MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS MONTH RECOGNIZING COUPLES COUNSELORS NEEDS
Mental Health Awareness Month, receiving special recognition during May, seems the opportune time to talk about how Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) not only improves client relationships, but benefits the therapist as well. My own personal story has been a career and transforming experience, and I would like to share it here, in hopes of inspiring/encouraging others.
My parents divorced when I was 9 years old. This was quite an overwhelming emotionally profound experience. Seeing my father leave the home and the despair both of my parents experienced had a big impact on the reason I decided to go into counseling field. Feeling different than all the other kids was so hard for me already a socially awkward child who cared too much about what others thought. My mother remarried, and my stepfather had a son and daughter, both younger than I . They would come to visit every summer and we would spend fun times as a family. We saw each other once or twice a year, and although infrequent, the visits were pleasant and I felt that perhaps we were a family again. However, due to other issues, a difficult relationship between my stepdad and his children and some of our family dynamics, there was a significant disconnect that occurred and we lost touch with them for the rest of my childhood. Occasionally I would hear about my stepfathers son but no word of his daughter. She was not spoken of nor did ever learn until recently what had happened. It was rather strange to say the least. .
A COUPLES COUNSELOR FAMILY IS RECONNECTED BY EFT
My story resumes about 40 years later. Training as an EFT therapist is a quite intensive training typically lasting about one year. This involves a three-stage process:
1. Externship- an introductory weekend about the specialty itself, its principles, and the power of connection and steps in working with someone having relationship issues just to see if emotionally-focused therapy was a fit for you.
2. Core Skills-a year-long program over five weekends, combining educational role plays, theory and practice. Each weekend covers different steps of the emotion-focused therapy model, and on the fifth and final weekend, each therapist presented a case and received feedback. Most participants were already experienced counselors with active practices seeing couples, but what happened in this training was quite unique and transforming to us all.
3. Ongoing supervision- As an EFT therapist you need to demonstrate to other trained EFT therapists your skills. Clients in Emotionally Focused Therapy can be assured they are getting good quality care.
A SURPRISING TURN OF EVENTS
Each weekend covers different steps of the emotionally-focused therapy model, and although most participants were already experienced counselors with active practices seeing couples, what happened in this training was unique and transforming to us all. Our instructor, Lisa Palmer Olsen, well-known in the EFT community, did an incredible job helping our group feel safe together. As therapists, we quickly opened up and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, sharing our own insecurities and current relationships, all in terms of the EFT model.
This experience’s intention was to mimic how we help clients, but in the process, it began not to feel like role-playing. I’m not talking about counter-transference here, but about therapists discussing their opinions of themselves and how they see each other as helping professionals in the role of relationship counselors. Many of us felt absolutely incompetent in this model and began sharing these personal feelings and vulnerabilities with others for the first time. It may be hard to believe but therapist generally don’t do that.
We had to relearn a whole new way of working with couples. As a result, every weekend meeting drew our group closer together, talking more of our personal experiences and history, and we became good friends and colleagues more vulnerable exactly what we would hope for the couples in our offices.
Around that time, Lisa had Dr.Hiroshi Sasaki,PHD present a Skype guest lecture on “the importance of therapist self-care,” . I wanted to send a thank you to him and how important of a lecture it was. I sent him an email thank you via the International Center For Excellence in Emotional Focused Therapy list serve. Shortly after sending the thank you I received an unexpected personal email as a result. Having seen my name posted on the EFT thank you note, a woman wrote to confirm my identity. It turned out to be the stepsister I’d had lost contact with in over 30 years! Hearing from her after all this time touched me deeply, and I wrote back, making the decision to reach out and ask if she wanted to talk. Our initial conversation has led to multiple and regular phone calls, as we reconnected and caught up with each other’s lives. Although not blood-relatives, we share many of the same passions, including our love of dogs and our work as emotion-focused therapists!
MY IMPROVED CONNECTION NOW HELPS OTHERS
For all too many in the counseling profession, training and practice have been solution-focused therapy. It feels too much like a “Band-Aid approach to me,” this mindset is to get the client in and out of care (back to baseline functioning) as quickly as possible. Work of this type can be successful but is not very satisfying or long lasting.
Couples in couples counseling kept coming back to me, while economically not a bad thing but was I really helping ? It makes counselors feel more like an ER doctor than healing those who come to us for help. An essential ingredient of EFT is “you have to follow the emotion in the room” – not the content or conversation– but follow the emotions the couple is experiencing. In the process, the therapist must remain aware of their own feelings as well. Do they feel competent and emotionally stable? Often what triggers a client’s emotional reaction (perhaps a look or a word) might also be a trigger for the therapist too. Therefore, the state of the therapist’s own mental health and self-esteem have a great impact on the outcome of therapeutic sessions.
I truly believe this would not have occurred, had I not been going through EFT training. According to the attachment theory, a lack of stable relationships in early life can cause attachment difficulties in future relationships. Because of feeling disconnected in my own life, I took this timely opportunity to give and receive a gift both my stepsister and I wanted—to feel valued and needed as part of a family. I believe our reconnection has brought more secure relationships, and improves both our lives to this day. This experience has made me both a better person and a competent, well-trained EFT therapist. I believe in its principles, and use them to guide my life and counseling practice daily. Open honest communication, along with sharing emotional vulnerabilities helps us develop safe, close relationships, keeping us connected. This is the magic of emotion-focused therapy: It can greatly benefit clients as well as therapists, if they completely embrace the training and apply it to their own lives. Mental Health Awareness is important for all of us to observe.