Beyond Technique: The Transformative Power of Clinician Self-Awareness

monkey holding mirror and seeing his own monkey face

There are countless reasons why it is important to emphasize self-awareness for those providing mental health treatment. In this article, I am going to focus on what I feel are a few of the most essential ones, but before I do, let’s make sure we are on the same page when we talk about self-awareness.

What is Self-Awareness? 

When we talk about the need for therapists to cultivate self-awareness, we’re not talking about a complete or finite knowing of ourselves. Our complexities and ever-changing relationships to the world make this impossible. What we are talking about is a willingness to honestly face ourselves in each new moment. This means having a commitment to feel our feelings, notice our habitual thoughts, and watch the automatic assumptions we make about our clients and ourselves. Self-awareness unfolds when we are willing to look at and accept our  vulnerabilities and understand them as an integral and essential part of the therapeutic work. This sensitivity requires that we cultivate and nurture an ongoing intimacy with ourselves. 

Graduate institutions are required through board regulations to teach a very specific set of courses, primarily covering theory and application. Given these requirements and time constraints, there is very little space left for teaching courses that focus on developing the inner qualities that are so crucial to our work. Even after completing graduate school and maintaining required supervision, students are primarily left on their own to discover who they are and what they bring to the field. As we continue our training to refine our professional expertise, we often fall into the same pattern of attending seminars that fill a particular requirement or address specific disorders or populations, yet overlook the importance of cultivating the inner qualities that create a safe and supportive therapeutic container. 

3 Key Reasons Your Self-Awareness Is a Transformative Force in Your Client’s Treatment

Assuming that we need to be perfectly skilled in order to help our clients grow and heal is unrealistic. While skill and technique are important, our awareness of the mutual impact we have upon each other is as important. There is an inherent assumption we often carry, that because our clients are in therapy, they should be able and willing to face themselves in new and deeper ways. We also assume they should be able and willing to verbally reveal to us what they are discovering. For our clients, like most of us, this type of internal and relational experience is a vulnerable one that requires tremendous trust in self and others. 

A client’s vulnerability might be mistaken as “guardedness” which we could perceive as resistance to treatment, if we are not paying exquisite attention to trust building. Ongoing guardedness can be a client’s way of expressing that not enough shared trust has been built in order to go further. Guardedness can also be a way for clients to show that their clinician may be playing out unaware racism, classism, sexism, male domination, gender biases, homophobia, or other forms of oppression. Because of the presence of unequal institutionalized power dynamics, clients very rarely come forward and tell clinicians that they are feeling oppressed, misunderstood, or untrusting of the relationship. Whether they are experiencing the clinician as acting out unaware biases, internalized oppression, or as blinded by positions of privilege or power, trust is impacted.

I see it as our job to become self-aware and proactive in understanding the ways we have been socially conditioned and how that conditioning affects not only our clinical and collegial relationships, but all of our relationships.

Cultivating this kind of self-awareness, along with our willingness to take emotional risks, will help us to naturally find our own unique ways to build and sustain therapeutic trust. 

While we don’t have to be an expert, there are many ways in which our own self-awareness and vulnerability can help build and deepen trust, while serving as a transformative force in people’s lives. Here are three that I feel are important.

1. Self-Awareness Builds Relational Trust

 If, as a client, I sense that my therapist is doing the work of truly getting to know themselves, by showing a willingness to suspend their ingrained beliefs, preconceptions, and strong attachments to their personal identities, I feel trusting they are open minded and capable enough to help me do the same. If I see that my therapist is willing to take emotional risks by admitting mistakes, moments of over attachment, moments of losing focus, or having too narrow a focus, I am more trusting in them as a person, and in their ability to have a conscious and effective relationship with me. 

When we can witness ourselves, and be aware of the moments we are too strongly driven by personal agendas or fixed ideas about what our clients are needing, we are then more able to let go and open to the natural unfolding of the client’s moment to moment experience. As we open to the spaciousness of a less biased presence, we have more access to our intuition and are able to receive information and guidance that can lead us to deepen an organic process.   

2. Self-Awareness Helps Us To Be More Effective Clinicians  

It is difficult to navigate the inevitable projections, rough spots, and misunderstandings that arise within the transference and countertransference dynamics without deep self-awareness. The more we notice and care for our own emotional and psychological triggers, the less likely we are to project our sensitivities, conflicts, and confusion onto our clients. Because we are less driven by our own wounds, our judgement is clearer and therefore, we are less likely to re-traumatize our clients by repeating the same kinds of emotional injuries that they came to therapy for in the first place. If we do or say something that feels injurious to our clients, are open enough to sense the injury and our possible contribution to it, we are emotionally joining our clients, and naturally heal the distance that has occurred. With the accumulative internal resources we are building by staying deeply connected to ourselves, we are more able to foster a healthy relationship repair. We are thus modeling our mutual abilities to bare, recover from, and transform relational conflicts. 

3. Self-Awareness Fosters Our Ability To Stay With Process Rather Than Jump To Immediate Solution

Without self-awareness, we would not notice the subtle changes in our bodies and minds when we are faced with our clients’ struggles. While there are times when people come in with crises and issues that necessitate immediate solution-based responses, there are many situations that, if time allows, would be better suited to a gradual unfolding of internal process.        

Think about the many times in your therapeutic work, you have grasped for a quick solution because you wanted to eliminate your own or your client’s pain, only to find that you were becoming drained by the expectations you were putting on yourself. When we resist our tendency to quickly resolve an issue, we lessen the internal pressure and potential burnout that is a consequence of this expectation. Clients benefit because they are given more time and psychic space to face and embrace their experiences while we guide them in finding their own unique pathways toward healing and strength. 

Did You Know?

Courses at Inner Science Institute are created with the intention of helping clinicians increase self-awareness and deepen therapeutic presence. If you want to be engaged in a transformative process that has as much potential to deepen your experience of yourself as it is to learn important clinical skills, feel free to check out our courses to find out more or sign up for our email list at the bottom of our home page, where you will receive the latest updates. 

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Deborah has degrees and training in integral counseling psychology, psychological process work, re-evaluation counseling, and extensive experience in all phases of addiction treatment. Since 1995, while teaching and mentoring pre-professionals in the field community mental health, Deborah expanded services by developing and running practicum sites. She has also created avenues to advance cultural competency, address stress and vicarious trauma, and encourage comprehensive grief support. Throughout her career, Deborah has respected and addressed the practical realities of life alongside deeper identity and soul-searching aspects of therapeutic work. To find out more about her psychotherapy practice, go to www.deborahyarockmft.com.