Why clinical supervision is your number one self-care tool

Excuse me? What’s that, you say? Clinical supervision is compulsory?

Counsellor with her supervisor
Counselling supervision

When I started training as a counsellor and began to learn about all the different professional obligations that came with it, I have to admit, I was shocked.

I recall feeling quite aggrieved at having to have my photo signed by my GP to confirm my identity  – just to join my professional body as a student member. “This is ludicrous”, I complained. “I’ve just spent hundreds of pounds on a training course. Surely that proves my commitment and trustworthiness to being a good counsellor, doesn’t it?”

Alas, no it didn’t. And perhaps, looking back now, maybe it shouldn’t.

Professional obligations. SO many professional obligations

counsellor attending clinical supervision
Counsellor with her supervisor

I remember my tutor explaining that, joining a professional body, getting appropriate insurance and having clinical supervision all existed to ensure the safe practice of therapists, thereby keeping clients safe. Most of what we were taught actually, was focused on the client: ‘keeping them safe, doing no harm, best interests of.’

What we didn’t seem to place too much focus on was our own self-care.  There were occasions during group exercises, triage and pair work where our tutors would caution us… “Keep yourself safe” – …and we did understand what that meant. (To really consider what you were disclosing and how far to take that. Really thinking about what you might be opening up.)

But what we didn’t talk about what was self-care looked like outside of the classroom.  I certainly didn’t grasp just how vitally important clinical supervision is in the counsellors’ self-care process.

Back then, getting a clinical supervisor, was just one more professional obligation to fulfill, another box to tick, another stamp of approval. Another cost! I recall likening it to ‘a pyramid scheme’ and my opinion didn’t improve; when with trepidation I approached my first clinical supervision session.

Supervision Virgin

I had managed to secure a great placement who had in turn, ‘provided’ me a clinical supervisor.

Her: “Right, talk me through your first session with your client, from the start.”

Me: “Well…I got a call from reception to let me know my client was here. (They were bang on time.) I went into reception, smiled, made eye contact, introduced myself and shook their hand.”

Her: “Why did you shake their hand?”

Me: *Baffled* “Erm..I just introduced myself, said hello…like you do?”

Her: “What If they didn’t want to shake your hand? What if they don’t like being touched? What if that was crossing a boundary?”

Me: *Sheepishly* “It didn’t occur to me…we ‘ve practiced in college and…”

Her: “Is that what they taught you in college?”

Me: *Hesitant now* “Well, no. Not that exactly. They didn’t specifically say to shake hands. It’s just what people do, isn’t it? I mean…in business…”

She took a long drawn breath after which, sixty minutes of ‘hand-shake etiquette’ dissection ensued.

(Counsellors are really good at this. Taking an ordinary everyday thing, deconstructing it and by virtue, making it enormously important.)

I can’t lie; by the end of the session I was completely, hand-wringingly, wrung out. I left the room and headed quickly to the safety of my car where I could free the tears embarrassingly prickling the backs of my eyes.

Imposter syndrome

If you’re a counsellor reading this, then I don’t think I need to introduce you to “imposter syndrome” and how so many of us worry that, one day, somehow and somewhere – we’ll be “found out” – caught bang to rights in the sheer audacity of thinking that we could possibly have something of worth to offer another human being.

Well, it happened to me at my very first clinical supervision session. (Way to go, Gerry.) I was crushed.

I contacted my peers to relay the disaster, seeking some reassurance that I was, in fact, ok at this counselling malarkey. They were reassuring… encouraging… supportive. But what did they know? They were all as bad as me. We were all going to ‘hell on a handcart’.

Session two. This time, the session took a more positive turn. My supervisor invited me to talk about my hopes and my aspirations for my futures career as a counsellor.  This was better. With great enthusiasm, I told her of how I dreamed of starting my own counselling agency one day.

Again. The long-drawn-breath.

She: “…could not possibly ever contemplate taking money from a person to help them with their distress. How did I think I would feel about that?”

Again, I was aghast. What kind of terrible person was I? Firstly, mauling my clients by shaking their hands without consent and now worse, taking money from them when they were at their most distressed.

I clearly, seriously needed to review and reset my moral compass.

And then…something changed. It was such a simple change in our relationship really.

Giving in and just being

Having reached something of an impasse and each feeling a little frustrated with the other. We sat back, relaxed and just talked.

She told me about her history and background, both personal and career. I learned all about where she’d come from and the things she’d seen and done.

She shared how she’d been there in the early stages of one of the top helping services in the country and how she’d inputted to help it become established and grow. She talked about how she’d worked with some of the most vulnerable and marginalized clients in the UK (sometimes with an interpreter) and how recently she’d had to go to court to support one of her client’s case. She’d enjoyed a fascinating work history.

I was impressed, to say the least. (In awe, in fact.) But, that aside, it served to shift our relationship, allowing sight of what wonderful experience she brought to bear and how much I could learn from her. (This felt important to me at the time.)

It also helped me to look at my process in the relationship and to stop and think about what my expectations for supervision might be. Looking back now, I think that perhaps I was expecting this great guru to step up and “show me the way”.   Completely unrealistic for her to deliver of course.

Reflection: Having written the above, I’m wondering now if there was some unconscious responding (on her part) to my need for a guru – hence the career history. Interesting also for me to look at how my esteem for her raised after she told me of her ‘successes’. Twelve years of personal development later, this feels shallow.

Ah! Now I get it.

But…I was able, after this initial floundering, to get a clear picture in my head of what it was I wanted from supervision. More importantly – I was able to express it to my supervisor. I wanted her to teach and guide me, find my blind spots, challenge me, stretch me, help me to look at things from different angles, introduce new angles, concepts, ideas, keep me on track in my career.

Note: None of the things described by my tutor. (Stuff the clients – this was about me!) *Jokes*

But seriously, it was about me. It was about learning to be the best ‘me’ I could be – for the ‘benefit’ of my clients.  (And still to this day.)

Supervision is my safe place. The place I can go every month to talk about my hopes, my dreams, my successes, my failures and my disappointments. I’m still trying to be the best ‘me’ I can be. I’m still plotting and planning and looking for new angles and ideas for how to do things more effectively and creatively – for the benefit of my clients.

To have a colleague with whom to confidentially bounce those ideas around is a precious gift. To myself. And, my number one self-care tool.