Editors note: This is a guest post from Erin Pierson. We occasionally have other practitioners share their story and experience of building a private practice. Erin offers her reflections on being in the early stages of her career. We’d love to hear your story. If you have ideas you’d like to share with our readers, click here to contact us for more information.
The word “mistake” awakens a profound amount of emotion and anxiety for this early career therapist. The more time I spend sitting with clients, the more my confidence grows in my own abilities, yet, the tugging fear of making a mistake still speaks dark words to my mind. I constantly wrestle with the question of, am I a good enough therapist? How do I know if I am a good enough therapist? How do people know if I make a mistake during a session? No one is watching my sessions. It is just my client and I, the collection of all of our stories and self-states. The anxiety threatens to envelope me at times. Colleagues normalize my experience, assuring me that this is something we as clinicians constantly wrestle with, and that the wrestling gets easier over time, though never completely dissipates. As I reflect on my anxiety, the anxiety of being a good enough therapist, the anxiety that I might make a mistake that no one would know about and would somehow cause inadvertent harm to my client, I ask myself what the deeper issue is. What am I so afraid of? What does the phrase “making a mistake with my client” even mean? The stirrings within me point to something that is not simply professional anxiety. As I pause in the silence, the words of Dr. Lew Aron and my current supervisor begin to permeate the reflective space in my mind.
This past fall, I attended a wonderful two-day conference at the school where I heard Dr. Lew Aron speak for the first time. I could have listened to him talk for hours beyond what he presented. I was ready to sign up for further psychoanalytic training in New York City (who cares about it being 3,000 miles away?) right then and there. While all of his thoughts were quite remarkable, a few sentences that he spoke have risen to the top of my primary takeaways from the conference. Speaking briefly about therapist vulnerability, Dr. Aron put forth that the question of “Am I doing it right?” is a question of vulnerability, and that the question itself has become a substitute for all the ways our insides are being exposed as therapists. It is so hard to not defend against vulnerability, especially when our clients see us as someone who has all the answers, before they eventually realize that we too are human. My fear of making mistakes in the analytic hour is really a defense against my own tender and raw feelings with my client. Different clients evoke different vulnerabilities within me, but I am aware of some that tend to come up more than others. I am afraid of hurting my client and somehow becoming identified with those who have hurt me deeply in the past. “Am I doing it right?” is really an internal statement of “I will not be like those who have hurt me.” I am afraid of the identification with the hurtful characters of my past, but the truth is, at some point I will identify with them. I tell myself that the difference will be my awareness of the identification, which will lead to the opportunity for me to do something different, something that repairs the rupture instead of causing harm, something that leads me to hold boundaries instead of crossing them. I am drawn into the challenge of treating my story with kindness and gently embracing what my fear of making a mistake is telling me about myself, which leads for the possibility of repair within both my story and my client’s story.
One of the definitions of mistake as a noun is “a misunderstanding or a misconception.” My current supervisor holds the belief that there are no mistakes in the analytic hour, as the dynamics of what happens between therapist and client is unique to that particular dyad. How can we claim to know what constituted a mistake inside a relationship we are not a part of? This is not to include gross ethical violations. Her understanding of analytic mistakes has stayed with me as I wrestle with my own anxieties of being a good enough therapist. If I take the above definition of a mistake being a misunderstanding or misconception, then mistakes have suddenly become my best friend during a session. Is it not my mistakes that give me more information about the relational capacities of my client? Is it not my mistakes that shed light on the transference/ countertransference dynamics within a distinct dyad? Is it not my mistakes that provide the opportunity for the rupture and repair process that is so essential to therapeutic change? My mistakes helpfully give me more information about where I may be missing the client, which furthers the opportunity for reflective capacity about what may be happening within my own unconscious in regards to my client. Becoming aware of my own unconscious within a certain relational matrix leads me down a path of wondering about where my own defenses are being activated and what I am guarding against not knowing, which informs wonderings about my client and wonderings about the impact my own story has within the dyad.
I feel the urge to end this reflection with a neat tidy bow that lets you all know how I have successfully resolved all of my anxiety around making therapist mistakes. Then I think, what a shame to resolve an anxiety that actually seems to help me as a therapist, in my own experience of being a client, and furthers relationship with my various self-states begging for acceptance and integration into my larger story. How do I go about befriending this anxiety? What does it look like to befriend my mistakes? I do not offer this reflection to provide answers, but out of a hope that some of the shame we may feel in acknowledging our own vulnerabilities, mistakes, and countertransference reactions may loosen its hold, and instead stimulate our thinking around what having a relationship with our mistakes looks like and the opportunity such a relationship presents. Befriending our mistakes could provide us with the most helpful analytic tool we could ask for.