Returning to work before you’re fully recovered from illness can be a disconcerting experience when you discover that the skills you rely upon to do your job seem to have deserted you. So how do you recharge your spiritual reserves as well as your physical and emotional ones?
Last winter, I was laid low with a particularly nasty flu-type bug which had me dragging myself about the house as though gravity had just doubled in intensity or my muscles had lost half their strength. I didn’t feel particularly hungry, but even so eating was a nightmare because I couldn’t breathe through my nose and so meal-times were noisy affairs and probably very off-putting to everyone around me. My ears were clogged up so that every sound was muffled, and my head thumped constantly. Naturally I took some time off to recover.
When I did go back to client work, I had a very strange and unsettling experience. I was probably still a bit run down from my illness, but in myself I felt fine. So imagine my surprise when my first client came in to the counselling room, and as he began to speak, I suddenly felt as if we were separated by an invisible, but very real, glass wall. I couldn’t get a sense of him at all, and yet I’d been seeing him for weeks before my illness, and usually I had a very clear awareness of what was going on for him emotionally. But not that day. It was as if I’d lost my ability to put myself ‘in his shoes’ and see the world from his perspective — something that, as a humanistic therapist, I attempt to do with all of my clients. After all, how can I understand their difficulties if I don’t understand how they see the context in which they experience those difficulties?
On top of feeling like there was a glass wall between us, I also felt as if he and I were talking subtly different languages, or perhaps dialects of the same language; I could recognise and understand the words that he was using, but they had no emotional ‘flavour’ for me. His words told me nothing of what was going on for him on an emotional level.
In that moment, I felt completely de-skilled. How on earth was I going to manage this client session when I felt stripped of the skills I use every day — how to listen as hard for what is not being said as for the words being spoken? How to empathise with the feelings that are being expressed and those that are maybe lurking beneath the surface? How to tune in to what was going on for me in response to the client’s words and body language when I felt as if I could barely see or hear it? How to get back in touch with that ‘gut instinct’ about people that I’d learned to trust but which seemed to have deserted me? In the end, I fell back on what therapists usually refer to as ‘core skills’ — reflecting back the words that are being said, being warm and non-judgemental. I felt though that I wasn’t doing a very good job for the client.
As he left the session, I wondered if perhaps things would improve with the next one through the door. But that was sadly not to be. I felt just the same with my second client, and my third (and final) one of the day. I was very relieved to finish work and get back home. On reflection, I decided that I had probably gone back to work a bit too early; I should have given myself a little more time to recuperate physically, mentally and — that word that can have such complicated resonances for people — spiritually.
So what do I mean by ‘recovering spiritually’ in the context of counselling work? Well, for me it’s about regaining a sense of inner calm, a quiet reserve of energy, a ‘tasting pool’ of reflection into which I can dip the feelings and thoughts that clients bring in order to try to understand them. It’s more than simply topping up my emotional reserves, though that’s also important; it’s about feeling centred in my sense of self, grounded and steady in that moment when I sit across the floor space from the client and let the incoming tide of emotions, thoughts and behaviours wash over me.
While I was ill last year, I read a marvellous book by two person-centred therapists, Dave Mearns and Mick Cooper, called Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?). Mearns and Cooper they talk about finding the ‘existential touchstones’ — the profoundly significant life experiences and attributes — which make us, as individual therapists, who we are. These existential touchstones give us ways of relating to or understanding the experiences that our clients bring us because they have a similar ‘flavour’, perhaps a shared experience of feeling shamed, or guilty, or joyous or afraid. It’s not that the therapist will share his or her experience with the client, but that it gives the therapist a place to start, a baseline from which to tentatively build a shared understanding with the client of their particular story.
These touchstones, by their very nature, are deeply personal and I won’t share mine here, but I see them as being the sources of strength that we can call upon when we feel low or alone. Everyone will have them — not just therapists! Becoming aware of them, taking time to replenish them, to revisit the memories they hold, is what I needed to do in order to restore my spiritual reserves before returning to client work.
My existential touchstones are there with me in the counselling room as I sit with a client — they feed into that ‘tasting pool’ where gut instinct mingles with the incoming tide of emotions and helps me understand how the client sees their world.
What are the quintessential aspects of your life experience that form your ‘existential touchstones’? How could you draw upon them to sustain you in difficult times or to help you reach out to others who might be needing a touchstone of their own?
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