Two years of graduate school, traineeship, internship, 3000 client hours, and the test. This is the universal path of a pre-licensee. From the time we set forth down this path by entering graduate school, we are bombarded with the task of absorbing and synthesizing huge amounts of information. We are introduced to a plethora of therapeutic models, diagnostic techniques, legal and ethical regulations and historical references.
On top of that is the ever-lurking specter of mounting paperwork, which is only hinted at by our experiences with graduate school papers and theses. It can be a dizzying experience. With all of this focus on theoretical principles and academic structure, it is dangerously easy for one enormously important principle of successful therapy, which isn’t found in any book, to be overlooked and neglected.
I remember when I was first contemplating going to graduate school to pursue my Master’s Degree in psychology. I had misgivings about whether it was the right move for me. I had years of experience volunteering as a group facilitator in the HIV/AIDS community. I had enjoyed and been fulfilled by those experiences and I knew from past successes that I had the ability to help people work through the challenges they faced in their lives.
Despite this, I was unsure about whether I would make a great therapist, so I brought those doubts to my own therapist. I told her I was thinking of going back to school to pursue a degree in psychology. Because I respected her so much as a therapist, I shared my concerns with her and asked for her insight on what it takes to be a good therapist? The answer she shared wasn’t what I was expecting but it stayed with me during the entire process of my schooling.
In her view, the most important quality that great therapists possess is the ability to listen to and follow their own intuition. She said that intuition is a natural gift and it is one of the greatest assets a therapist can bring into any client relationship. Intuition is an innate talent. Through schooling, we learn many tools that support our efforts as therapists but it is that intuition that allows us to make sense of all of the facts and figures we gather in the academic setting. In other words learn lots in school but as you cultivate your knowledge base remember to bring all of yourself, all of your tangible and abstract talents to the table so that you can develop into the best therapist possible. I listened carefully to her and filed the information away.
The further along I got in my studies, the more I realized how profound her advice was. No matter how much I read, researched, and studied, I was only going to get so far on knowledge alone. It was that quality of instinct, that intuition that she had referred to that day that would be the key to turning a thorough education into a thriving practice.
As I mentioned before, in school we are exposed to an array of theories, systems and practices that form the fundamental foundation of knowledge that we need to begin a career in therapy. We learn about family systems, group dynamics, schools of theory, triangling, how to write in APA style and other important concepts.
As I moved through this process, I kept my therapist’s advice in the front of my mind. I remember trying on each school of theory to see how it resonated with my personal style, wondering whether it was a good match. I let my instincts and intuition guide me. I also observed many of my fellow students getting caught up in the “I have to do it right “ syndrome, even when what the book or professor identified as, “the right way,” seemed to conflict with their instincts. The more caught up they became in trying to conform at all costs to the academic standard, the more confused they got about their place in the therapeutic world. There were several of my fellow students who became very good at dealing with the pressure of academic anxiety and mastered the fine art of test taking.
But, as we all learn sooner or later, sitting one on one with a client is not like taking a multiple-choice test with a right answer. Often, we find in those situations that the answer is “none of the above.” It is in these moments when we realize that something more than knowledge is required to bring that intangible quality into the therapeutic environment that allows us to do our most genuine and effective work.
In the practice of therapy, intuition can assist us in piecing together the experiences of a client so that we can open up a dialogue that leads to a deeper level of understanding. It is how we are able to bring insight into the therapy room for both our clients and ourselves. The best way I can describe my experience of therapeutic intuition is to compare it to Spiderman’s “Spidey Sense.” It happens when I am with a client and suddenly, I know there is more going on than what is on the surface and the hair on the back of my head begins to rise.
It is at this point when intuition can invite the therapist to ask the question that might move therapy to the next level. Sometimes it is just the recognition that something is not quite right in the moment that prompts working together with the client to discover what that something is. By maintaining an open-minded, non-judgmental attitude, intuition can open the door to valid solutions to difficult problems and decision-making.
It is also important to realize that the knowledge base from our schooling is not something we put aside and just blindly follow intuition wherever it made lead. This would be harmful to our clients and eliminate our ability to develop treatment plans and goal setting in the therapeutic alliance. In his 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig states, “The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something that you actually don't." This concept balances out that need for a deep knowledge base with that sense of self that influences all of our relationships.
So how do we travel through the journey of school and maintain our intuition? How do we hone a skill that is more abstract than quantifiable? One way, according to Diane Lee, clinical director of Cal Fam, is “not to let them teach the you out of you. It is important to learn all that school has to offer you and at the same time maintain your unique abilities. Most people are attracted to this work to develop a skill they already possess. It is important not to let you natural talent be trained out of you.”
To build on your unique abilities pay attention to the opportunities that arise in the school setting. The professors we work with in school have years of experience and are still active in the field. By creating mentor relationships you can learn how to best maintain your own personal sense of intuition while learning the skills necessary to understand the dynamics of what takes place in a therapy session.
Another way of looking at this challenge is to know that there is a need for each and every kind of therapist out in the world. Clients react most strongly to relationship in building a therapeutic alliance and where one client might respond very well to a particular therapist another might not because he or she has a different set of needs. This is not about knowledge or form; this decision is based on gut reaction. Clients will use their own style of intuition to recognize the potential of a therapist to address their needs and we as therapists must learn to recognize and respect that process.
So it is important to bring intuition, to bring ourselves fully into the alliance we create with our clients supported by the mantle of a focused and in depth knowledge base. Merging knowledge with intuition is similar to putting on a new jacket. At first the jacket of new knowledge may feel a little uncomfortable over the body of personal intuition. It might feel tight in some areas and a little loose in others. But over time the jacket becomes more comfortable and adjusts to your body and the way you move. In the same way, your education becomes more integrated with you and your intuitive style. You begin to understand instinctively when to stick to the books and when to veer off and experiment. Eventually, the jacket becomes warm, comfortable and familiar, like a second skin. This is the process that allows us to become complete and whole in our therapeutic role as we guide our clients to become whole and complete in their lives.