The role of a psychotherapist’s supervisor

Wow, I just received a sharp rebuttal for an article I wrote about writing to build your counselling/psychotherapy practice. The individual wanted me to know that she was ‘outraged’ that I had implied that marketing advice was a part of the role of a psychotherapist’s supervisor.

So what is their role?

The textbook definition is that they are there to protect the therapist’s clients.

OK, that’s fine and there are many ways to achieve this. In my experience, though this is only a small part of the role. Especially in the early stages of a counselling career, there may be a need to review every client in a selective but ‘verbatim’ manner. (He said; I said etc) However, this need should soon evaporate and the dialogue can become more expansive.

The four areas that I find most therapists relish are aspects of personal therapy, work around their impact and presence in the world generally, developing their personal brand of therapy, and how to take themselves to market.

Personal Therapy

We are all aware that (from time-to-time, at least, all the time, perhaps) clients bring the material that has some relevance to the therapist themselves. If the therapist is in personal therapy on a regular basis, then they can, of course, take this material to those sessions, but the reality is that many practising therapists stopped this some time ago. It is in both the interests of the client and the therapist to work on this in supervision. Of course, it can go deep and that might either mean that the supervision contract needs reviewing, or that the individual decides to go back into personal therapy, but either way, the starting point is in supervision.

Expanding their worldly influence

Therapists chose to study and qualify because they had issues with their own history. This is one of the reasons why therapy training lasts so long! We can’t be effective until we find some resolution for this material. Relatively few people seek help because they are highly socially outgoing and feel confident in public! (That isn’t to say that all people who sustain a strong public profile ARE confident – we all know that most comedians and many entertainers have a long history of personal trauma and mental health crises.) Once an inner resolution is achieved to this, and the therapist finds that they have the resources to offer something to their clients, then I tend to find that they become restless and want to have a greater impact still. I don’t think it is any coincidence that many leading psychotherapists, past and present, take a strong interest, and become involved, in social change and politics. As someone with whom they have a personal relationship, who understands their professional pedigree, and who has the skills to help them find a voice for this drive, the supervisor is an obvious choice of support. As this often embraces their perspective on clients and their issues too, it again seems to me to be perfectly right for it to form a part of the role of a supervisor. Putting it another way, if a therapist DOESN’T feel a desire to expand their sphere of influence, at least to some degree, then I would be worried that they had not actually found an inner resolution to their own issues and might need to work on them more.

Developing a personal brand of therapy

Straight from training, a lot of therapists fret that they might break some rules, don’t fully understand the subject, can’t perform perfectly and so on. That’s understandable. Some idolise their particular training ‘guru’ – past or present. It slightly frightens me how many graduates go back to their original school, still in love with their trainers, and manage to have affairs with them – which is an indictment of the trainers rather than the graduates, but also reflects pretty poorly on the training itself. But I digress… putting idolatry to one side… Freud, Jung, Adler, etc, all started out as a student, graduated, continued to learn, developed the confidence to assert their own ideas, and did so. They developed a personal brand of therapy. Every practising therapist needs a personal brand. In my experience, far too many therapists complain that they don’t get many clients and yet when you look at their literature and their approach to marketing themselves the image is so cloudy and so confused that no-one seeking clarity (which most clients are) would consider going to them. To do this in isolation is likely to yield to either intellectually interesting but practically useless outpourings, or to dangerous distortions. To do so in dialogue is likely to mature and enrich these personal ideas and themes. Freud and Jung might have fallen out – for which they are famous – but the important thing was that they were engaged in dialogue beforehand which helped them each develop their perspectives. Of course, you needn’t use your supervisor for this nurturing of ideas, and some supervisors themselves find it hard to do, but personally, I see it as an important aspect of the work. The supervisor is a part of the mechanism of the ongoing professional development of the therapist and if they aren’t up to enhancing the intellectual grasp of their supervisee’s practice then I wonder why they are a supervisor.

Helping the therapist go to market

And so to the original reason for this article… Should the supervisor help their supervisee develop their marketing plan and take themselves to market? Clients are protected best by having an experienced therapist with well-founded confidence and clarity of mind. They achieve this through practise. You practise by having clients – therefore you need clients. If a supervisor is to help you achieve your best, they need to help you find sufficient clients. Some will be able to do this by virtue of their position – supervisors at ‘centres’ usually have responsibility for referrals – some will do so with clients they can’t accommodate in their own private practice – others will help the supervisee develop their own marketing plan and help them put it into place. Whatever the means, a therapist without clients is not going to keep coming to the supervisor for long, so it is in both parties interests for the supervisor to embrace this as a part of their role.

I hope that explains how I see my role as a supervisor, and how I experience my own supervisor. If it offends anyone, I am sorry, but there really are no black and white areas in the fields of human relations and perhaps it would be worth your while exploring where your own models have come from – I’m not saying you are wrong, simply that there are alternatives.

Best wishes, Graham

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