According to Family Therapist Virginia Satir, the world isn’t the way it’s meant to be, it is the way it is – and it’s the way we cope with it that makes the difference; how we process our experiences is what makes us able to cope or not.
As a coach or therapist, it is vital for us to question why we respond the way we do. Why do we react to different clients in different ways, and why do they respond to us differently? This is the heart of transference and countertransference, and it behoves us to pay attention or we can be led down the rocky paths of Drama Triangle, collusion and blind spots. We ignore our own “stuff” at our peril; and this is one of the reasons we have Clinical Supervision – and why it’s not just desirable, it is essential.
We are only able to process our experiences through the lens of our previous experiences; we can never be truly objective, because this is how we perceive and understand our world – and how we each construct our own reality; we see the world not as it is, says Jung, but as we are. Whatever we perceive in others, therefore, gives us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves… because it is a reflection of our own unconscious mind.
Because of our subjective nature, we will judge things according to our own values, beliefs and past experiences which form our mental filters; what we perceive to be right, wrong, good, bad and so on. The moment a judgement about someone or something else comes into our consciousness, it is our perception, and therefore we must have an understanding of it because we’ve labelled it.
Our judgements are the result of our own unique combination of unconscious filters; our filters influence what we pay attention to, how we interpret situations and how we make sense of ambiguous situations. We unconsciously pay attention to information that confirms and supports our beliefs, and we ignore or minimise information that contradicts them.
We also project our 'stuff' onto others - expecting people to behave in particular ways based on our values, and then blaming them because they don't (or sometimes because they do) live up or down to our expectations - but they are not us, and their way of perceiving the world is very different from ours. Also, if there are aspects of ourselves that we don't like, and refuse to own (Jung called this our 'Shadow Self'), then we may see those aspects in others, and dislike them because of it... we see in others whatever needs healing in ourselves.
It is, therefore imperative for those of us working in therapy, coaching or counselling to pay attention and to bring our (sometimes deeply repressed) 'stuff' into consciousness, in order to become as clear a vessel as possible. Only then are we able to be fully present with our client, and have the ability to create a safe, non-judgemental space, in which the client can be supported to learn about themselves, and process their own issues.
We know nobody can “make” us feel or do anything – we do that to ourselves; other people do whatever they do, and what we do with that is up to us. Other people’s behaviour can, however, trigger a reaction in us, and if we are having an unuseful reaction to someone or something then we need to pay attention and seek to understand why. We need to “make the darkness conscious” as Jung says, otherwise we are potentially heading down the path of conflict with others, or collusion and blind spots with our clients.
In other words, as therapists and coaches, we need to deal with our own ‘stuff’, and we can’t change something until we become consciously aware of it; as author Susan David says, “awareness is a prerequisite for change”… hence the necessity for self-awareness – and it’s an ongoing journey; a life-long job… Jung called it ‘Individuation’. What old core beliefs and injunctions are we running? Until we become aware of them and challenge them, they will carry on directing our lives, says Jung, and we will call it fate.
And throughout our lives, stuff is going to happen to us; we will have experiences that we perceive to be unpleasant and challenging – and what can we do? We have a choice… we can either be a victim of them, and blame someone or something else, or we can take responsibility and learn from them. My psychotherapy tutor called these things ‘JAFLOs’ – they are Just Another F[insert appropriate word]-ing Learning Opportunity. And they might be truly awful, terrible, traumatic things – but from those huge, awful terrible things might indeed come our biggest learnings... Learnings that set us free forever - perhaps from the tyranny of a repeating, self-sabotaging pattern that has been running our life for years.
Eric Berne described this freedom as autonomy; our capacity for developing awareness, choice, responsibility, spontaneity and intimacy. Autonomy means living our life as an authentic, integrated adult, without the ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’.
Living an autonomous life is an ideal, to which we as coaches and therapists can only truly assist our clients to aspire if we first do the work ourselves, and commit to doing so in the spirit of openness and curiosity... so that we can own our 'stuff'; use it like compost and grow from it - and thrive, and blossom...
Life is for living and learning… enjoy the ride…
If you are interested in exploring and developing your own self-awareness, we offer a number of courses, workshops and groups to help you... click on the link below to take a look at our Forthcoming Courses to see what is coming up...
Right, lovely dental folks - I'd like you to listen, please...
You know the scenario - it's 4.45pm on a Friday afternoon and a patient rings with severe toothache; they've had it for several weeks, and they are ringing now because they are "not sure they can make it through the weekend". A check on their records reveals two failed appointments for a filling which needed doing over a year ago and they have never been back in touch since then. Oh, and you also told them they needed to see the hygienist for regular appointments too, and they've never been.
Prevention. You teach it to your patients. All the time. Often repeatedly. At the end of the day, it's up to the patient whether or not they choose to take responsibility for their own dental health - as their dentist you know there is only so much you can do...
As a psychotherapist, this is what I see when I look at the dental profession: so many surveys measuring the catastrophic levels of stress in the profession; so many posts on social media complaining about mental distress; (and yes, it's bad - in many cases it's truly heartbreaking); and yet so many dentists are clearly not taking any responsibility for their own mental health.
Clients will often come to me because they have reached the psychological equivalent of the severe toothache patient described above; so we have to begin by firefighting the situation they have found themselves in... and just like that toothache, it's often been coming on for a very long time. Sometimes for years... and they've ignored the signs.
But here's the thing... Even if you are feeling absolutely fine right now, how many of you are actually taking an active responsibility in making sure you stay that way by maintaining your own mental health? (I know many of you are, which is fantastic - I also know that many, many more are not...) Are you even aware that there are very definite measures you can put in place to help prevent future burnout and chronic stress? Are you just like the patient with toothache who is aware that oral hygiene is probably something they should have been doing, and they are still not doing it? Are you willing to wait until you experience symptoms of chronic stress, mental breakdown and burnout before you decide to take some action?
Here are some suggestions, and my invitation to you is that you look into at least one of these right now (yes, even though you are feeling fine at the moment):
If you are feeling fine because you are already doing at least one of those, then that's marvellous - I salute you.
My mother always used to tell us that, "Something always happens when you don't do as you're told..." I've no doubt that's what you think when the irregularly attending, poor oral hygiene patient turns up yet again with an abscess. But remember the wise words of Virginia Satir, "Life isn't the way it's meant to be - it is the way it is. It's how we cope with it that makes the difference."
That difference has to start with you. And if you need some help to rediscover your own inner resources, please just ask.
As a psychotherapeutic coach I offer regular, ongoing, preventive, confidential support to dentists in the UK and abroad, as well as in-depth therapy when it's needed; just as you do for your patients. I also offer small group CPD courses specifically for dentists on how to change your relationship with stress.
...and the Canine Members of Staff