Be First; Add Techniques Later: Do You KNOW That Your Presence Matters?
I’m sure it’s not news to you that studies of the therapeutic process always reveal that the relationship between client and therapist is what fosters healing and growth. More recent studies show that most of the healing that happens in this relationship occurs within the resonant connection between our inner worlds.
According to Daniel Siegel and Allan Schore (and many, many others), the essence of connectedness that relieves pain and fosters growth, is our ability to tune in, attend, and respond to our client’s inner experience. Healing happens when we focus on the flow of what’s happening in the room with openness, receptivity, and gentle curiosity about the motivations and internal experiences behind feelings and behavior.
When we attune to our client’s world, and empathically convey that we feel their emotions with them and yet are not overwhelmed, then they “feel felt” by us. Feeling felt, more than anything else, helps clients begin to know that their feelings make sense and can be managed, and that their selfhood matters.
Therapists ask me all the time—how do I provide this kind of attuned, healing, resonant relationship with my clients? What’s the best way to help my clients to feel felt by me?
Though I have many concrete suggestions for therapeutic ways of being, stances, and interventions (that I’ll write about in lots of blog posts), the first, primary, foremost answer to how we as therapists begin to help our clients to feel felt by us is:
Fully present in the room, we intuit and respond to the client’s signals, verbal and nonverbal. Notice how the client’s experience affects us. Communicate this experience with the openness of helpful authenticity.
All additional interventions need to be built on this foundation of in-the-moment, authentic presence. Doesn’t it make sense that if we can’t feel our own, embodied, fully-lived experience, then we won’t be able to feel our client’s experience resonating within us?
For clients to feel felt, we must feel, understand, and communicate our own connection with, and caring curiosity about, their inner world.
While the idea of presence might seem simplistic or obvious, impediments to presence crop up in every therapist’s armchair.
Do you know what the most common, most insidious, most-often-present blockage to therapist presence is?
Trying hard to be effective.
That’s right. Every truly skilled therapist or supervisee I’ve ever worked with has tripped over the popping-you-right-out-of-the-room preoccupation with whether they are “doing their best,” whether they are “giving the client their money’s worth,” whether they “know what they’re doing according to some theory,” etc.
Of course it’s crucial that you study, that you understand what you believe about the motivations for people’s behavior, that know your overarching purpose for doing therapy, that you have an idea of what heals and what causes pain, that you understand ethical behavior, that you possess a store of helpful interventions.
But it’s vastly more important for you to place all of that head stuff into the trusting-yourself-bank when you walk into the therapy room, and simply BE there with your whole heart, body, and mind.
That is, trust yourself to know what you know and let it run in the background, so that you can trust that who you are is enough. Trust that your presence is what matters. Trust that who you are is valuable to your client.
I’ll say it again: Your presence. As a human being. Is enough.
It’s simple. But not easy.
Be first. Add techniques later.
Forgetting that who we are is enough is the first thing that yanks us out of connection with our clients and into our heads, breaking that interpersonal resonance that helps our clients feel felt, begin to heal, and know that they are valuable.
If you become comfortable letting all your hugely important left-brained knowledge run in the background in order to free yourself to be with your clients—authentic, open, receptive, communicative, in the here and now—you will make good decisions, and your clients are quite likely to feel felt.
Understanding and applying this fact is no small feat. To fully allow ourselves to embrace our own value, we have to touch into and own our own biggest fears, attachment wounds, and vulnerabilities, and find our own way to healing.
I’m not talking about buying into the medical model fallacy of thinking that we are fixed, “healthier” than our clients, or not wounded, and that therefore that we possess answers and diagnoses and agendas that cure our “broken” clients. I’m talking about knowing in our cells that our very personhood is valuable enough that by being willing to sit open and unafraid next to someone who is suffering, offering caring and curiosity, our trembling presence makes a world of difference in dispelling isolation and inviting growth.
Do you know what a gift it would be to your clients (not to mention yourself) for you to do the work required to face your own issues of unworthiness, anxiety, or perfectionism, no matter what dark or cramped corners of your mind they prowl around in?
I invite you to do that work. I challenge you to be first. Add techniques later. To trust that your authentic presence is the most valuable asset at your disposal.