I tell my graduate students that beyond all the academic exercises of reading, writing, and research, the two most important skills for a competent psychotherapist to master are the capacities for being alone and the tolerance of not knowing.
Ironically, even though a psychotherapist spends many hours listening and talking with patients about the most intimate details of their lives, the therapist is a virtual stranger who assumes a role that is temporary and transient. The therapist certainly is drawn into an intense emotional experience, but, ultimately, as a visitor.
When the sessions end, any residual effects must be contained or resolved so as not to contaminate his/her role for the next patient or to be brought home to one’s family and friends. Our commitment to confidentiality is also a commitment to a private and personal aloneness.
Very few occupations require a person to remain as silent about one’s life as does the psychotherapist, except perhaps, for the profession from which it is derived—the priesthood. We do, however, have the option of seeking consultation and/or supervision where, under a similar cloak of privacy, we can admit to our confusion and find refuge from our isolation.
The education of a psychotherapist is continuous, yet no amount of reading or research is sufficient preparation for a suicidal adolescent, the abused child, or the dying elderly. In the aloneness of these challenges, the therapist faces the limits of one’s potency in the task of helping a fellow human survive.
Connecting with a colleague is a service, I believe, that is owed by every member of this profession, to every member. The remarkable technology we have can allow us to form affiliations with relative ease and unlimited potentials.
I invite any mental health practitioner who reads this blog to consider reaching out and forming connections, starting study groups and peer supervision circles.
For more on the complexities of the therapeutic relationship, see Psychodynamics of the Therapeutic Relationship.