What I Learned about Therapy and Endings from My First Client
By: Paige S. Spangler, BFA, MS, LCPC Elliott Counseling Group
I often think of my very first client when I interned as a graduate student in a clinical counseling program. I did not have prior experience in a mental health setting and I was quite honestly petrified of this brand new experience. I had the great benefit of having a very heartfelt and genuinely open and loving supervisor who taught me everything that I know about play therapy. Her guidance helped me see that my heart could be, and is now, my greatest compass for working with children. We wrote of the experience we had together as she supervised and guided me through working with traumatized children*. We wrote this article several years ago and I want to now reflect on how that experience shaped the therapist that I am now.
The article that I wrote was about the therapeutic relationship I developed with an eight year old girl, whom I referred to in the article as "Sheila". She had been through several foster homes and had been abused and neglected throughout her life. In the beginning of my coursework for the internship experience our professor asked us to write down our fears going into our first time being counselors. One of my fears was that I would become emotional with clients, particularly considering the complex cases I would be encountering. On my last day at my internship site when I had to say goodbye I felt I had a good plan and that I would be able to say a heart-felt goodbye without being overwhelmed. I was mistaken, as this sweet person Sheila really astounded me when we were talking about parting ways.
During our last session, she started using the dry erase board to write me messages like "I will miss you". I reciprocated this and we went back and forth telling one another what our time together had meant. Her messages were kind and thoughtful and I was able to follow her lead. Then she wrote something that hit me in the heart in such a powerful way that her words still ripple in my life. She wrote "I love you for loving me back". When I read her message. I remember stumbling over the words not quite reading it correctly on the first read. Once I got it, it felt like my heart cracked open. Tears started pouring down my cheeks. Sheila then started drawing a face on the dry erase board as she saw that i had become emotional. She added tears on the cheeks of the drawn face. When I explored with her what she was drawing I gathered that she was drawing me. I asked if I could add something to the drawing, and when she agreed I drew a heart with rays of light coming out of it. I told her that even though I was sad today was our last day I was so happy and grateful that I met her and spent such valued time with her. Sheila smiled and then wiped the tears off of the face she had drawn.
In the end, I did the thing I was so scared to do; I was vulnerable and emotional with a client. My supervisor pointed out, when she supervised the tape of this session, that the child had seen someone actually care about saying goodbye to her. She added that this likely had never happened for the child. My supervisor had tears in her eyes as we processed this emotional ending. Looking back, I still am in awe of Sheila's words. They hold such wisdom. She captured the essence of what therapy can be--that someone can feel the love and care the therapist has for them in such a way that is helps them feel more real and capable of returning feelings of love. While the therapist and client relationship is unique in the way that it is one-side with the client being the focus, it is also unique in the depth of heart that can develop. In my relationship with Sheila her words demonstrate that she felt seen and valued, perhaps in a way she has never felt before. I believe that experience helped her become herself more fully, with less fear. This child taught me that the therapist's emotions, health vulnerability, and ability to see the preciousness of the child can lead to a more deeply linked relationship; creating not just a tête-à-tête connection, but a heart to heart one. You can create greater change by knowing someone "by heart" because they won't just know it, they will feel it. That depth can ideally create change for the client and I can say without hesitation that it changed my life greatly. Thanks to Sheila, I continue to use my heart as my compass, and with this, Sheila has created a ripple effect in my life.
You can find the original article here.