Honing my therapist superpower
It was my last therapy session of the evening. Sitting across from my client, a lovely woman in her mid-fifties, I listened, rapt, as she spoke quietly, haltingly, between sobs. With a lump in my throat and tears streaming down my face, I leaned in. Painstakingly, she recounted the agonizing moments sitting at the bedside of her precious twenty-five-year old daughter, who, wracked by cancer, was taking her final breaths.
Over the course of that hour, I offered the best I could, both of us fully aware that everything felt woefully inadequate. I mean… no words.
Afterward, feeling somehow both numb and completely gutted, I made my way home. As I walked through the front door, my husband glanced up from his dinner prep and offered up the typical how was your day? greeting.
Walking in for a hug, those intense emotions unleashed spontaneously, and I cried so hard I couldn’t speak.
My husband, temporarily stunned by this uncharacteristic emotional display, patiently waited for me to gather myself and explain. Taking some deep breaths, I reassured him that, despite evidence to the contrary, I was, in fact, okay.
And, in that moment, I had a stark realization. My capacity to remain steady and hold such intense, raw emotion had noticeably increased since I’d begun practicing mindfulness. My ability to sit with my client’s suffering, join with her, feel it deeply with a simultaneously calm, observing stance, was palpable. It felt a bit like a superpower.
That was over a decade ago.
Most therapists can recall, in vivid detail, our most heart-wrenching sessions.
In the midst of those sessions, our focus, of course, is on fully attending to our clients. Despite what we might also be experiencing, we hold the boundaries firm, taking care to place our client’s needs front and center.
And yet, once we’ve wrapped up the intense hour and said our goodbyes, we are left with the emotional aftermath.
We therapists come to this work honestly. We are, by nature, compassionate helpers, listeners, guides, teachers, cheerleaders, supporters.
Both a blessing and a curse. Because we care and feel deeply, we are also more susceptible to burnout. We know self-care is vital to our well-being and ability to sustain a long, vibrant career. We also don’t always heed our own advice.
We, too, benefit from a short time to focus on, and care for, ourselves. To process, emote, regroup. To fully acknowledge the pain of being human. To meet ourselves with compassion when we recognize all we can offer feels acutely insufficient.
My daily mindfulness practice has served me well by allowing me to feel and tolerate intense emotion, both others’ and my own. Personally, it has helped me navigate my way through postpartum depression and as I sat vigil at my father’s deathbed.
The beauty of mindfulness is that we can expand our capacity to hold all of the challenging emotions, stories, and life events our clients share. Our container expands. By its very nature, it is a powerful act of self-care for us caregivers.
One that you deserve and that will continue to serve you well.
Whether a therapist or not, I hope you will try it out:
Find a chair in which your feet comfortably touch the ground, or sit on the floor on pillows so your bottom and hips are raised off the floor. Sit up tall, straighten the spine, relax the shoulders, and allow the eyes to close.
Pause and become aware of sensations in your body with a sense of curiosity and acceptance. You can do this by slowly scanning through your body, starting with your feet and systematically moving up to your head. Do you notice tightness anywhere? Are your shoulders raised toward your ears? Is your brow furrowed? Can you soften those areas?
Now relax your belly, noticing it rise and fall as the breath naturally comes and goes. When your mind wanders (which happens to everyone), notice where your mind was (planning, remembering, judging) and simply return your attention—with kindness for yourself—to the breath and begin again. It may be helpful to silently note rising and falling as you notice the breath come and go. See if you can notice the beginning and ending of the inhale, the beginning and ending of the exhale, and perhaps a pause happening naturally in between. Each time your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the sensations of breathing in the belly.
Bring an attitude of curiosity and playfulness to your meditation time. Let go of expectations and goals and simply observe what arises. Consistency, flexibility, and a sense of humor are all essential. The thoughts that arise during meditation can be quite amusing. Congratulate yourself for carving out time, sitting, staying, and practicing this powerful form of self-care.
[Meditation excerpted from Breathe, Mama, Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms.]