A QUICK NOTE:
Welcome back everyone! Sorry for the radio-silence- there has been a lot of transition going on in our lives. Natasha will be taking a break from the blog to do some much-needed self-care. In the meantime, I'll still be posting and hope you will continue to share your thoughts, experiences, and ideas. We love you. -Kristen
I love being a supervisor. If serving clients is an honor, then serving people who serve clients is an even greater honor. Not only because of having the role as an advisor, but also that of a mentor in what it means to be human with people who have experienced inhumanity.
I had a rare jumpstart into this role, in that my first “social work job” was as a supervisor/field instructor for Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students in their field practicum. It was at an agency that served as my own undergraduate field practicum, and my former supervisor was the one who offered me the job. I was scared shitless and had the hugest case of “imposter syndrome”, but I did it anyway and ended up falling in love with it.
The thing about supervising is that it challenges you to look at your own stuff in a different way than it does directly working with clients (and even more-so if you also see clients and supervise). Because you can’t hide behind statements like, “Well I’m really not able to disclose that.”
Instead, your real self is more likely to be used, and your reservation of it is less likely to be effective.
We’ve all had those “bad” supervisors. You know, the ones that are either leaking their own shit or sob story all over you so that you are taking care of them, the stiff ones who are squared up so tight that nothing can get in except productivity reports, the burnt out ones who are more disorganized and exhausted than your clients, the ones that are never there and always absent (hello attachment trauma, there you are) and, last but not least, the ones whose own lack of self-work prevent them from going into the deep with you or allowing you to disclose the depth of human experience that comes up in this field. Maybe you’ve even experienced sprinklings of all of these. And if you haven’t had any of this, then you’re a lucky dog (that, or just give it time!).
But what about the helpful supervisors? The ones who motivate and inspire us to be bigger versions of ourselves, who challenge us in the ways we’re resistant to, but still provide the safety net for when we fall and the safe space to process it afterward? Like most people, I’ve had helpful and not-helpful supervisors. And even then, I can still say that every supervisor I’ve had has taught me something incredibly important, even if that has been teaching me what I absolutely do NOT want to ever do.
As someone with Bipolar Disorder, anxiety, and borderline personality elements, I have learned more about my own attachment styles and why they are the way they are because of my own supervision. I’ve had supervisors with every kind of attachment style, and it has been fascinating. The good, the not-great, and the ugly have all come out and taught me so much about myself. For example, I’ve learned that I absolutely HATE disagreeing with someone I admire and respect (and don’t know what to do with it, other than go into despair, feelings of betrayal, loathing, and rumination!), and I have absolutely no qualms about bad-mouthing someone I absolutely 100% disagree with on their own turf. All or nothing much? Yeah. Never said I was perfect!
My current supervisor told me something that impacted me a lot. It was on a day when she had made a decision about a client that I really disagreed with. I was awkward, ambivalent and bright red in supervision. In response to me saying that I felt really uncomfortable disagreeing with her, she said, “But that’s okay. I’m going to disappoint you sometimes. And that’s okay.” And BOOM, came my realization for why I’ve cut out so many people from my life. Like my brain, I have difficulty integrating positive and unpleasant feelings, idealization and derealization.
A healthy attachment style is all about knowing that someone is there for you, even when they’re not physically there or you don’t see eye-to-eye.
This has influenced so much of how I’ve come to find my own supervisory style. I incorporate what I know with what I’ve learned. What I know about myself is that I am fiercely protective. I’m an alfa wolf at heart, and I protect my pack. What I’ve learned is how to empower my pack and trust that they are more resilient than I know, without fearing that they will not feel like they are enough.
I’ve integrated trauma-informed care into how I supervise both staff and students, and I’ve taught this model to other supervisors. In trainings I’ve conducted, I have learned that many other supervisors are scared of “crossing the line” between professional and personal. The thing is, there is an ethical line, but it’s not what you think it is.
The line isn’t talking about personal stuff or crying in supervision, nor expressing how something made you feel. THOSE are the pillars of REAL supervision. What the LINE is, is when the relationship could become exploitive and being wary of when your power and influence could take advantage of someone. It sounds so obvious (and hopefully it is to most people), but I really don’t think it’s more complicated than that.
In terms of finding a supervisor you “vibe” with, know that this may not always happen and that this is okay. If you have a supervisor who doesn’t hold space for processing your emotions or experiences (both within and outside of your work), then find someone else who can. Every supervisor has something to teach us, even if it’s literally just to indirectly remind us of what NOT to do. If this is a situation you are finding yourself in, then find someone like a colleague or friend who can relate with you and give you space to process and pick your brain. In the helping professions, we all need someone to consult with. It’s one of the things that prevents us from burning out and keeping our desire to learn alive.
I can tell you that I’ve learned so much from my supervisees over the years, and it’s only been six years. I’ve found my joy in teaching. I’ve experienced the honor of people disclosing that they are survivors themselves and how this actually influenced them to get into this field. I’ve found the beauty of saying, “Me too,” when someone is talking about something hard and how this response softens the look on their face and shifts into one of relief. I’ve been given the privilege of being with someone who learned that their client was assaulted and deceased. I’ve had the immense pleasure of witnessing someone discovering that they are capable of more than what they think they were and that they have a place and a purpose in serving others who are just trying to find the same sense of meaning.
Supervision is an opportunity for a parallel process.
This is why I love it so much. I am to my supervisee what my supervisee is to their client. We’re all just trying to guide and support each other through life and the fields we’re in. And there’s something very beautiful to me about that. If you ever get the opportunity to supervise someone, whether they be a staff or student, I really recommend it. You don’t have to be perfect or an “expert” in order to be a good supervisor. I sure as hell have learned that, and I’m so grateful for my supervision experiences. I’ve learned just as much from my supervisees as I’ve taught them. Which is just so cool- because that’s what the human experience is all about: equality.
Thank you to all the supervisors reading this. You are so valued and needed. And thank you to everyone who has been a supervisee and dared to open up. We need you.
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