The Therapist’s Role
With all this talk of self-healing, I don’t want to downplay the importance of the client’s relationship with the therapist. What does shift is the focus on the therapist from being the primary attachment figure to serving as an accepting container of awareness who opens space for the client’s own Self to emerge. To do this, therapists must embody their own fullest Self, acting as a tuning fork to awaken the client’s Self to its own resonance. To achieve this kind of embodiment, therapists must learn to be mindful of their own parts as they work with clients, recognizing that transference and countertransference are, at some level, a continuing behind-the-scenes dance as therapists and clients inevitably trigger each other. The inescapable reality of therapy is that, if we do our jobs well, clients will do all kinds of provocative things that repeatedly test us. They’ll resist, get angry and critical, become hugely dependent, talk incessantly, behave dangerously between sessions, show intense vulnerability, idealize us, attack themselves, and display astounding narcissism and self-centeredness.
Some of this is because they have parts forged by relationships with hurtful caretakers that are stuck in the past and, as they sense our open-heartedness, all that gets ignited. The Self-led therapist is basically issuing the client an invitation: “All parts are welcome!” From the darkest corners of their psyches, aspects of clients that others never see emerge in all their crazy glory, and that’s a good thing. When we aren’t overwhelmed by our own parts and can remain Self-led, clients can get to know what’s going on inside them, and healing emerges.
But therapists aren’t Buddhas and regularly get triggered by the intensity of their interplay with their clients, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not. Fortunately, as you become increasingly familiar with the physical experience of embodying this mindful Self, you’ll be better able to notice the shift in your body when a troubled part hijacks you (you have a “part attack”). With that awareness—and lots of experience doing this kind of clinical work—comes the ability to calm the part in the moment and ask it to separate and let your fuller Self return.
If I had a microphone in my head when I was treating certain challenging clients, you’d hear me saying repeatedly to myself things like: “I know you’re upset, but just let me stay and handle this. Remember it always goes better if you let me keep my mind open. Just relax and trust me, and I’ll talk to you after the session.” On my good days, those words produce an immediate shift in my level of Self-embodiment—my heart opens, my shoulder muscles release, or the crowd of negative thoughts in my head disperses. My client suddenly looks different—less menacing or hopeless, and more vulnerable. Between sessions, I’ll follow up by bringing the parts that my client aroused to their own therapy, to give them the attention they need. In this way, our clients become our “tor-mentors” —by tormenting us, they mentor us, making us aware of what needs our loving attention.
Working in this way can be an intense and challenging task, which regularly requires me to step out of my emotional comfort zone and experience “parts” in myself and my clients that I might otherwise wish to avoid. At the same time, on my best days, I feel blessed to be able to accompany clients on inner journeys into both the terror and wonder of what it means to be fully human. At those moments, I can’t imagine a more mindful way to practice the therapist’s craft.
Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Self Leadership and the originator of the Internal Family Systems Model. His books include Internal Family Systems Therapy and, most recently, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For.
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