Your first clients: How to feel more at ease

Tyra ButlerMy first six months of seeing clients while in graduate school felt pretty crazy, though at the time I didn’t realize how crazy. When we are on a significant growth trajectory and learning curve, it’s challenging to see through the fog of all the factors involved in adjusting to becoming a therapist. It seems whenever we are in an important and difficult phase of life — potentially transformational — it’s hard to see what growth is actually occurring.

Looking back on those first six months of clinical work has taught me some valuable lessons. When I was seeing my first clients, I wish I had known how to intentionally let go of the pressure I felt to make something happen or employ technique.

I realize this is easier said than done, because our own anxiety gets in the way. The thing about anxiety is that a certain amount of it motivates us to get out of bed, arrive on time and be our best. But too much of it, on the other hand, can be debilitating and inhibit our minds from thinking clearly. It’s difficult for clients to connect with us if we are all worked up.

How to let go

Mindfulness teaches us that we can acknowledge our thoughts and feelings rather than dismissing them. It also shows us how to refrain from allowing unhelpful thoughts to fester. After acknowledging those thoughts and feelings, such as watching a car drive by in front of us, we notice it in the moment and then notice it is out of our vision. Likewise, we can notice and let go of the thought or feeling that may be based in fear or anxiety, such as “What is going on with this client? What should I say?”

These thoughts are part of normal curiosity, but if it leads to feeling pressure rather than natural curiosity, it’s helpful to have a way to let that go. Then, we can focus again on what is in the present or in front of us. Even in a session, content is continually changing, so we need to be present moment to moment to stay alert and attuned to our client so if certain questions or thoughts are based in anxiety, letting them go can be freeing.

Internal pressure

Very early on, I put pressure on myself to be a certain way as a therapist. You’re not alone if you do that. I thought I had to be all put together and know more than I did at the time. I was afraid a client may ask me something I didn’t know the answer to, and that they expected me to be an all-knowing guide. It’s funny now looking back, but if you are in a similar place in your life, you know the anxiety that inevitably creates. I wish I could have let go and been in the moment more, because looking back I can see the clients I was able to do that with continued to come back. The clients I felt anxious with inevitably had a hard time connecting with me.

Looking back at my early therapist-self with her notebook and pen in hand, with laid out interventions ready to go at any moment, it is quite comical at how “prepared” I thought I needed to be. I would have full cases written out ready for supervision, tossing around which theory to use. Because I did not quite know what I was doing yet, my sense of attunement was often off. In retrospect, I wish I had spent a little less time focused on preparing for sessions, and more time managing my anxiety and consulting on cases. I wish I had simply recognized the pressure I was putting on myself, made a choice to let myself experience it without judgment and refocused on my cases through reflection.

Letting go comes with practice – hence the term “practicum”

As I gained more experience, letting go within the session came with ease. My sense of grounding increased because I could trust in the process and not feel an impending need to intervene with a technique. I trusted my intuition and experience to guide me, which was informed from my education, supervision and consultation that accumulated over the years. I did several years of post-graduate education, first with a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and then with a two-year certificate program in Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy and Theory—all after extensive training in family systems and post-modern theory. Personal therapy was a piece to this all along.

The dynamic of the therapist-client relationship

It can be hard at first to find the balance between accepting your role as “the therapist” and that the other person across from you is “the client.” But if you approach each client with the acceptance they are not all that different from you, in terms of basic needs, and that you are in service of them, you will be able to reduce that feeling of a power differential. At our core, we really are not all that drastically different: we all have hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears and things that hold us back. We are all shaped by our experiences, both in childhood and adulthood. Who we are is constantly unfolding and we have incredible potential.

Most clients notice the power differential anyway, simply because you are the counselor/therapist. You can alleviate that sense by making a true connection with them, human to human. It may be by the way you look at them, your tone of voice or the way you respond to what they disclose.

We are there to try and understand them, to imagine what it would be like to go through their experience. Thinking theoretically tends to come the more you practice and process your cases in supervision or consultation. By remaining in the moment, letting go of the pressure to perform and easing the power differential between you and the client will help you be your best as you trudge this road to licensure.

You are doing sacred work, entering clients’ lives in the ways you do. So please know you are making a difference!