Living through a shared crisis with a client

Letticia Banton with reflections on coronavirus from a wounded-healer relational psychotherapy perspective.

I am noticing a strong tension in my counselling work: even though I find the adverse circumstances are asking a lot of me personally and professionally, at the same time I am witnessing my therapeutic relationships deepening and strengthening. My clients and I may both be wounding, but somehow we are also both healing.

The ‘wounded-healer’ concept dates back at least as far as Plato, with Carl Jung conceptualising it in his archetypal psychology. A therapist’s own wounds carry an implicit, curative power for clients, mainly through the process of countertransference (Jung, 1954, Zerubavel & Wright, 2012). Before, during and after our training, we have looked deep within our ‘self’ to understand our own history and individual, relational and collective ‘wounds’. We have worked hard in therapy (and outside) to make sense of process what we have found. While we will never erase our wounds, we may have reached a level of peace about who we are and how we relate in the world. I believe our own healing experience gives us a level of presence, compassions and insight to facilitate the healing of our client’s wounds through the therapeutic relationship. 

Sometimes we work with clients whose lives and wounds are far removed from our own, so we have to reflect deeply to put ourselves in their shoes, relate to their experience and find a way to empathise. At other times we meet clients who, although they may not realise it, have problems very similar to our own (e.g. growing up with an emotionally distant parent, the death of a friend from a particular type of cancer), which may mean we find it more natural to empathise authentically. When this happens, we have to be aware of when similarities mean we closely identify with a client, so we do not project our own experiences onto theirs and lose the intersubjective ‘third space’ between us (Benjamin, 2004). We also need to think carefully about what, if any, details to explicitly disclose of our own personal information and experiences, beyond the therapeutic process (Yalom, 2001). 

The situation we find ourselves in with coronavirus blows these basic principles of relational psychotherapy out of the water. 

More than ever, I am finding a pull to step beyond what I understand as my ‘professional self’ to reveal more of my ‘personal self’ in the relationship (Gilbert & Orlans, 2011). Somehow, through video conference, I am connecting at ‘relational depth’ with my clients (Cooper & Mearns, 2005); I cry with my clients, laugh with my clients, feel scared like my clients, and at moments, I let them see this so they don’t feel so alone. But I also reflect carefully on our process to not collude or collapse into oneness through our shared experience and continue to ‘hold the third space’, for whatever they wish to bring.  

What can we do?

There is really little we can ‘do’ as therapists to change the current reality for our clients, to make all the loss and confusion they are experiencing better. We can’t give people back their loved ones, their jobs, their families and friends, their hobbies, their freedom, their joy. But what we can always do, as therapists, is to listen. We can listen carefully to the small voice inside our heads that has navigated previous crises, traumas and difficulties. We can draw on the resources we have built up the years to care lovingly for ourselves more than ever. We can reach out to our own therapists, professional bodies, training institutes and peers for support. We can check-in with our supervisors about our ability to continue work. And once we have done all of this, we can ‘show up’, listen deeply to our clients and ‘be’ with them in their uncertainty and pain.

Many of us mental health professionals will find ourselves as for the first time two ‘wounded’ beings sitting in front of each other, due to our new shared reality. That’s in contrast to Samuels (2005) articulation of how Jung’s wounded-healer archetype usually plays out in the therapeutic process: therapy begins with the therapist holding the position of ‘healer’ in the conscious eyes of the ‘wounded’ client’, who has entered therapy because on some level they know the therapist is wounded too, but has ‘healed’ enough to share some wisdom. Through the therapeutic process, this conscious and unconscious wounded-healer dynamic in the relationship helps the client to find their own healer within. 

Now, the client consciously knows that we, like them, are going through an ‘unprecedented’ (as the Government is so fond of saying) period of existential change; collectively through the spread of the virus and shut down of society, and individually as we all adjust to new ways of being. With the loss of health, safety, jobs, homes, family members, friendships and basic freedoms, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs seems like a tumbling tower of Jenga and we may be thrust into ‘survival mode’. Because of this rapid and enormous upheaval, we may be experiencing difficult and uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, panic, shock, anger, abandonment, loneliness, grief, despair and overwhelming sadness, to name a few. As human beings, we are all going through these emotions to varying degrees. 

For me, our new reality raises fundamental questions about how our therapeutic relationships withstand this crisis:

  • When we are feeling wounded ourselves and trying to process what is happening at the same time as our clients, how can we fully ‘show up’ and be present? 
  • How can we contain our clients and provide a secure base? 
  • How can we do so in an adapted therapeutic frame of online or telephone working (which brings its own challenges independent of coronavirus)? 
  • What does this mass and sudden change to do our empathy and compassion? 
  • Can we continue to fully attune? Or on some level do we disconnect? 
  • Is it ethical to work if we are feeling overwhelmed? Is it ethical not to work?
  • How do we maintain the ‘third space’ when we may be sharing so many feelings?
  • How do we navigate the fragmented collective discourse of rainbows, love and hope, while at the same time acknowledging the warlike messages of ‘fighting the virus’ and ‘doing whatever it takes?

A catalyst?

Something far bigger than us as individuals is connecting us, beyond our roles as ‘therapists’ and ‘clients’. In these dark hours, when so many are struggling with many aspects of their physical, behavioural, rational and emotional selves, a Jungian paradox is happening at the transpersonal level: we are undergoing a collective trauma, and so in time there will be a collective healing. The wounded-healer archetype lives in all of us, after all.

It is only speculation to think about the impact the pandemic will have on the nature of therapy in the long-term. But it makes me think of what my first-year doctoral tutor always said about ‘The transpersonal effect of Princess Diana’ on psychotherapy. British society experienced an unprecedented outpouring of collective grief when Princess Diana died; in Freudian terms, generations of emotional repression were released and society’s superego altered. This transpersonal turning point changed the acceptability and visibility of therapy permanently. It ignited the demise of the ‘stiff upper lip’ as the dominant national coping mechanism and sowed the seeds for a 25-year journey, where today we talk more openly about difficult emotions, our internal worlds and mental health, both inside and outside the therapy room. If one person’s untimely death was the catalyst for such enormous growth, just start imagine what recovery from a global health pandemic might bring. 

- Letticia Banton is a trainee counselling psychologist and integrative psychotherapist, navigating her way through the doctoral course at the Metanoia Institute in London.

References

Benjamin, J. (2004) Beyond doer and done to: an intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, LXXIII: 5-46. 

Cooper, M. and Mearns, D. (2005) Working at Relational. Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. (Sage). 

Gilbert, M. & Orlans, V. (2011) Integrative Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques. London and New York: Routledge. 

Jung, C. (1954) Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the psychology of transference and other subjects. Translated by Hull, F. London: Boilingseries.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Samuels, A. (2005) “Transference and Countertransference” pp 177-196 in The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications, Ed: Papadopo, K., New York: Routledge. 

Yalom, D. (2001) The Gift Of Therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. New York: Harper Collins

Zerubavel, N. and Wright, M. (2012) The dilemma of the wounded-healer. Psychotherapy. 49 (4): 482-491. 

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