Supervision for Professional Healers

Supervision for Professional Healers  by Delcia McNeil  written for The Association for Therapeutic Healers in 2015.

This article follows on from the last ATH e-journal which included the article ‘Supervision for Healers’ written by myself and Kate Williams MacKenzie and published in 1992.   In this new article I describe what I mean by supervision in the context of our work with the public.  I share how I use it for myself and why I value it      as essential, and talk about some of the issues and areas of work that have been brought to the supervision group that I run.

‘Supervision has formed the 'backbone' of my work and helps to keep me grounded and focused and it is also such a wonderful self-development tool.’     ATH Chairperson, Jo Green   July 2014.

What is Professional Supervision?

Professional supervision is a confidential and safe place to talk about your work.  What you talk about is likely to cover a wide range of aspects, depending on where, how and with whom you offer your services as a healer.  I list these below.  It is also a place where you get support and affirmation, as well as learning and guidance.  At the end of the day, though, you are in charge of your work, so supervision isn’t about being told what to do – far from it. Effective supervision empowers you to work to the best of your ability. 

It is possible that supervision is not taken very seriously in the CAM world because it sounds rather old fashioned, even threatening, as if someone would be looking over your shoulder and judging you.  This could not be further from the truth.  When we break the word up into ‘super – vision’, then we have its true meaning.  It’s the old adage ‘two heads are better than one’ – or even more heads are better than one, and a head that’s a bit further down the road of experience, is even better.

Here’s how Caroline Schuck and Jane Wood describe it in their book Inspiring Creative Supervision (2011):

“Supervision is a collaborative process in which the supervisor works with the supervisee to explore their work reflectively.  The role of the supervisor is often viewed as a mix of educative, mentoring, holding the ethical position and ensuring the safety of the supervisee and the supervisees’ client.  Fundamental to the relationship is good rapport and a working alliance.”

My personal experience

I began my healing practice in 1983 and was fortunate enough to have had supervision built into my previous work as a social worker.  I was also fortunate in that when I later trained as a psychotherapist, supervision was regarded without doubt as absolutely essential in order to work safely and effectively with psychotherapy clients.

For my healing-therapy work I have supervision in different contexts:

  • Peer
  • One to one
  • Group

So what are these different contexts for Supervision?

Peer is with another colleague. I have two colleagues with each of whom I have a monthly one hour phone session with.  We divide that time equally and keep time boundaries.  It’s even better if you can meet face to face.  Skype is also good.  Some people also meet with a group of peers and allot the time so that everyone gets the chance to get some support.

One to one tends to be a paid for session with a therapist whose work is relevant to yours and who is experienced and skilled at listening and reflecting back to you.  You have the whole of their time and attention just for yourself.  I have a one and a half hour session every four to six weeks and have worked with my present supervisor for eighteen years.  If you are setting up in practice it is advisable at first to have one to one supervision at least once a month.

Group supervision can either be led by an experienced therapist (and therefore usually paid for), or it can be a group of peers meeting regularly (as mentioned above).  Here there is the additional support and in-put of several people, plus the grounding and perspective that comes from shared experiences.

Regularity is the key.  Supervision isn’t something to be grabbed when you get into a spot of bother with a particular client or situation.  Rather, it underpins our work as healers/therapists, and provides us with a foundation from which to work.  In addition if we are self employed, rather than working in an organisation, we can feel isolated.  We are also running a small business with all that that entails.

So what do people bring to supervision?

I have been running a supervision group for healers & complementary therapists since 1989.  Here are just some areas we have covered.

Case management:

Our clients sometimes present us with problems that we find difficult to manage.  Or we get confused about our relationship with them.  Often there can be boundary issues eg. we might bump into them in social situations; we are friends with their sister/brother; they keep cancelling their session at the last minute; we find it difficult not to go over time in their session.  These issues need talking through so that clarity as to how to manage them is found.

We may be unsure as to how best to treat a presenting set of physical or emotional symptoms and need some support and ideas as to how to handle this.

Then there can be complications in our relationships with our clients, especially those that we work with over a period of time.  We can become emotionally entangled.  The terms projection, transference and counter-transference are well known within psychotherapy, but are not necessarily introduced in healing or complementary therapy training courses.  They refer to unconscious ways of being and behaving that we bring to all our relationships. 

Simply put projection is when a client defends themself against unpleasant impulses by denying their existence but at the same time attributing them to others, eg. a person whose is rude may constantly accuse others of being rude.  Transference is when we inappropriately repeat in the present expectations that belong to a significant person in our childhood  eg. the client expects the healer/therapist to be critical of them, as their mother had been, and perhaps still is, towards them.  It is when the healer/therapist starts to feel and behave like that mother that the latter is in counter-transference.  This kind of dynamic tends to happen when the client and the healer resonate strongly, eg. both had critical mothers. 

When the healer is aware that these behaviours are taking place it is very helpful information, especially as there is invariably a strong energetic component to these dynamics.  Clearing any kind of entanglement is not only important for the healing work, it is also essential in order for the supervisee to keep well and for their client to receive effective treatment.  I appreciate that as healers we ‘transcend’ the inter-personal level for much of the time because we are working on a subtle energy rather than the behaviour and personality level.  However, there are times when we end up feeling uncomfortable or disturbed in some way.  This is a big topic which I plan to expand upon in a later article.

Related to projection, transference and counter-transference is the issue of ‘The Rescuer Role’ that was referred to in the 1992 article. This term originates from a modality of psychotherapy called Transactional Analysis.  Rescuing happens when helping becomes compulsive and the healer is not facing their own need for healing.  We can actually get in the way of helping our clients when we intervene too much with advice or interpretations, rather than supporting them to find their own solutions.  A supervisor can help us become aware of these unconscious motivations.

Conditions that healers work with:

There are a wide range of conditions that a member of the public may bring to the healer.  Often people come our way as a last resort – they may have exhausted not only what the medical professional can offer, but also what several other CAM practitioners may have offered too.  We can often get caught up in thinking we need to ‘fix’ them.  We may feel inadequate in terms of our medical knowledge.  We may intuitively sense or experience quite clearly what emotions may be contributing significantly to their physical condition, but we may need some help in talking with our client about it. 

Effect of personal life on work:

All of us have our own life challenges and problems to deal with.  Supervision offers support – a place to talk through what may be happening in our personal lives that could be impacting on our work.  Supervision is not personal therapy, but it is a confidential place where we can feel held and contained. 

The need for a healthy self esteem and a strong professional identity:

Confidence is a huge thing, especially for new healers.  It also seems that ‘spirit’ regularly takes us to the edge of what we know and what we can deal with.  By choosing to do healing work we have made a commitment to being tested and challenged – whether we like it or not!  Gaining confidence means forming an inner authority.  This isn’t about being controlling or a ‘know-it-all’ – far from it.  Rather it is about feeling strong enough in ourselves to know that we are doing the best we can with what we know at this present time.  It is about facing up to our ‘mistakes’ (no mistakes – only opportunities), then learning from them and keeping going.

Taking care of ourselves:

This covers a range of things that are important if we are to be effective in our work.  In my experience most healers are sensitive on all levels and so their diet, need for exercise, tolerance of toxic substances, need for rest, meditation, and ‘down time’, etc. are perhaps even more important than for the general public.   We work deeply with people, we touch their souls.  It’s responsible work.  We have to take care of ourselves.  Given the fact that many healers have had challenging childhoods (cf. Chiron - the wounded healer), putting ourselves first sometimes can be a real challenge (see above re ‘The Rescuer Role’).  How many healers do you know who don’t get treatments for themselves, who get exhausted or even burnt out?  Having a caring supervision setting helps us reflect on where we are at, helps us keep grounded and prioritise our own needs.

Learning how to reflect and review our work:

Reflecting on our work gives us perspective and clarity.  Often we can’t ‘see the wood for the trees’ and we may lose direction or knowing how best to use our energies.  We may need to review our work in an over-view way, looking at the breadth of what we are doing, or we may need to review our effectiveness with specific types of client work, eg. working with cancer patients, or in a hospice, or with the elderly or disabled, or with children.

Using others as resources:

A supervisor or group will often have information about further resources or useful advice.  This may be knowledge from different background trainings or experience of similar situations or types of illness.  This is invaluable.

 Preparing/giving workshops, courses, and talks:

You may be someone who runs groups.  In my supervision group there’s a healer who runs residentials, and others who run workshops and give talks.  Getting help with both the organisational side of these activities, as well as exploring questions or concerns about content, is invaluable. This kind of support takes the healer out of possible isolation when they do all the work by themselves.

 Making decisions about where to work:

This is a choice that is important – we feel called to different contexts in which to do our healing work eg. in a holistic clinic, for an organisation, perhaps a charity, working from home.  Talking this through, checking out what feels right, knowing when to take up opportunities and when to let them go - all this can be talked through in supervision.

Practice management:

This is about how we organise our time, how we describe how our work to our clients.  It includes how we communicate with our clients regarding aspects of our practice such as time boundaries, and money – what fees to charge and how to communicate this.  We also need to consider things liked professional insurance and subscriptions to professional bodies.

Codes of ethics and practise:

In a supervision session we can reflect on moral and ethical issues that may arise, and confusions about how best to manage a situation.  Should the unfortunate event of getting a complaint arise then a supervisor (group or one to one or both) is an invaluable source of support and guidance.

Managing the internet, websites and social media:

This is another big area that we need to face up to, especially if we are running our own small businesses.  Naturally your supervisor or group will only know as much as they will have managed to learn in this area – unless your supervisor is under 35 years old!  Most of us are ‘digital immigrants’ as opposed to ‘digital natives’ and we are learning on the job.   We mostly go into the healing professional because we want to be of service, not because we want to be business women or men.  But if our work is our livelihood then we have to develop a business mind and do this in a way which respects our own needs as well as those of our clients.

Who should be a supervisor?

A good supervisor needs to have several years experience of working with clients.  They also need to have experienced supervision themselves in different contexts and be familiar with the kind of support that is needed to work effectively.  They need to continue to receive supervision themselves. They need to be familiar with codes of ethics and practice and have a high level of integrity in their own working practice.  They don’t necessarily need to have the same background training as you but it is their responsibility to be clear about their skills and possible limitations. For example someone in my supervision group is trained in biodynamic massage, not something I am trained in (although I am familiar with it as a modality).  If there are concerns about a specific biodynamic massage therapeutic method or technique, the supervisee would need to get help from a colleague or person they trained with.  The supervisor does need to be familiar with a range of healing modalities or therapies and be keen to fill in gaps in their own knowledge.  I would also stress that a supervisor needs to be continuing on their own personal growth journey.

What is the ATH doing?

Within the ATH we plan to encourage experienced members to consider becoming supervisors so that we can progress this as integral to professional healing practice generally.  Those of you who attended Liz Hawkins’ excellent presentation on Reflective Practice at the AGM in May will already know that our choice of this topic is part of this desire to bring about a much greater awareness of this essential ingredient for working with the public.  One thing we can do right away is start keeping a Reflective Journal – see  Liz’s article on p.    

This e-journal is a forum through which we can develop our thoughts on this, and in future additions I plan to expand these various areas of the functions of professional supervision.  If any members have points or headings to add to these do please forward them to ATH.  Also contact us if you are interested in becoming a supervisor yourself.

The vision for ATH is that we have a register of accredited supervisors for the therapeutic healing profession.  This would not only meet our criteria for excellence in practice within our own organisation but should and could become a standard criteria for the other professional healing organisations as well.  This will take some consciousness raising but I believe that together we can do it.

Delcia McNeil