One of these profoundness-in-breakthrough moments I had with my previous supervisor was back last May when we debriefed a male client’s case. 

As the client unraveled his story, he presented me with a memory that bore the weight of his deepest shame. Though he didn't label it as such (of course he didn’t), his narrative painted a vivid picture of a man grappling with his past, as always, feeling like a victim in his entire life.

This client has a certain way of telling his story. “You know, she said balablabla, then I said blablabla back. Then she did XYZ…… Why this kind of sh*t always happens to me?!” 

It was like watching a movie, regardless of how the plots unfold, it would always end up at the very same place - Why this kind of sh*t always happens to me?! (Narrator: anger is an outward go-to emotion when we can’t tolerate a deeper feeling of fear, shame, and insecurity. It feels deliciously sanctimonious.)

“And what did you say at that moment?” Supervisor asked.

“I mirrored back and comforted him, and then I looked down at my notes,” I said.

Supervisor paused there and looked straight into my eyes, “You know exactly what you should have asked at that very moment, but you didn’t.” 

I was putting on the spot. Yes, I should have asked him directly and compassionately - are you experiencing shame right now? (Delivered in the softest tone imaginable.) 

“So you wanted to rescue him by not asking him the right question, you don’t want him to feel ashamed.” Supervisor pushed harder, “This is a countertransference, you were trying to protect him from what he should feel and hopefully, learn from.” 

I was nodding. I let my countertransference overrule.

“Let me guess, you worry you’d lose this client if you point out the shame because people do run from these difficult feelings. At that moment, you felt extremely uncomfortable to have that difficult conversation.” He kept pushing. 

Ahh! Right there. It’s my turn to feel ashamed. 

“Are you perhaps avoiding some difficult conversations in your own life as well?” He smiled at me with this kind of “I-know-you-well-kiddo” look. 

I didn’t make the connection before that supervision session. But he was absolutely right. That was a period when I started to embody life as a therapist while adjusting to many personal relationships, and very often, I had spotted myself avoiding a lot of difficult yet necessary conversations.

Being a therapist is a defense, as old as time. It’s a profession where I “work in the shadow,” where I can have a buffer between this world and my fear and longing. 

Sitting in a chair and studying other people’s pain is way easier than going inward and dealing with my own.

Who I am in my life would also transfer into the therapy room. Am I too empathetic because I don’t want to have difficult conversations? Am I pouring my own experience into the client’s narrative? Am I hiding some parts of myself by being the judge? Do I worry my clients would leave me if they saw through the real me? Can the client feel my discomfort when I encourage them to have a difficult conversation with their partner when I can’t do it with my partner? Why do I often feel inadequate in some conversations? Am I good enough? 

Supervision always told me that the goal of any therapeutic work should be congruence - a state of being of authenticity and embodiment, a life where we build a good relationship with reality and our inner world, and make better choices. To get there, I need to practice having difficult conversations, tolerating uncomfortable feelings, and taking responsibility.