October 1, 2011

“Excuse me; I need to shudder.”

Filed under: Grad School: Building a Therapist — Ann @ 10:56 am


If there is one quality a therapist must bring to the counseling session above all, it’s attention. Even if this weren’t being drummed into us on a near-daily basis — in professors’ lectures, in video demonstrations, and in our textbook readings — it’s pretty obvious that a therapist needs to offer “presence” to a client. How would you like to bring your most pressing concerns to a mental health professional who glanced out the window, gazed at her fingernails, or picked up a book mid-session? Not so much.

Until a practice counseling session I had last week, I didn’t figure this would ever be a problem for me: I seriously enjoy the eye contact I make with clients; I want to give that person my full attention. For one thing, that attention will help me to notice ever-important nonverbal cues. But during our triad session on Thursday — I was the counselor, another student was my client, and yet another was our observer — during one of the most intensely emotional segments of our time together, I felt something crawling on my right arm. Instinctively I glanced down for a second (aware that I was pulling attention away from my client and incredibly anxious as a result), and saw a spider making its way up my forearm.

Now, had I not been in a therapy session, I would have jumped up, perhaps knocking over my chair in the process, slapping my arm repeatedly saying things like “ick ick ick” for good measure. In this moment, none of those things was an option. Even brushing the spider away would have caused my client to wonder what was going on and destroyed the attention. And my usual method of dispensing with spiders — getting a container, scooping them up, and depositing them outside — was clearly out of the question. So, eyes back on my client, I smoothly placed my left hand on my right arm and squished the spider dead.

After our session as we walked to the elevator I confessed to her what had happened, primarily concerned that she had seen my attention break in the moment that I glanced down and saw my little intruder. We are there, after all, to learn, and I wanted to check in with her to see how much she had noticed. To my relief, she hadn’t seen me look down and then, to my great surprise, she was hugely impressed by my sacrifice: “YOU smashed a spider on your arm for ME?!” When I nodded my head like, “Yeah, what else?” she seemed genuinely touched and then told me in no uncertain terms: “You should put that on your resume.”

And you know what? I just might.

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