I’ve been thinking about this process of counseling – The kind of trust my clients place in me. The kind of trust people are considering placing in me when they come in to see me, to decide if we’re a good match.
As far as letting clients down — all counselors do at some point. It’s part of relationships.
I tell my clients this too. Because, if you come to see me, I will, at some point, in some moment, let you down — in some way. I’ll make a joke at a moment when you’re feeling very serious, and it will fall flat and leave you feeling unheard. I will reflect on a feeling or thought you seem to be having, and I’ll be wrong.
Here’s the good news: A lot of the cool stuff in counseling happens after your counselor makes a mistake, and you talk about it together.
For example, I notice that I hit the wrong chord. I ask you about it, or reflect on it — “Ah, when I said that, you pulled back. That wasn’t quite right, was it?”
And if I don’t notice it right away but you tell me about it, I’ll listen. I’ll hear you. I’ll work to make sure I understand where I missed you, where I missed your true meaning.
Babette Rothschild, in her book, “The Body Remembers” (It’s a book about trauma therapy with lots of great tools I use all the time.), talks about one of the most fundamental pieces to therapy for relational trauma (That’s stuff that happened when you were young that makes it hard to trust others, including a therapist.):
- Attunement — That’s where you and I really understand each other. I feel what you’re feeling. You can feel that I understand you. We’re in good rapport.
- Misattunement — That’s where I miss something, or you suddenly feel kinda freaked out by something I say. You may feel lost or angry or unheard for a moment. We’re “out of sync”.
- Reattunement — This is where the really good stuff happens. This is where you get to find out that a person can miss something in one moment — that you can feel out of sync — and that we can get back on track. (This, by the way, is what happens over and over again between a young child and a “good enough” parent — the connection isn’t perfect and unbroken, but it’s good enough that a harsh word or a missed connection here or there won’t damage the relationship, and the child can grow up feeling secure, wanted, and confident in the world.)
This three step process may be one of the most important things that happens in the therapy relationship. That second part, those misattunements — they don’t feel great for client or therapist. But if you can tell your counselor when you’re angry or sad or feel missed, and you can really sense that connection between you and that person — and you can feel that they hear you and are willing to respond to your needs —
When this happens between a client and me, we have a chance of helping them to find that sense of connection that’s so fundamental to feeling secure out in the world, where we disconnect from each other frequently — but where we also have the capacity to connect in so many ways on so many levels every day. And where we can also learn to begin to notice which relationship ruptures can be repaired, and in which relationships it’s best to set new boundaries.
If you see me, there will be moments where something in the relationship feels a little off. And then, there will be moments where we understand each other and are in tune again. Over time, you’ll come to trust that I’ll be here for you and I’ll “get it,” as best I can.
And that will make those moments of misattunement less troublesome — with both me and others.
I guarantee you that none of us will get it right all the time. But, with the right communication between you and your therapist, you can find a deep sense of connection and understanding that will follow you into the rest of your life.