NUMBER 640• 23 NOVEMBER • THE WOUNDED HELPER
In many helping professions, from social workers to alternative health practitioners, from doctors to teachers, and from nurses to marriage guidance counsellors, the hardest work, and yet also the simplest, is to meet the clients in their pain and helplessness. Some professionals are in flight from their own pain and therefore have to construct enormous barriers between themselves and the pain of their clients. Other professionals take care of their own distress by projecting it into their clients and needing to make their clients better.
When the client gets too close, the doctor may reach for his prescription pad, the social worker may give advice, the probation officer plan a contract, and each in his or her own way is trying to take the pain away. Sometimes this is necessary as the pain and hurt in the client have become unmanageable for them and they need temporary relief before returning to face that wound within themselves. However, professionals can reach too quickly for ways of making it better, for their own needs — for it is they rather than the clients who cannot bear to sit with the pain and distress. We often remind supervisees that their clients have lived with this pain for many, many years and the clients’ ability to tolerate the pain is probably much greater than theirs. There are many therapists who have shown the way to ‘stay with’ what is happening. Winnicott (1971) writes: ‘If only we [therapists] can wait [and resist a personal need to interpret] the patient arrives at understanding creatively’.
There is so much pain and hurt in the world that, if we get caught into believing we have to make it all better heroically, we are setting ourselves up to be overwhelmed and to burn out quickly. However, if we react to this reality with professional defensiveness, we may treat the symptoms, but we fail to meet and support the human beings who are communicating through these symptoms. The middle ground entails being on the path of facing our own shadow, our own fear, hurt, distress and helplessness, and taking responsibility for ensuring that we practise what we preach. This means managing our own support system, finding friends and colleagues who will not just reassure us but also challenge our defences, and finding a supervisor or supervision group who will not collude in trying to see who can be most potent with ways of curing the client, but will attend to how we are stuck in relating to the full truth of those with whom we work.
Often we have had the experience of working in supervision with a supervisee who is very stuck in knowing what to do next with the client. In the supervision, supervisees may start by looking for better answers and techniques for managing the client out there, but the real shift comes when they start to look at their own responses to the client. They might find that they are frightened of the aspect of themselves that the client represents; that the client reminds them of someone in their own lives, restimulates a past distress within them, or produces a strong counter-reaction to their problems.
When this has been explored, supervisees will often report at their next session, with some surprise, that they did not need to use any of the new strategies for managing the client, for ‘It was as if the client had heard the supervision and had arrived at the next session much freer’. Some people may term this ‘absent healing’, but at a much simpler level we believe that the client very quickly responds to an awareness that the helper is now ready to hear what the client needs to share.
PETER HAWKINS AND ROBIN SHOHET
Hawkins, P. and Shohet, R. (2000) Supervision in helping professions. UK: Open University Press. pp191-192
Winnicott, D. W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.