Supervision should not feel scary

I’ve often wondered what drives therapists to avoid supervision. I see examples of it often. There have been times in my career where I have found myself  avoiding it also, preferring to stay comfortable with my peer supervisor rather than engage formal supervision.

I recently completed some training with Kathy Steele and Dolores Mosquera, experts on dissociative disorders and EMDR. What stuck with me was Kathy Steele’s  repeated comments about therapists  needing supervision and their own therapy when working with dissociative disorders because we all have stuff and if any client was going to activate our stuff it would be someone with parts. 

Kathy also talked about the need for regular non-judgemental supervision because of the countertransference. Kathy’s emphasis on the need to find someone who is very non-judgemental hit home.

Because I think many therapists have experienced judgement in supervision. Some supervisors and colleagues in team case reviews can have a superior or even have a scolding approach to case review and reflection. In some work environments team case review seems to replace individual supervision, which is generally but not always a much safer and focused experience.

Very often in the training years therapists don’t get to choose who supervises them. Supervisors are allocated by a university, a training placement or by a workplace. In these instances if you land a scolding or critical supervisor many training therapists just make the decision to try to survive it as they worry about the impact on their career long term if they say anything about it to the supervisor or university coordinator. Or maybe the job  requires the supervision set up and you don’t want to lose the job. And so, understandably so, you choose endure it.

Is it any wonder that some therapists avoid supervision after an experience like this? In training you might be encouraged to think that it is all “grist for the mill”, but at what cost did this particular lot of “grist” come at? If instead of thinking “this is an experience to grow as a therapist and support my clients the best I can” you are thinking “this is where I’m going to have to defend myself or get told off” is it any wonder supervision becomes an avoidance exercise?

If a supervisor (or a colleague in a team meeting) is often picky, scolding or critical, it’s can be helpful to see it as their coping style. Providing supervision for some people tends to evoke anxiety about the responsibility of the work of others and they don’t feel in control. Also, not every supervisor loves to supervise. Some simply have to as part of a senior work role.

As a therapist, you need to be able to receive guidance and feedback. Supervision is unhelpful if someone says everything you do is awesome. Growth doesn’t come from that place either. And that comes to the other thing that interferes with accessing supervisory support: your schemas.

Some schemas can make trusting hard or feedback difficult to receive with openness. Or maybe you feel too needy for accessing regular support, you believe that by now you should be able to cope on your own. Maybe you think regular supervision signals incompetence or a lack of autonomy. These schemas can than drive a pretty nasty critic.

Perhaps you mistakenly pre-empt a supervisor’s judgement because you have already harshly criticised and judged yourself. This can make anyone dread supervision. I often catch my supervisees inner critics saying very harsh things and untrue things about their work and abilities. Your inner critic is likely way harsher on you than your supervisor will be, but it’s hard to believe that if you spend a lot of time engaged with your critic.

Or maybe your supervisor is very experienced or a known expert. You may have glorified them in your mind to be someone who never experiences not knowing what to do or as someone who never makes a therapeutic error. If so you might believe your supervisor won’t relate to your challenges. (There was a lovely moment in the training where Kathy Steele said several times a week she has moments where she thinks I don’t know what to do therapeutically in the next moment. Although this is something I normalise for my supervisees because I experience this too, I took comfort in Kathy’s words as I had become in awe of her about 30 minutes into the training and was starting to build a narrative that she seemed unflappable).

If you have been skittish of supervision because of bad experiences or fear of judgment, it’s time to work on that. Not just for your clients, but for you. Allow yourself to benefit from the support. 

Start by looking for recommendations for a non-judgemental supervisor who will work well with you. It’s time to redefine supervision as growth and support not an exercise in fault finding. If you get stuck with this step because your avoidance remains strong or some of your supervision experiences have felt traumatic, consider processing it individual therapy.

Supervision is about growth and clarity not scolding and criticism Supervision should not feel scary.

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