A Survivor’s guide to Clinical Supervision

This student blog piece was written and submitted by Amanda R. Simmons, M.A., SCP, Section 10 Campus Representative, University of Denver

In finishing up my second year of the doctoral program at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, I reflected on the number of times I heard that the success of supervision depends on the “fit” between supervisor and supervisee. In other words, one of the most essential components of clinical training in the helping profession is essentially a craps shoot. If it is so contingent upon compatibility between the participants and often neither participant has much say in the match, this does not bode well for professional development for either party. It seems our ability to obtain good training is dependent on the luck of the draw in an arbitrary matching process.

In an ideal world, we could describe some essential and universally-effective skills for navigating supervision, but unfortunately these are not time-tried truths that work across the board. No such algorithm exists, and if it did, it would function to produce a range of disappointing to inspiring output. If there is anything I’ve learned, it is that there is no one such skill set that will produce success. If massive personal growth and professional development are the litmus test for achievement, we are left with an uncomely ratio of success to failure.

What if we redefine success? Rather than becoming demoralized by thwarted expectations of supervision so good it looks like wizardry, we alter our definition of success to something more like getting through clinical training. Success will become inevitable (for most). Unfortunately, sometimes this means forfeiting personal goals in deference to needs of the supervisor, or the supervisory dyad if you’re lucky.

The Canadian Psychological Association purports that “[s]upervisors have an ethical responsibility to pursue available opportunities and resources to continuously improve their ability as supervisors” (2009, p. 2).  Or in the words of Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility” (Raimi, 2002). Unfortunately for supervisees, we are not really in a position to ask superiors to improve their work ethic; far be it for us to question the dedication of our superiors to their craft from the lowly position of green-as-green-can-be trainee.

Far from taking a doom and gloom position on clinical training, I take one that is a bit more hopeful, though it may sound equally cynical to those who have been fortunate to have accrued more successful experiences in supervision. I once had a supervisor who, in helping me cope with frustration with the exam to prove minimal competency, made a remark that I will never forget: “of course you are barely minimally competent! You are minimally competent at playing the game.”

Often, I have been told I am overly-idealistic in my expectations of graduate school, especially with respect to supervisors, advisors, faculty and other professionals far beyond me in experience, education, training and vitae length. In the words of one mentor, “You keep expecting the people you are learning from to know more than you.” It seems we are asked to do the dance of looking like we know what we are doing (but not too much, lest we be considered narcissists) for people who do not want us to be overly reliant on them for answers (lest we be considered dependent personalities). You can probably discern my exhaustion of feeling like that wind-up monkey with the cymbals. I’m quite tired of friends, colleagues and myself fearing the mark of pathology deemed by individuals in power positions just because personalities do not mesh. Idealistically, as usual, I expect these people to be the ones to guide navigation of this collective struggle.

So, I created some rules for myself to help me survive clinical supervision:

#1

“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club” (Palahniuk, 1996). While tensions may be high in supervision, the best thing to do when seeking supervisory support elsewhere is to express a desire for more information, not the reason why an alternate source of information is necessary. Though most training programs profess to value transparency and really “showing up,” I found that in being candid about struggles I was experiencing in supervision, it was only to my disadvantage. In other words, seek ongoing support for your clients and clinical practice, not corrective action, much less any sort of validation of struggles experienced elsewhere.

#2

Express curiosity, not uncertainty. The minute you convey doubt about the supervisor’s contributions is the minute that the conversation has taken a turn from exploratory to antagonistic. People often profess a desire to be challenged in the spirit of growth, but this may not be true in practice. Aspire for your own growth, not that of others, although sometimes that is a happy by-product.

#3

Seek support in community. I would not have survived graduate school for this long with my mental health intact were it not for the support of some very special colleagues and mentors. There were several times I have been unsure whether my impassioned bids for improvement in training would be so inflammatory that they would compromise my very standing in the program—this blog not to be excluded from the list.  Through finding likeminded others, I found a way to cope with the difficulty of conflict with superiors.

#4

Remember your values. While most of us would likely agree that getting through the program is of utmost importance, not everyone appears to be in agreement that obtaining the best training possible comes in at a close second. I often struggle to balance my desire to thrive with my need to maintain status in the place that fosters such growth. It’s hard to play the game sometimes, but I am not going to win if I refuse to learn the rules on principle.

#5

Take in all the scenery, but choose your own path. Excluding situations where we are ethically or legally obligated to follow a directive, much of the time supervisors provide us with guidance and insight in the service of fostering our own clinical judgment. This does not mean we must always follow their rules; but we sure as hell need to look like we’re trying.

#6

Humility is key. We are trainees for Skinner’s sake! Much as I tend to get up in arms when I perceive an injustice, I also know that this resolute manner can be quite off-putting for people whose sole objective is to train me to perceive more, think more flexibly (and maybe talk a bit less).

#7

Attend to the big picture. People are complex. One disappointing interaction need not be representative of the whole relationship. I once had a professor who demonstrated immense professionalism in response to student concerns about discriminatory content in a lecture. With grace and humility, he not only demonstrated grace under fire as a professional, but the kind of person I want to be across other areas of my life. I would hope that when I screw up, others would see my efforts to self-correct as indicative of good character on the whole, rather than one or a few faux pas as tantamount to incompetence.

#8

Work within the system to change the system. When all else fails in supervision, keep your head low, and take what you can from the experience. One such thing might be to learn what kind of supervisor you do not want to become and remember that you must get through all the fiery hoops yourself in order to stand at the finish line to coach someone else on their hangtime.

As with all things psychologically-minded, the journey of this list has no end, only more exploration as I encounter unfamiliar challenges across supervisory contexts. These relationships are so very important that a difficult one can trigger a loss of faith in the training process as a whole. When I come close to such damaging and painful mindsets, I remind myself of the supervisors who demonstrated such vulnerability, insight and thoughtfulness as they compassionately challenged me to do better, to be better. These supervisors felt like they were performing magic tricks before my very eyes; I could practically feel the neurons of my therapist brain zapping away at new connections and understandings. These individuals have made all the difference.\

References

Canadian Psychological Association. (2009). Ethical Guidelines for Supervision in Psychology: Teaching, Research, Practice, and Administration. Canadian Psychological Association.

Palahniuk, C. (1996). Fight Club. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Raimi, S. (Director). (2002). Spider Man [Motion Picture].

 

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