Searching for legitimacy in Social Work is like searching for a needle in a barn. We are like the step children of psychologists and we have so much damn clinical experience we accidentally forgot to measure it. That said, what goes into making a good therapist great are a lot of special ingredients. I am no cook. But like Anthony Bourdain, you have to mix the whole culture into the brew to get the tastiest outcome.
Here’s what I know:
1. Authenticity – you present yourself as what you see is what you get. No secrets, no hidden agendas. You don’t over share but you share enough to let on you are not above it all. You share when it helps. You share when you’re human. You can cry with a patient, and you can laugh with a patient. You are real. You say, I don’t know, when you don’t know. You are mature enough to say, Let’s figure this out together. You say, What would you say to a friend, or What do you think you need instead of I think you shoud do xyz.
2. Experience – nothing like life experience to slam you down. You get up. You fall again. We are not strangers to suffering, many of us who got into this in the first place because of our own trauma. Yet we rise above it with tenacity and resilience, modeling strength for our patients; using the vulnerability to grow more flexible. We gather our insights and say, This worked for me, but everyone is different. We are humble.
3. Arts and Crafts – I have long maintained that therapy is an art form. And when you see the masters, like one of my faves, Salvador Minuchin, for example, you can see there’s a cult of personality going on. I do what I do intuitively. However that short-changes the actual skills. Such as re-framing, laughter, problem-solving, and bringing out the elephant in the room, the casual interpretation, the gentle feedback, the digging deeper, the tolerance of pain. The knowing that it will pass.
4. Honesty – is when you say, I have been there and done that and it is just really hard to let go sometimes and that’s OK. We all have good days and bad months, as one comedian said.
5. Restraint – when not to speak, to let the words rest and breathe into the empty spaces and just let the dust settle. To let go of “fixing” everything and living with ambiguity and grey areas. Knowing when to stay silent.
6. Intellectual curiosity – so important to say, I never knew that or Let’s explore that, or What’s up with that or Have you thought of this? Open to whatever without judgment.
7. Patience – when a client leaves you with something horrifying and you think you are stuck with it, just like w children, it’s OK to check in with her and make sure there’s no crisis. Or working with a kid who appears to make no progress and then one day, boom, there’s the shift. So fast you nearly missed it.
8. Wisdom – life and travel and parenthood are great teachers of humility and respect for diversity and change. The more we risk the more we take away. No one ever said in therapy, Gee, I wish I took fewer risks…
9. Faith – I am not religious or fanatical. However faith in the process is a reasonable expectation. Therapy doesn’t work for everyone nor is it one size fits all. You can’t please all the people. You can say no. But have faith that times will get better. That cliches exist for a reason; they are often universal truths. It’s always darkest before the dawn. Or my other fave, nothing goes away until it teaches you what you need to learn (Pema Chodron).
10. Hope – hope is the broth. The major ingredient of the soup. Without hope is despair. That’s why you stick to your routines and so do your clients. Structure and self discipline work. I have seen it countless times. And drink some water too.
Photo by symphony of love