- While there are supervisors who prioritize their relationships with trainees, that is not always the case.
- There is limited research on trainees’ experiences in supervision relating to compassion and empathy. Why?
- What are the long-term consequences of emotionally negligent supervision for new mental health professionals?
This post was written by Britt Duncan, MA, and Douglas E. Lewis, Jr., PsyD, on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates.
Some people, like myself, decide to pursue a career in the mental health field for a reason. Maybe there was a life-changing event, or you were inspired by an important person in your life, or maybe you romanticized the path that lies ahead. How many of us had an image of what a therapist behaved or looked like before we entered the field? I imagined a warm smile and a soothing voice coming from a person whose gentleness and empathy could be felt from the way they dressed to how they arranged their office. And, of course, I imagined the singular leather couch perfect for unpacking issues related to trauma, attachment, or other mental health challenges.
For most of us, I presumed that entering the field of psychology began, at the very least, with the anticipation of using emotional connections to help others. However, upon entering the field as a student and later a trainee, I was struck by the stories from my peers concerning their perceived lack of emotional safety and understanding within the supervisory alliance. The supervisory alliance is clinically defined as the collaborative relationship between a supervisee and supervisor, ideally based on the mutual agreement of goals for the supervisee. However, what happens when feeling seen and understood by your clinical supervisor, arguably a crucial component of professional development, is different from your lived experience? What are the consequences of having clinical supervisors who are emotionally negligent during your training?
Since I began my own clinical training, I’ve had a mixed bag of supervisory experiences. The majority of my supervisors were clinically competent, as expected, and demonstrated a willingness to improve my therapeutic skills. However, more often than not, I have struggled with my supervisors’ lack of empathy and general lack of interest in trainees’ lives and experiences as people. The irony has been stifling at times!
When COVID-19 first struck this country, I was in my second year of doctoral training and feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world. Additionally, as a woman of color, I was concerned by the sociopolitical climate of the world after the violent murder of George Floyd. I was working at a predominantly White, private elementary school at that time, providing in-class support for educators who were having difficulty managing certain students. When I received my caseload, I discovered that all the “disruptive” students were Black—mostly male—children. I was immediately struck by this realization and discussed it with my supervisor. With a laugh, they (plural pronoun used only to maintain anonymity) responded that they had been told before that the site “did not know how to help Black boys.” A pit settled in my stomach regarding the flippancy of the comment, given my own identity and the then-state of the country.
I began to notice in real-time the consequences of the lack of empathy, sensitivity, and sociopolitical understanding from my supervisor while treating my clients, as our supervisory relationship was irrevocably tarnished. I did not perceive this to be a problematic statement just because I was a person of color. Rather, it was an alarming statement due to the fact my supervisor was in a position designed to assist children of all races.
My supervisor had years of training over my own and showed little motivation to engage in self-reflection as to why they could not assist certain children. This was an issue related to ethical practices and attitudes toward training and improvement. During every training experience (i.e., clinical setting) as required in each successive year of my doctoral program, I learned this was not an isolated incident in that other trainees voiced similar experiences. I began to wonder to myself: How are clinicians able to forge connections with their clients and not the prospective mental health professionals whom they supervise?
Now, as a clinical supervisor myself, I aim to provide a warm and safe space for my supervisees. Many of them have lamented over the lack of interest from previous supervisors in getting to know them beyond the therapy they are providing. Based on my experiences, it is clear that having such rapport is vital for clinical training and development.
There appears to be little research available on the utilization of empathy in clinical supervision. While newer studies state how compassion can be a moderator (i.e., positive influence) for employee stress and response to feedback, most studies are dated and lack diversity in their participants and researchers. Some researchers are worried that if supervisors were too empathetic, there would be an ethical concern of dual relationships and a lack of personal and professional distance between supervisors and their trainees. However, others argue that when trainees feel silenced or misunderstood, it has a significant negative impact on the supervisory dyad and can also limit the supervisee’s development and self-efficacy within both supervisory and therapeutic relationships.
It is essential to acknowledge that trainees are more than the clinical hours they provide. While there is limited research on various types of trainees’ experiences in supervision relating to compassion and empathy, it is imperative that supervisors at least get to know their trainees and be able to understand their struggles or unique challenges within the context of their identities. Missteps and emotional negligence from supervisors can lead to trainees becoming disillusioned with the field and feeling burned out.
With the sociopolitical climate constantly shifting, it is more important than ever that supervisors are open to alternative supervision styles. I know that I have not been the sole trainee to experience an emotionally negligent supervisor, as I continue to hear similar stories from current students newly entering the field. At this time, it is equally necessary that supervisors provide courageous leadership in addition to showing innovation and taking risks to address and ameliorate complex problems within the supervision dyad. The American Psychological Association (APA) has adopted a framework to infuse equity, diversity, and inclusion into our work. Perhaps we should start explicitly with our training model.
Brown-Rice, K. A., & Furr, S. (2014). Kathleen A. Brown-Rice and Susan Furr. Lifting the Empathy Veil: Engaging in Competent Supervision. https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas/by-subject2/vistas-education-and-supervision/docs/default-source/vistas/article_11
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