Recently I listened to a meditation on Calm app (©calm.com) by Jeff Warren where he said…“I have no idea how to find balance, I actually don’t think it exists, it’s like trying to find a unicorn. There’s no such thing as a perfect state of balance, life is always changing...there’s really only balancing...life’s a process of making continual little adjustments, it’s figuring out where you might be over extended on one side and where you might be under-supported on another and then fine tuning as best you can.”
This really struck me, partly as I reflected on perfectionism in self-care but also as I thought about the to and fro of the therapy process.
'The path through therapy is never smooth, their paths through life are never smooth, many things add sway to the rope they walk and society sends knocks, pushes and high winds to make balancing not just challenging, but at times downright impossible.'
The image that immediately came to mind was that of the tightrope-walker; that however competent or experienced they are, the walk is never perfectly balanced, keeping smoothly to some perfect mid-line without any wobbles. Rather the rope-walker moves by testing the tension underfoot, adjusting every step as the rope sways and their weight shifts from side to side, front to back.
I work as an art psychotherapist and though I have worked with many ages and a wide variety of client groups, I currently work predominantly with children and adolescents. Many on my caseload have additional needs (communication disorders, autism spectrum condition, are disabled or express themselves in ways others find challenging). The path through therapy is never smooth, their paths through life are never smooth, many things add sway to the rope they walk and society sends knocks, pushes and high winds to make balancing not just challenging, but at times downright impossible.
For many of my clients I wonder if they have ever had any sense of balance, or if for them it is a perpetual sense of falling, of loss, of un-manageable change? So they variously cling or grasp to anything or anyone who might steady them and lash out at those they perceive to be rocking the rope.
In I come, as their therapist, trying to hold my own sense of balance; internal, somatic, my sense of self, what I bring to the space, but also the rhythm of the therapy session itself. Neither wanting to be grasped by my clients like some rigid point of stability, for that would lead to a rigid therapy space, fostering dependency and with little room for change, nor wanting to be seen as an unsafe bringer of change, a shaker of the rope, something to be feared. So I walk a fine line, balancing as I go.
'I wonder how many impossible goals I set myself in therapy and supervision, hoping for a line of steady perfection..'
In a recent clinical supervision session (where I work as Associate Clinical Supervisor for an adult service offering long-term relational psychotherapy) a supervisee talked about a very strong countertransference response of being ‘Dad’ to their client; we explored this role further and what it might mean to the client as they moved towards independence and the end of therapy. The supervisee used the image of Dad holding the back of the client’s bike and needing to know when to let go. I loved this metaphor; it suggested support, encouragement, a running alongside to facilitate the emergent balancing and finally, gloriously letting go to find that the rider can go it alone.
What a hindrance it would be if we held on, not trusting our clients to find their own way, to make mistakes, to fall and regain their balance.
In his meditation Jeff suggested the futility of looking for that ‘unicorn of balance’, it is an impossible goal. I wonder how many impossible goals I set myself in therapy and supervision, hoping for a line of steady perfection, where in reality, that would mean stagnation, rigidity and no-one learning or developing.
In my self-care too, what wonderful unicorns do I feel I should be tracking down? My mindfulness practice is at best wobbly, at worst a series of falls from the tight-rope and a less that dignified scrabbling to get back on! But if I reframe this as a search for balancing and not balance, they hey, I am already doing a marvellous job; I am learning what things rock the rope, how it is more difficult when the high winds (or Covid, stress, sleep deprivation, et al) are blowing and I can delight in the moments when I find my footing, relax into the process and enjoy the moment.
I think my natural tendency might be to hunt unicorns, to set myself impossible tasks, and measure myself against the seemingly perfect therapists and supervisors that I imagine are out there. It is time to step away from the impossible and delight in the art of balancing (wobbling and occasionally falling), the steady rhythm of ‘ooh too much’ or ‘no too little’, the to and fro of the therapy sessions, the space between therapist and client , between self and self-care…that I can do.
Sharon Herriot worked as an Art Psychotherapist in bereavement & chronic illness services for over 10 years including Ashgate Hospicecare (Derbyshire) with patients and their families & at the Macmillan Information & Support Centre (Chesterfield) with patients.
She currently works in schools predominantly with children with special educational needs, autism and who exhibit behaviours that others find challenging. She is Associate Clinical Supervisor for Share Psychotherapy – Sheffield, has a small private practice and regularly delivers workshops on grief and self-care to MA Art Psychotherapy courses, school staff and several NHS trusts.
Sharon is co-founder of The Potting Shed with her colleague and fellow Art Psychotherapist Bethan Baëz-Devine, delivering inspiring, creative CPD events for therapists, counsellors and mental health practitioners, in Derbyshire and online. Potting Shed website