Musings and Articles by CST Associates and Partners
If we never embark on edgy or experimental strategies, we risk becoming stuck in the work and limit what we can offer our clients
If your supervisor asked, ‘How are you resiling right now?’ it would sound like an odd question, but in the context of supervision it’s actually a regular and familiar enquiry – we just put it in different language. What might we be doing when we resile?
When we resist things, we can usually figure out what’s being resisted and why – on reflection, if not immediately – and we can become more conscious of how the resisting is done and what, if anything, can be changed for the better. To describe, understand and appreciate your action of ‘resistance’ involves using active verbs: you block, defy, turn against, push away, and so on. The fact that as a profession we haven’t taken the verb ‘to resile’ into our customary lexicon could be significant in this respect. When you think of yourself resiling, what actions come to mind?
I will resist a tasty etymological digression at this point, except to note that ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin resilire, meaning ‘leap back’ or ‘rebound’. I like that – a definite sense of movement there – and it also connects the action of being resilient to the vital concept of boundary.
In supervision, we tend to bang on about the importance of maintaining clear boundaries of all kinds, and properly so. But consider this: in actual practice, a great deal of effective work is done right at the very edge of, or just beyond, a boundary of some sort, despite – or perhaps due to – the counsellor feeling pulled out of shape by the process. Tight boundaries are good, and slack ones are bad. All the same, I can imagine an inflexible, rigidly boundaried practitioner missing out developmentally and therapeutically by never embarking on ‘edgy’ or experimental strategies, avoiding all leaps in the dark, not risking any creatively spontaneous interventions, and thereby often becoming ‘stuck’ in the work with clients.
I know that endurance of being-in-stuckness is sometimes necessary in longer-term therapy and can often be the start of a truly liberating movement in the client. But, if a therapist or supervisor or any practitioner becomes an expert ‘stuckist’ – too set in their ways, impervious to innovation and dismissive of novelty – then I would say they are almost certainly limiting or diminishing what they can offer to their clients and colleagues. Moreover, they increase their susceptibility to boredom.
One of my supervisees (who isn’t at all boring and has let me use, anonymously, what follows here) told me about a long-term client he called ‘a permanently stressed-out workaholic’. For session after session this client seemed to rebuff all possibility for change in his life. There were no apparent shifts in perspective, no new behaviours, no fresh insights, no reframing of anything at all. Now you might be thinking ‘resistant client’ and/or ‘bored counsellor’. And both of them, you could say, were showing true resilience: the client kept rebounding by coming to every session in exactly the same shape each week; and the counsellor was always dutifully prepared and held the space for him reliably and regularly every time.
In supervision, the counsellor talked about sitting back with the client (often but not always a sensible position when things feel immoveable) and claimed not to be bored or frustrated – but I certainly was, and after a while did not resist saying so. My willingness toresile, to continue to return again and again to all this unchanging sameness, was rapidly fading. How come? With my supervisee’s agreement, I sat in a different chair and voiced my feelings about the situation as if I were the client. By opening up the parallel process in this way, we realised it was more a case of ‘bored client’ and ‘resistant counsellor’. That’s over-simplifying the dynamic, but essentially my supervisee discovered that, distracted by the permanent array of presenting problems, he had been unconsciously resisting a deeper relational connection to the client, who we guessed (correctly as it turned out) was really desperate for closeness. The client had assumed he couldn’t get that quality of relationship without keeping a tight grip on all his many issues; although he was totally fed up with suffering them, he believed they made him worthy of being bothered with, as if he was nothing without them. So, a paradox became clear: due to his phenomenal resilience, he wasn’t getting what he needed from therapy. The notion that resistance and resilience are concurrent or convergent actions, which I think this brief story illustrates, does not mean they are identical or never separate. For example, resistance can often be absolutely non-negotiable. Some things in your professional life must be resisted in order to maintain safe boundaries – no ifs and buts, no excuses. When in doubt, your safety as a private practitioner is enhanced if you take to supervision what it is you feel you’re resisting and what you wonder if you might be resisting, so you can then discern whether your resistance is in the service of your clients or detrimental to them. This ethical enquiry has a clear effect on the nature of your subsequent resiling: do you return to the client exactly as before or do you rebound in a different way with either a boldly revised or a subtly altered view of the client? I think that is essentially what it means to resile