Written by Brandy Price Klingman, LCSW–BACS
In my career thus far, I’ve been blessed to have some great mentors, supervisors, and colleagues. These leaders have helped shape me into who I am today through their generosity and knowledge of wisdom. In the spirit of sharing the wealth, here are my favorite tips for new or developing therapists that I have learned from many mentors and supervisors (P.S. I’m naming these great masters to honor them.)
1. Strangers on a Train
An early tip from a great mentor came from my internship’s first supervisor, Butch Robicheaux, LCSW, BACS. I was excited to be interning at this site and had prepared a beautiful binder full of handouts for my clients, covering every topic from coping skills to grief and loss.
I asked him, “What should I do before going into my first individual session?” He looked at my color-coded binder and was kind enough to say, “That’s very nice, but you won’t need that. You will have a conversation in this session. You will speak to this person with sincere curiosity and compassion like a stranger on a train. You don’t need to have anything wise to say because the connection is good enough to start the relationship. You won’t connect with a handout from that binder.”
I often reflect on this “strangers on a train” guidance and smile because I’ve now made my career off of this simple piece of advice. The importance of a connection that comes from the simplest of conversations filled with compassion and curiosity can change the session’s dynamics from ‘therapist driven’ to the ‘client here and now.’ It’s helpful because there are so many problems a client could bring into a session that are out of anyone’s control, and I could never create enough handouts for all those stressors. But, I can always go back to the idea of a conversation with a stranger on a train.
2. Crisis Is Contagious, So Prepare Yourself
One of my first jobs required me to provide psychotherapy to groups of 10-12 people in a partial hospitalization program. I loved this work. I enjoyed and feared these groups. Often these settings had many personalities and a shared struggle of emotion regulation. The job was simple in my mind – find the problem with all the clients, and fix it.
But the issue was complicated because there was always a crisis. Luckily, I’m good at crisis management, and during this time, I considered myself a professional firefighter (always looking for small fires to put out, as I was feeling better and better about my skill set). However, I was exhausted at the end of the day, week, or month, and I knew I would quickly be spent by the end of my career. This must be what they taught us in school about burning out. I understood at this point.
When I discussed this with my clinical supervisor Karen Travis, LCSW, BACS, CGP (even more letters behind her name), I told her how well I was managing these crises, and she asked me how I felt. I described myself as tired, overwhelmed, and anxious. She then told me, “Crisis is contagious girl, and you are catching it.” She discussed the importance of understanding the client’s crisis separate from the therapist’s. She reviewed the importance of not meeting their situation with my crisis of “managing,” “fixing,” or “resolving.” She taught me how to help them explore their concern and process their feelings around it.
Karen also told me the importance of allowing them to sit in the crisis until they were ready to move on. I will forever hear her voice when I think of rescuing my clients in crisis. I now even reposition myself the same way she did when I notice this happening in a session (very relaxed, arms casual on the chair, shoulders back and low, and voice soft, calm and confident). I’m grateful for this lesson as a professional and as a person. It turns out to be great advice for parenting, too!
3. Permission to Feel in the Session
In school, I had a professor, Sherry Smelley, LCSW, who taught a Grief and Dying Class. The class was particularly difficult for me to remain in my cerebral safety zone due to all of the presenters’ vulnerability in sharing their experiences of grief or loss. At one point, I remember a speaker sharing something so sad, the entire class (including me) became tearful. When I asked my professor, “How are we supposed to hear these kinds of stories and not feel too much?” She smiled and said, “Well, honey, you are supposed to feel…you are human. It’s what you do with these feelings that’s important. You’re permitted and even encouraged to feel in these sessions.” She said this with a soft, buttery voice and a southern accent that reminded me of my grandmother.
Permission to feel is vital in our daily work. It is our job in individual therapy to serve our clients in the ways they need, and one of those is by checking in with our feelings, thoughts, and judgments as a barometer of the room and the world concerning them. Our emotions are important and helpful in figuring out ways to serve our patients best to achieve their goals.
This advice is incredibly useful these days due to the overwhelming stressors of current times. I encourage my staff to be mindful of their stress, grief, worry, fear, anger, etc. as they walk into a session. This personal awareness improves their ability to connect to the client in the here and now.
As I write this, I am mindful of so many things my early mentors and supervisors have taught me – I could go on and on. For now, I will stop here, flooded with gratitude for so many great lessons from the masters who took the time to reach out to me. #blessed
About the Author
Brandy Klingman, LCSW-BACS, is a skilled psychotherapist with a small private practice, as well as an owner and operator for mental health and addiction clinics. Her mission is to improve behavioral health standards of care and decrease barriers to accessibility for all. She does this through direct patient care, professional supervision, academic/university affiliations, professional consultations, public speaking, business development, and legislative advocacy. She is a coveted speaker in professional workshops, academic settings, and trainings.