Borealis: Supporting the Northern Therapist

by Seamus O’Kane

We call our support group ‘Borealis’ in reference to our Northern situation. I don’t think we were fully aware of the importance of the support group we were beginning. Rather I believe that a deeper sub-conscious sense of the loneliness of psychotherapy and the demands that this work would place on us personally was motivating us to come together as a support for each other. All four of us had studied – at different times, – in the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre, Gardiner Street. Whilst the training programme had both high and low moments, we were aware of the supportive environment it offered. However graduation meant the end of that, – especially for those of us from the Northern part of the country, for whom the three or four hour journey to Dublin limited the possibility of contact with peers.

On reflection, we were probably trying to recreate the safety and supportiveness of the training course in our new post-training environment. We took it in turns to facilitate the monthly meeting. At first we each brought our own specific areas of interest and expertise, creating experiential workshops for each other. We later learned to let go of these structures and focus on process as it emerged in the group. Over the past three years we have experienced a blend of experiential sessions, peer supervision, and attending to the process of the group. At the core of it all has always been the basic ethos that we gather to support each other in our lives and in our work. The content of our sessions is secondary to the task of mutual support.

If therapists’ needs for support are not recognised and addressed consciously, they may be forced into the shadow, from where they will act out unconsciously.  There is a risk that these needs might find their way into the therapist-client relationship.

“Therapists are often solitary, spending all their working hours cloistered in one to one sessions and rarely seeing colleagues. There is so much intimacy in one to one work with clients,  but it is an intimacy that is insufficient to support the therapist’s life”  (Yalom 2004).

In view of these dangers, it seems imperative for the therapist to have his or her own support structure in place. The support of supervision, whilst valuable, is only an hour in the fortnight and is usually focussed on the clients’ needs rather than those of the therapist. The therapist support group is one way of addressing these needs.

Thus far, Borealis had been a source of professional and personal support for the four of us.  We began to explore the possibility that it might also serve to support the whole ethos of humanistic and integrative psychotherapy in the North.  We envisioned ourselves seeking out on-going training for ourselves and inviting other therapists who might want to join us.  Our first venture was to invite Robert Lee of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland to facilitate us in his workshop ‘The Voice of Shame’. Eighteen other therapists and counsellors joined with us for that first workshop. We were amazed at the response and the felt need among the therapists for connection and support. We were even more amazed when Robert began to explain his understanding of shame.

Shame and support are opposites. In childhood we used shame as a device to protect ourselves from the hurt and pain of not being supported in our needs. It was a way by which we could pull back from contact with other people when we felt that those people were going to let us down in some way.  As such it was a useful tool, and even in adulthood shame can be an indicator that our needs may not be met – that we are not going to be supported.

“Thus in general, shame is a major regulator of the boundary between ‘self’ and ‘other’”  (Lee 1995).

However, the shame we experience may not be originating from our present situation, but may be the result of an introjected message from the past. Our earlier experience may have taught us  “that a felt need or part of the self is not acceptable…Thus the person loses a ‘voice’ for the part of his or her being that has become linked with shame” (ibid). When we approach that need or part of ourselves, the shame will be triggered. The shame causes us to withdraw from relationship. We break the contact and retreat into ourselves to a familiar place of hurt and loss. Sometimes we also defend ourselves from the perceived threat by lashing out at the other person and thus initiate a mutually shaming encounter.

The antidote is support.  If we experience support, – especially at the onset of the shame – then perhaps we can remain in contact.  The focus of Robert’s workshop was on how as therapists we can offer support to our clients, especially when they experience a need that has been disowned through shame.  Through support we can invite the client to remain in the relationship and give voice to that need or part of themselves that had been shamed. But what of the therapist, and his or her own needs?

Weinberg (1996) suggests that many therapists may not have received the love they needed in childhood and that the attraction to therapeutic work may contain a deep desire to have these needs met. Perhaps this is a need which has been shamed in many of us. Therapists may need support to allow that deep need to be voiced. I have outlined the growth of our own support group ‘Borealis’. I guess that there may be other such groups around the country in which therapists seek legitimate and creative ways of addressing their own needs for support and nurture. Over the coming year we will once again be opening our training weekends to other therapists who want to join us. Our hope is that our gatherings will not only offer insight and training, but will be an opportunity for therapists to give and receive the support we all need.   Our schedule for the coming year is advertised elsewhere in Inside Out, and we can be contacted at  borealisgroup@aol.com.

Seamus O’Kane is a therapist in private practice in Northern Ireland and is a member of Borealis, along with Enda McCloskey, Anne Mullin and Bronagh Starrs.

Bibliography:

Lee, Robert G. (1995)  ‘Gestalt and Shame:  The Foundation for a clearer understanding of Field dynamics’ in The British Gestalt Journal, 4 (1) 14 – 22

Weinberg, G. (1996) The Heart of Psychotherapy, New York:  St. Martins Press.

Yalom, I.  (2004) The Gift of Therapy, London: Piatkus.