“I feel like I’m a fake. A fake therapist!”
John was chatting to me on Skype. I reassured him that he was not alone in sometimes wondering whether he was collecting cash from troubled souls on a false pretence.
“I have a PhD and years of clinical practice. I plan out what I’m going to say to my clients and always seek to connect their experience to my theoretical training.
“But sometimes – often, in fact – if things don’t go according to plan, I feel lost and lack the confidence to try something new!”
Lately, I seem to be hearing often from therapists who tell me how they just don’t feel confident enough to try different approaches with their clients.
Quite a few hypnotherapists, for instance, have admitted they always read ready-made ‘one size fits all’ scripts to their clients. It’s like those scripts are the therapist’s security blanket.
And this can be a problem, since we impact our clients by the way we are, not just by what we say or do.
Because emotions are infectious. Through minimal and unconscious facial, vocal, and bodily expressions, people can feel our hesitancy, anxiety, and doubt.
Which means, happily, that positive emotions such as confidence and calm can also be transmitted from mind to mind.
So, becoming a confident therapist not only benefits your own state of mind, it also directly impacts your clients’ welfare.
What exactly is confidence?
Confidence is the feeling that whatever happens, you can handle it.
It’s not necessarily a sense of absolute certainty that you know exactly what to do and how to progress from the very beginning with your client.
It’s more a sense that you can handle any uncertainty and that, pretty soon, things will become clearer. A great painter may not know exactly how her picture will develop, but she will sense that it will develop as she continues to work on it.
So, how can you, if you need to, become a more confident therapist? Well, here are three ways.
1) Understand the fundamentals
Most clients are not interested in psycho-jargon or academic theories about why they have their problems. They just want to be relieved of their suffering.
Understand also the role that naturally occurring hypnosis plays in problem formation, problem maintenance, and possible problem resolution.
When the basics are there, confidence and clarity are not far behind.
But you need to be right in yourself, too.
2) Practise what you preach
I could hear tears in his voice as John told me he sometimes felt like a fake because he had a few pressing personal problems of his own.
“How can I claim to be able to sort out other people when my marriage is in a bad way and my teenage son has been taking drugs?”
Some therapists have the idea that they have to be somehow perfect. Or at least not subject to stresses and problems themselves. This can lead to the discomfort of imposter syndrome.
If you have problems of your own, congratulations! You are a human being as well as a therapist. The fact is, you can still help others even when you and your life are not perfect.
When I first started out 20 years ago, I would sometimes have a client tell me about their financial or other worries and I would catch myself thinking, for a second, “That’s nothing like as bad as the mess I’m in… so who am I to help them?” Placing your own subjectivity aside feels almost like a physical act sometimes, but I learned to put such thoughts aside and focus on their situation and needs.
But if I can barely breathe myself, I won’t be able to help revive someone else. So, to be the best we can be for our clients, our own needs must be met as well as possible. Practise stress management, consciously seek to meet your primal human needs as best you can, and cut yourself some slack. You are human.
And to avoid burnout, you need to have therapeutic spare capacity – that extra energy you have from at least adequately meeting your own emotional and physical needs. Spare capacity also gives you confidence, as will as my next tip.
3) Trust yourself
As I said earlier, confidence isn’t just about certainty. We may be the professionals, but we are not all-knowing seers.
Too much meticulous planning before seeing a client can end up feeling clunky, inappropriate, or forced when we come face-to-face with the real, live person. Or it may become clear that it’s just the wrong approach, or too soon, as we desperately try to squeeze our client to fit our theory.
That’s not to say that having some ideas ahead of time isn’t helpful or that we should never plan. It’s more that we need to be ready to flexibly adapt as we go, like a bird adjusts its wings and direction in flight to suit the unique pattern of air currents in the moment.
Real therapeutic confidence comes in the form of relaxing with the uncertainties of the therapeutic encounter.
Once you have good knowledge and experience (and we all have long experience of being human), then you need to just go with the flow and trust your unconscious mind to give you insights and inspiration.
Being calm and clear-headed enough to wait until the clouds of confusion clear, while having faith that you and your client together will find a good path to follow into the realms of health, is really the key to therapeutic confidence.
Just the idea of starting to relax with uncertainty, trusting his unconscious mind more, and always going back to basics (“What does this person really need?”) helped John become more confident when doing therapy.
Put these three tips into practise and I think, if you need it, your therapeutic confidence will skyrocket, too.
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