Support for the Therapist: Who Prepared Us For a Pandemic?
Mental health professionals have a unique role in tending to the well-being of others. The client is central to our work: we are part of people’s most intimate stories, and it is our job to show up and be present for every client we treat. It sounds impressive, and…it is never entirely possible. Therapists themselves have personal lives and challenging issues to manage. How then, do we do this work in a way that keeps our clients’ interests and concerns front and center?
As marriage and family therapists (MFTs), we receive rigorous training on how to join, build an alliance, and engage in best practices when it comes to working with clients. We receive intense supervision in both group and individual settings. We graduate with at least 500 face-to-face clinic hours, 250 of them working with couples and families. We feel prepared…until we realize the limits imposed on us by something like a pandemic.
As COVID-19 unfolded around the globe, many of us wondered if it would hit us too. The initial understanding of how far this would reach was fuzzy. Once it descended upon us quickly, most of us had to pivot from in-person therapy to telehealth. For those with little to no telehealth experience, this transition feels daunting. It means that our work has to move to a different platform when connecting with clients. All the while, we have our personal lives to manage in a new way.
We are experiencing an unprecedented shift, and it is history in the making. Much change is anxious and scary. We are grieving at least the temporary disappearance of normalcy and managing different degrees of loss, but also working to preserve a sense of stability and continuity. Like our clients, our hands are chapped from sanitizers and soap. As therapists, we must show up prepared for our clients while managing our uncertainty. None of us took a course on how to handle a pandemic, but we did learn techniques that we can apply to ourselves during this time.
Here are some tips from a MFT perspective for all mental health professionals as they navigate their emotional well-being during this pandemic:
Engage in Strength-Based Self-Care: Remind yourself of the strengths you already possess. While we can be acute observers and advocates for our clients, we may find it hard to apply this to ourselves. Your self-care matters, now more than ever. Remind yourself of the strengths that have helped you face adversity in the past and apply them to the present.
Make Room for Uncomfortable Feelings: Give yourself permission to feel your feelings during this transitional time. No one gave anyone a guide to the 2020 Pandemic. We are learning as we go, all of us. We are human first and that means feelings happen to all of us. It is unlikely you would tell your client to dismiss his or her feelings about what is happening in the world at large. We are no different – we, too, must sit with uncomfortable feelings.
Tap into Acquired Resources: Fellow MFTs, our greatest resource during this time, is our ability to think systemically. We know that nothing happens in isolation. Anxiety is an appropriate response to uncertainty. Everyone is feeling it, and you are not the exception to the rule. Remember that you are not alone, and don’t be afraid to tap into the support systems available to you, including your professional association.
Seek Therapy: We need to make space for our feelings during this time. All mental health professionals know that when life is hard, we need to be in our own therapy. Seeking therapy for the therapist is a best-practices item that will help you cope better, while also ensuring that the client’s treatment remains protected from the potential pitfalls that can arise out of transference and counter-transference.
Engage in Professional Consultation: If you are not already part of a professional consultation group, you might find that now is a perfect time to start or join one. Seeking consultation from other mental health professionals helps us process our concerns more clearly. Seeking consult is another way of making sure you are taking care of yourself as well as your clients.
Lead from Self-Compassion: In times of uncertainty, we need to cast a wide net of compassion, particularly for ourselves. It is not easy to do this with a limited personal and professional bandwidth. You don’t need to be perfect. We are all balancing our negative thoughts with gratitude for what we do have. By being compassionate with yourself, you give yourself permission to be where you are and that is okay.