Trusting the Process

As a rookie psychologist, I knew I had much to learn. Burdened with perfectionism, I had self-doubts about technique and process. I so wanted to do it right.
One day I was assigned a young client—a girl of no more than twelve, whose grandfather was anxious to have her seen by a therapist. His wife was dying, and the child’s mother had no interest in raising her. To complicate matters, the relationship with the grandmother was full of resentment on both sides. Not ideal in any way. 

I saw my young client every week for several months. I found it hard to engage her because she wasn’t really interested in being in therapy. She didn’t want to talk about home, or her mother or her grandmother. So I encouraged her to talk about school, and make-up, and boys, and anything she wanted. I had severe doubts that I was doing anything therapeutic.

The time was coming for my internship to end. I had the difficult task of informing her grandfather that I would no longer be working at the agency. Nor could I continue with the child elsewhere, according to agency rules. He was very upset.

During our last session, my young client just prattled on as usual, seemingly without any sense of loss due to our impending termination. But not me. Tears coursed silently down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t speak. I felt like a total failure as a therapist.

At the time I was also grieving recent knowledge of my own infertility. That this child had no more mother figures and that I could not have a child of my own were intersecting aches in my heart.

Later I went to supervision and confessed my failure to maintain proper therapist decorum. My supervisor quietly said, “That may be the first time in her life she had a woman cry tears of compassion for her. You’ll never know if you had any impact or not. Trust the process.”

In the decades since I have cried more than once while witnessing the pain of clients as they revealed traumas, losses, heartaches and injustices. Sometimes I cry because they can’t. I don’t try to hide tears. I don’t apologize for them. They are signs of solidarity, compassion, and love. We’re all in this together.

Gretchen Gundrum
Seattle, Washington

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22 thoughts on “Trusting the Process”

  1. Gretchen, thank you for sharing this story with me. My own eyes began to well-up at the end. As a novice in the field, this story is relieving, but not just for how it applies to my prospective “doing therapy”. I feel now I can give myself permission to shine through a little more in all interactions that before I felt had to be perfect.

  2. Dear Gretchen, You were guilty of the crime of humanness. I recall a man I saw years ago who had an alcoholic abusive father and a schizophrenic mother. He was inured to his pain and dissociated from the reality of his childhood until tears coursed down my checks. He saw his pain in my pain for him for the first time. It was the real beginning of our therapy.

  3. This essay is disarmingly powerful and moving. Thank you for being so honest and for steering us right into the heart of your uncertainty and, then, your courage and wisdom. You brought me to tears…

  4. You’re blessed with an open heart, Gretchen. Thank you so much for sharing. Your final fur sentences were especially meaningful.

  5. Gretchen mcKay

    I love your story G! A therapist that is moved by a patients story shares their empathy and depth. Bravo my friend ❤

  6. This so resonates with my own experience and wisdom gained as a clinical chaplain. Our tears are not a sign of weakness, but rather evidence of authentic connection, and solidarity in suffering. And I believe when we are comfortable with allowing our tears to flow, it is a gift for those we sit with. We model authentic vulnerability, and the healing power of an open heart. Thanks, Gretchen!

  7. Gretchen,
    Your essay touched my heart. HOW BLESSED THIS YOUNG GIRL WAS TO HAVE YOU COME INTO HER LIFE. AND YOU INTO HER LIFE.

  8. I absolutely love it that you are so free to proclaim that you don’t try to hide your tears nor do you apologize for them. I was taught that tears are a sign of weakness and it is so hard to override that childhood input. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Gretchen Gundrum

      We’ve all gotten messages that hinder the flow of our best selves. Thanks for your kind words, Gail.

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