Being a psychotherapist during this period of the Covid pandemic – and especially during this current UK national lockdown – has required of me a level engagement with human suffering I have never known before. The field in which I practice – oncology and palliative care – has always been emotionally challenging, and this challenge I have embraced like a vocational calling. But the level of existential suffering present right now in the world, is quite unique. It has the flavour of hopelessness and resignation for many, now. It is requiring us to both face a dangerous, invisible and tricky opponent (Covid) and experience a level of state control we have never lived through before. This is a very different experience of life for westerners who have never faced the likes of Ebola or Small Pox. The experiences of lockdown and national alertness over the past year have been unprecedented, especially with this second national lockdown. The physical absence of sons, daughters; grandchildren, friends, lovers, and close others and hearing stories of grief and loss, of people dying alone, and the sharp rise of infections and deaths, are gargantuan for our humanity to bear.
Counsellors and psychotherapists often allow themselves to be open to a process called relational depth in their practice. Relational depth is a way of being, not a method, gimmick or strategy. It is described in clarity by Mick Cooper, who is an author and academic in the field of counselling and psychotherapy studies, in his book Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. It is a profound allowing of connection between therapist and client. This connection, created by both client and therapist, enables a space in which psychological healing can take place. The therapist and client allow access to something that is both shared and profound; our humanity. It not only changes the client, but the therapist too. The potential for human connection and attachment are gifts we all possess. It enables us to extend and experience holding, understanding, solidarity, warmth, caring, safety, presence and hope. It requires courage to experience our own and the others vulnerability in a moment of human encounter. Vulnerability guru, Brene’ Brown describes vulnerability as our willingness to experience uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It offers a hand to the other sitting in the darkness of the proverbial Plato’s cave, to step out into the brightness of the day and to connect with others and the flow of life. Practicing relational depth in psychotherapy now, is a call to vulnerability and courage to meet suffering in a way we have never had to do before.
Vulnerability, empathy and compassion during a time such as what we are living through now are gifts and graces. However, for the therapist who opens their heart to such depth, they are costly gift to offer, too. I would say to other therapists and people working in helping professions, who are struggling with the weight of the times right now, to become a truly compassionate and loving friend to yourselves. I have really had to learn this over the past few weeks. Allow others who love and care for you to extend their presence to you. Do what is necessary to make sure you are grounded and nurtured. These are difficult times. Don’t underestimate the potential for burnout and energy loss. They are more real now than they have ever been.