Engaging with it is completely worthy of the title “Daring Greatly”. So anyone up for joining me on this jagged and rocky pathway with incredible views? Go on, I dare you.

Barbara Clarkson TSTA 8th September 2015


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