As a therapist, I keep learning the lesson that my biggest job is to Just Be There.
They tell you this in grad school, and it’s written in so many of the psychology and therapy books… but sometimes when I experience it in the moment with a client, I am still amazed — and relieved — at how powerful and true it is.
Because also out there are thousands of books, articles, research papers, and courses dedicated to teaching you specific protocols and interventions and techniques and theories. Psychology as a field is still, in many ways, trying to prove itself as a science (when it is in fact a beautiful dance between science and art.)
I geek out about that stuff. It’s interesting and it’s valuable. But the volume of information and rigidity that can come with it are overwhelming (do it this way, not that way), and at times I have looked to books to give me a “recipe” for working with a client when I was struggling with self-doubt and feeling like a fraud. "Who am I to be helping people to get sober, to heal from trauma? If I can remember the specific interventions and questions from this protocol (verbatim!), I can do it. I can follow directions.”
And that’s BS. That’s what leads people to feel like they’re sitting across from a robot, and why many people try therapy once and don’t go back.The clinician is more concerned with “doing it right” than they are with really, truly being there.
I will say that in terms of education, it’s certainly for very good reason that anyone training for any type of counseling work receives boatloads of do’s and don’ts from an ethics standpoint. (Boundaries! Boundaries! And of course, there are clinicians out there who still overstep clear boundaries.) So in that sense, there are some specific conditions and ways of Being There and NOT Being There that have to exist for safety and trust to develop, especially in a clinical setting. But on the whole, the “therapeutic relationship” is touted as being the single most important factor of success in therapy, not which model was used or how well a therapist remembered and executed specific interventions in a specific order. Even then, I have stressed myself out at times, feeling like I have to know the specific recipe for building the Perfect Therapeutic Relationship.
And that’s where Just Being There comes in.
It’s a lesson I’ve learned hundreds of times already in my professional life, and that’s always a work in progress in my personal life, too:
The only thing that really, really matters at the end of the day is that you were there.
One time, a client approached me after a group saying she was overwhelmed with anger and needed help so she didn't take it out on herself or someone else. She wasn't my individual client, but I'd done groups with her. When she asked me for help, the self-doubt crept in : “Why did my co-therapist have to borrow my anger block TODAY? They took all my plastic baseball bats, too? I don't think I have enough of a relationship with this client to be of much help. I wish her therapist were here today. What am I supposed to do?”
So after my brief internal freak-out, I improvised.
I didn’t use any special techniques or fancy interventions. I didn't say any magic insightful words.
I was just THERE, and walked through her pain with her. And what do you know — she felt that, and it helped her. She even mentioned in when she left a month later in the thank-you card she wrote me.
Another important thing to remember: It’s really easy to be physically present without being emotionally present, so we need to define what the latter means. In our culture that is increasingly oriented toward multitasking and suffering from — SQUIRREL! — digital overload, we are forgetting what it really means to be present with another person. I am talking to myself, too. So I want to offer a couple examples of definitions of mindfulness, which can equate with presence and “being there” with someone.
"Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
"Paying attention with openness, curiosity and flexibility.” (Russ Harris)
So your challenge is this: It’s back to basics. Whether you are in a helping profession or not, let your focus today be simply on the quality of your presence. Set the intention to bring curiosity, openness, and non-judgment into your interactions — whether in your work life or your personal relationships.