So begins Dr. Kaitlyn Rose’s supervisory session. She is a 32 year old psychologist, licensed for two years, and struggling to establish a private practice. Like many young professionals she has discovered that her formal graduate school training, including her internship, has not adequately prepared her to deal with real patients in the real world. Recognizing that she could benefit from the expertise of a more seasoned professional and having heard me present at a seminar, she asked if I would supervise her. I readily agreed, both admiring her awareness of her own limitations and appreciating the chance to impact the clinical skills of a new generation of therapists.
Dr. Rose continues: “I keep asking Roberta why she tries so hard when she knows that her mother will never be satisfied, but she just shrugs and tells me she has no choice. Besides, she says, she has nothing better to do anyway. So then we start talking about how she spends her days and how empty her life is and how come she never got married, and so on and so forth.”
“So how do you feel as you tell me this Kaitlyn or as you listen to Roberta?”
“Frustrated. I feel frustrated. I can’t do anything to help her.”
I smile. “Interesting, isn’t it, that you feel the same way in relation to Roberta as she feels towards her mother. Nothing you do can help; nothing is good enough. It’s a parallel process, you’re enacting the same experience with Roberta as she’s enacting with her mother.”
“That’s true,” Kaitlyn replies pensively. “I never thought of that.” She pauses. “But I have to do something!” she exclaims.
“Because…?” I ask, provocatively.
“Because that’s what therapists do, we help.”
“So you have no choice but to try and help, again, just like Roberta has no choice but to try and help her mother. Let me ask you this, why do you think Roberta keeps trying so hard with her mother?”
“I don’t know. She won’t tell me.”
“But what’s your guess?”
“I have no idea.”
I feel my own level of frustration rise. Is this yet another parallel process, my enacting with my supervisee what she enacts with her patient which the patient enacts with her mother? A never-ending series of mirrors that enables me to feel the frustration and powerlessness of desperately wanting to make someone different. “Let me ask you this, Kaitlyn, why did you want to become a therapist?”
“So I could help people.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s true, but why do you think it was important for you to help people?”
Kaitlyn blushes and averts her eyes. “I…I… My mother was very depressed. I know it’s childish but I think I believed if I became a psychologist I could help her.”
“No, Kaitlyn, it’s not at all childish. I don’t mean to intrude into your personal life. That’s not my place here. I was just trying to show you that we all have complex reasons for everything we do and, as you just said, your need to help people, to change people, was fueled at least partially by your desire to change your mother. And I’d venture to guess and you don’t have to tell me if I’m right because, as I said, I’m not your therapist, I suspect you felt the need to change your depressed mother so that she could be more available to you, be the mother you needed and deserved as a child.”
Kaitlyn’s eyes fill with tears.
“So now what might be your guess about why Roberta keeps trying and trying to please her mother?”
“I get it,” Kaitlyn says, nodding sadly. “She keeps trying because she keeps hoping that her mother will approve of her, love her, give her what she always wanted.”
“That’s really well put, Kaitlyn. Roberta and you and me and the rest of the world, we keep trying and trying to win with the parent or parents we lost with, hoping to win in the present that which we lost in the past, hoping against hope that we will finally feel like the loved, valued little child. And the process of giving up that hope is a long and painful one.”