Stuck in the weeds

There is not enough money in the world for me to ever consider doing couples therapy. Honestly, I’ve always felt that way; I know what’s in my comfort zone and what’s not. The reason I bring it up today though, is because I found myself thrust into that role and it. Was. Tough.

I’m not in love with my current job but there are perks. For one, it’s short-term so even if the patient I’m seeing is incredibly difficult, I have a nice out: we only have to see each other a handful of times and then either we’re done or I’m referring out to a community therapist. Another perk is that although the majority of my referrals are people with anxiety and/or depression, I encounter a variety of situations. I’ve seen someone with a bridge phobia; recently met a woman struggling with her fiance’s infidelity; and have provided education about a possible Bipolar II diagnosis (a few times, actually). For all my complaints about this job, it’s been a good opportunity to enhance and vary my skill set. Hospice had its variations, of course, but I was there for five years and I was pretty comfortable with my role. This job has a whole other set of challenges and even a year and a half in, I’m still facing new and tricky situations.

Like yesterday, for instance! A woman called to schedule an appointment for her partner (which always puts me on guard because how motivated are you if you aren’t even making your own appointment?) and then they all showed up together: the patient, the partner, and their small child. Which is fine, in theory; a lot of people prefer their loved ones to be with them at doctor’s appointments. But about fifteen minutes in, it became clear to me that my patient and his partner need some serious marital counseling that I cannot provide. First, because my role doesn’t allow for it. Second, it’s very much out of my scope of practice. And third—probably most importantly—the counter-transference was suffocating.

This is not to say that my marriage is in shambles and I didn’t realize until this session; it wasn’t that Freudian. It was more that in my heart, one person was SO wrong and the other was SO right and it made me feel sort of thought-blocked. Like, I knew I couldn’t say that out loud but I also was really having trouble navigating my own feelings. I spent a lot of time saying, “It sounds like you’re saying X and you’re saying Y, and you’re not really in agreement about the basic facts.” It was not my most insightful work, friends. But afterwards, as I’m processing and debriefing and writing this all out, I’m not sure there was anything more I could or should have done.

This many years into my career, I’m comfortable telling people I don’t know the answer. But every so often, a session gets a little bit away from me and before I know it, I’m trying to navigate a situation I don’t really have a handle on. In those sessions, I have to get back to basics: here’s what I can do, here’s what someone else may be able to do, what do you want to do? I’m left with another good reminder to be mindful of what the goal of the work is: to help, whenever and however we can, and to know when we can’t.

Finding Compassion

So what do you do when you just don’t like the patient sitting across from you?

I love people. It’s part of why I chose this profession. I love to hear people’s stories. I like to sit in the front seat of cabs so I can ask the driver a bunch of questions about his family and his life. Call it nosiness; I prefer to call it a love for the human experience. Life is a rich tapestry, as one of my favorite advice columnists often says, and I like to know all about it.

But sometimes I meet a patient that really gets under my skin. I’m not alone in this, I know. We can all point to patients or clients we’ve had that just get on our damn nerves. Right now I have two patients that are casually misogynistic and homophobic; further, they are never the problem. According to them (they’re strikingly similar, actually), it’s everyone else: their children, their exes, their friends. They aren’t the ones making their own lives miserable so why should they have to change?

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I’m sure you can hear (read?) in my tone that I’m irritated with these guys. I especially resent the casual way they demean women when they’re sitting right across from one. Can you not have a little respect for my gender when you’re looking right at me?

Then, I think: maybe they can’t.

Some folks really are stuck. Their life experience tells them that they are victims and they really aren’t interested in looking any deeper than that. And really, in this role, it’s not my goal to go that deep. My goal is to help them figure out what’s making them feel anxious/depressed/stressed out and help them find their own solutions. I have the luxury of not seeing these people for years on end for true psychoanalysis. Rather, I get to help them name their issues and seek solutions for them.

The thing is, that means I have to let go a little of my own stuff. If the patient tells me that his gay son is ruining his marriage, I’m not going to get into a deep discussion of his homophobia, or his own insecurity about his masculinity, or what it means to him that his son is gay. Rather, I have to drill down on what he sees as the issue: it’s him against his wife and son. I have to help him figure out how he wants to handle that.

Inside, I’m cringing. This conversation is so gross to me. The moral part of me is screaming internally. But I’m not in private practice; I can’t refuse to see a patient that’s referred to me by one of my providers because I have feelings about his values. So I see these guys and I remind myself why I’m there: to provide short-term intervention. If it’s appropriate, I can gently push back on some of their prejudices and assumptions… but most of the time, that’s not what I’m here for. Instead, I have to let their comments roll off my back. I have to remind myself that one of my core values as a person and a social worker is that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got. And I don’t get to enforce my morality onto someone else when I’m providing therapy.

So I make space for the sometimes awful things I hear and focus instead on the important underlying truths: there’s a lack of family support. Or there’s an ongoing struggle with conflict. I direct the conversation to what can be changed rather than all the wrongs they see placed upon them. And I direct myself to grace and compassion: it doesn’t matter if I like them or not, my job is to help. I’m not better than the person sitting across from me. These tough patients are a good reminder to be kind and humble, even if they are, in the moment, a real pain in the ass.

The gift of counter-transference

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There's a short story collection I adore called The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing. (I highly recommend it, the narrative voice is delightful). There's a line in one of the stories that I repeat to myself frequently, especially when I’m being too hard on myself: "too late, you realize your body is perfect; every healthy body is."

I am especially reminded of this today, as I sit across from a young woman (just a little younger than I, actually) who was diagnosed with a chronic auto-immune disease a little less than a year ago. We are not terribly different: she has two small kids, a husband, a house she wants to keep in better shape, and her mom is not with her anymore. But there the similarities stop. Because she is sick and I am not and that is just our luck: her bad and my good. Sitting before her, sitting with the discomfort of her crying and my inability to do anything that will really help her, I am struck by how lucky I am to have this healthy body. It is a thought that stays with me for the full 20 minute session, rolling around in the back of my mind, begging to be explored further. These are the kinds of feelings that make supervision at all stages of our career a necessity.

What I’m feeling is counter-transference. I’ve written about this phenomenon before and why I think it can sometimes be a good clinical tool. Counter-transference can simply be a deep sense of empathy with a client. Empathy is the core of social work. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built: advocacy, behavior change, clinical therapy. Our ability to see ourselves in other people, to witness suffering and truly understand it, is what makes us good humans and good social workers. Counter-transference can be used to build rapport, even in a short session like the one I had with this woman. But it can also linger in our minds and pick away at us, leading us to burn out.

It's true that I felt helpless sitting across from this woman but the truth is, there are ways for me to help her. There are CBT strategies for people with chronic illness that I can help her explore. I can refer her to a support group. I can witness and validate her pain and frustration. The parts I’m struggling with, the counter-transference that is lingering in my mind, are the other truths: I cannot cure her disease. I cannot fundamentally alter her new path, which is one of doctors and medication and setbacks as she experiences flare ups. These are uncomfortable truths for me, especially as I sit in front of her with my perfectly healthy body and my growing, healthy pregnancy.

Counter-transference is complicated, like most feelings. It is both a help to our practice and a hindrance. Today, for me, it was both: it helped me establish rapport quickly with a new patient but it also hurt me to bear her pain. Ultimately, those twenty minutes are a part of my own personal growth. I was reminded, humbly and beautifully, that this body I complain about (because I’m pregnant, because I’m 5 pounds heavier than I want to be, because because because) is perfect, because it is healthy. And this work, which troubles me and excites me and frustrates me, is a gift. 

Recognizing our own shit

I was not at my best the other day. I met with a patient I’ve seen a handful of times who is struggling with managing her depression. I won’t lie, I was feeling frustrated. This was our fourth meeting and it was almost verbatim the same conversation we had had in our three previous sessions: her son is annoying, she hates getting older, she wants to meet a man, the people in her building are awful… Every single thing in her life is terrible as far as she’s concerned. It’s an exhausting conversation. Today I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I said (gently), “We’ve been having the same conversation every time you come in.” To which she answered, “Should I not come back?”

Photo credit: Daniel Garcia, Unsplash

I can be honest here, in my safe space, the blog that a half dozen of my lovely friends read: I was briefly tempted to say, yep, don’t come back. But I’m a professional and I can’t give in to my baser instincts. Instead, I silently checked the feeling and took a breath. “That’s not what I meant,” I clarified. “I just meant: I can’t change the way you feel. What I can do is help you figure out how to make changes to try to feel better. And if you don’t want to do that—which is your right!—that’s fine. But if that’s the case, then I don’t know how I’m going to be any help to you.”

Her reply was, “It’s hard.”

Just like that, my compassion came rolling back to me. My shoulders dropped a little (I hadn’t even realized how tense I had been, how physically rigid in reaction to my frustration). She was right: it is so hard. It is hard to feel stuck and depressed and lethargic and not be able to see your way towards the light. It feels permanent, even though it’s not. It feels like shit.

In that small sentence she reminded me of two things: one, it is hard and I should not forget that; and two, it’s not my problem to fix.

I don’t mean to sound cold. But here we are again at another truth of The Work: you cannot do it for someone else. I can’t wave a wand and have this woman feel better. I can only lead her to her own conclusions. And the right thing to do when faced with the frustration I felt is not to say, yeah don’t come back; instead, it’s to push through the ambivalence and the frustration that she is surely feeling and help her decide to make a change.

I don’t know if she will come back; I may have messed up enough that she seeks help elsewhere. I hope that’s not the case. Either way, another learning point for me: check that counter-transference before it interrupts the relationship! This is part of the reason we continue to have supervision throughout our careers: to manage the feelings that bubble up and interrupt. After all, we’re only human.

Counter-transference, a very fancy word

The first time I heard about counter-transference was in college, in my social work practice class. I was immediately intrigued and also nervous; could this happen to me? It seemed like a clearly negative experience at the time. However, many years after my first understanding of counter-transference, I’m beginning to see the importance of it as a clinical tool.

First, a quick definition of the two-dollar word I’m using. Essentially, counter-transference refers to how clinicians react to what patients project on to them during the therapeutic process. It refers to how a clinician’s personal goals and desires can shape her feelings towards a patient (and change the course of the therapeutic intervention). It can also be about what populations a clinician is drawn to or conversely wants to avoid. Fairly straight forward, right?

A word I associate with counter-transference is boundaries. It’s become a weirdly trendy buzz word over the past few years but it’s a real thing! In my job, where I’m generally walking into people’s homes, boundaries can be tough to define. Being in the home setting is less sterile than the office setting and definitely less structured. When I’m sitting at someone’s kitchen table or in their bedroom, a certain intimacy grows. It can be harder to maintain firm boundaries in these situations. Patients and families want to offer me coffee or food; they want to know about me since I’m with them at such an intimate time in their lives.

And part of what I want to do in this role is form intimate connections with people at their bedside so that the conversation can open up beyond the superficial and into difficult discussions about goals of care and illness and death. As a result, I sometimes become aware of this experience of counter-transference: strong emotions elicited during a visit that can be a detriment to my practice. However, those feelings can also elicit some good work for me as well as within the bounds of the therapeutic relationship. Further, it’s always wonderful when clinicians are able to acknowledge their limitations as well as their strengths in practice. I think recognizing the counter-transference we experience in our practice, or the blurring of boundaries, or just the discomfort sometimes of being with someone who is dying, can aid us in enhancing our clinical skills.

What I’m getting at here is that we can use counter-transference in our practice. We are, after all, only human. There have been times when I have been in a visit and felt a rush of anger so hot and charged that I’ve had to take a deep breath and clench my toes to keep from screaming. That’s a scary feeling for a social worker. But instead of pushing it down and forgetting it, I try to examine it. If I’m feeling so angry, what is the patient feeling? The family? Likewise, I’ve found myself feeling so friendly with a patient (someone near my age, to be fair) that I kind of forget my clinical role. That needs to be examined closely too. it’s dangerous when the boundaries blur too much.

Photo by  Cristian Newman  on  Unsplash

This is where good supervision is necessary. The supervision relationship helps us to look at our practice with a clinical eye. Sometimes we may not realize how counter-transference is affecting us. It takes a supervisor to reflect back what we’re saying and feeling. To do that effectively though, the supervision relationship needs to have the same kind of vulnerability as the clinical relationship.

I have a lot more to say on this subject but I’ll leave it here for now. Visit me in the next few weeks for some more posts about counter-transference with young patients, enhancing clinical skills, and growing the supervision relationship. As always, thank you for reading. Please leave some feedback! I’d love to write about something of interest or importance to you.