Soul Gazing: Discourse of a Therapist in Training

This is a reflective essay I wrote in 2015 upon completing my Master’s program. In lieu of a comprehensive exam, I wrote this essay and it…

Soul Gazing: Discourse of a Therapist in Training
This is a reflective essay I wrote in 2015 upon completing my Master’s program. In lieu of a comprehensive exam, I wrote this essay and it was examined and responded to by two pairs of mentors within the program; in addition to one advisor from another department.

The following is a description of my journey through the process of pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Psychology at the University of West Georgia. This is a discourse of a critical developmental arch in my personal and professional history. It is a brief detailing of an unfolding attempt to practice psychology humanistically, dredge the depths of the human heart and soul, and to give rise to a ministering to and of the psyche. This is the sigil of a birth and of a death. It marks a closing and an ending. It is the prelude of someone who desires to dedicate a career, and perhaps a lifetime, to gazing into the soul of another.

Part I: Forming and Norming

I began the M.A. program in the University of West Georgia’s Psychology Department with the intention of pursuing licensure as a professional counselor. I also held aspirations of completing a thesis and continuing on to a doctoral level education after completing my degree at West Georgia. My Bachelor of Science degree consisted of a double major in philosophy / religion and criminal justice as well as a minor in psychology. In the later years of my undergraduate career I grew fond of existential philosophy. Reading the psalms Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger was an obsessional pleasure. It was after reading Irvin Yalom’s Staring at the Sun that I came to the decision that I should pursue a career in psychotherapy and “make practical use of” my philosophy degree.

I take full ownership of the fact that I did not want to practice therapy then. I wanted to feel that the degree I’d earned was useful and pertinent. I was very much a (would be) philosopher seeking to share the “wisdom I’d gleaned” in my studies under the guise of a (faux) therapist. A hefty reading list in an early course titled “Foundations of Humanistic Psychology” seemed to fuel that fantasy.

Late in my first year as graduate student I began working as a mental health technician at a psychiatric inpatient hospital. That is an experience that, though I don’t necessarily wish to repeat it, will be forever grateful for. It offered — no, it demanded — a perspective not available through the eyes of a psychiatrist, a nurse, or a therapist. No, that was a vantage point only accessible from a unique and rare (and often marginalized) role. Something painful and beautiful is recognized when you can smell the suffering of another person over their putrid body odor for twelve to sixteen hours per day. At some point in that semester, while enrolled in a course titled “Psychological Suffering and Disorders”, a revelation occurred to me. It wasn’t compassion I lacked. It was the courage to look another human being in the eyes.

Part II: The Storm Rises

My second year began in a strange way. I missed the first day of class, which, I believe, is grounds for a professor to forcibly drop you from the course. I had finished an eighteen hour overnight work shift and my car broke down on the highway on the way to class. The course was “Group Therapy.” This course proved monumental for both my academic and experiential processes. I found myself uncharacteristically reserved in the course which doled out an unspoken and disturbing burden. During that semester my grandfather (father’s father) died. I received the news one day just before beginning a 7:00 a.m. shift at work. It was one of the very few occasions I missed both class and work. Later that semester I submitted an application to begin my clinical practicum the following spring. I was enthusiastically welcomed, approved, and accepted to intern at the outpatient facility associated with the inpatient facility I was currently working at. The result of a departmental interview, which I’ve described in my journal as disembowelment under a microscope, was that I would not be starting my practicum “yet.”

One particularly harsh lesson of that semester was “self-care.” I wasn’t doing, and still probably don’t, a very good job of that. A month into the spring semester I quit my job at the inpatient hospital. The reason listed on my “letter of termination” was “return to school.” That was a lie. I needed to return to life. It seemed that I cared all too much and all too well for everything and everyone but myself. A course titled “Human Growth and Potential” provided a safe decompression from the events of the previous semester where I was free to, or not to, engage as deeply or lightly as I desired. It was refreshing. I think I was rock climbing nearly every weekend that semester. In an essay for the Human Growth and Potential course I had written about Albert Camus’ influence on my being in and with the world. I described how I had lost any and all interest in quoting word-for-word passages. That was no longer the philosophy that captivated me. Rather, I preferred to “teach my philosophy” by living and embodying it rather than by regurgitating literature. I suppose that this was the recourse to my “sophomore slump.”

My third year began in a peculiar way also. In the spring of my second year I had again interviewed to begin my clinical practicum in the (then) upcoming fall semester. I was approved through the department and also, without an interview, to the site which I had applied to previously. Apparently I had left a sustainable impression. I also began a graduate assistant position working for the Psychology Department rebuilding their website. Maybe things were looking up. Maybe the storming was just beginning.

Part III: Red Pills and Transforming

Throughout my clinical experience the way I approach my work was largely influenced by, thanks to my supervisor(s), narrative and psychodynamic theories; particularly those of Jacques Lacan and Michael White. Certainly I was also not a stranger to other influential writers such as Rollo May, Ian Hacking, Kirk Schneider, and (later) Ed Tick and Heinz Kohut.

This was also the semester that I was introduced to the American Academy of Psychotherapists and volunteered at their annual national conference. I attended several workshops and participated in process groups, though as is frequently the case with psychotherapy, much of the work took place “between sessions.” It is difficult to encapsulize such an experience, but I’ve frequently referred to it, in the simplest (though woefully inadequate) terms as “disturbing and nourishing.” To summarize, this is where I learned what we mean by “shadow work.” This is where relationships are broken, tested, forged, and grow. This is where things get messy and complicated, where the ego is shattered, where the id comes out to play. Experiences like these are where we’re forced to reconcile our be-ing in and with the world.

By this point in my career as a graduate student I had abandoned interest in doctoral programs. I simply could not find a field of study that sufficiently interested me. The much more pertinent question that seemed to beckon from the skies was; “how will this make me a better therapist?” An estimated tab of $50,000 — $100,000 seems like it would fund a lot of “continuing education unit” workshops and conferences, as well as supervision and personal therapy.

A much more difficult lesson to learn that semester was what it really means to experience (so called) countertransference. The details of that “case” can’t possibly be contained in this essay. It will suffice to say that when a colleague asked, “Was it difficult for you to share that [with the class]?” I gulped and replied, “Not nearly as hard as it was to keep from vomiting when I realized what was happening.” Certainly, there is a cost to caring and a price for feeling too deeply without anything to ground you.

The final semester of my graduate career began with my grandfather’s (mother’s father) death. I was still working at my practicum site and now a graduate assistant for a mentor professor. Quite quickly it seemed that I had “hit a different gear” this semester. For quite some time it was my fear (and also historical experience) that there’s a dead weight on my “throttle” and I can’t stop. While I had learned to “take (better) care of myself”, there was still a looming threat in the air that I couldn’t, and still as I write this can’t, capture with words. It is difficult for me to grasp the entirety of this semester as it is still unfolding. I attended another American Academy of Psychotherapists event which was on par, and ineffably distinguished from, the former event in terms of degree and pervasiveness of “disturbance and nourishment.” Our work is never finished. We must will to learn. We must continue to learn to listen better and to love well. We are, after all, only and all too (thankfully) human.

Part IV: The Sun Sets

I am truly overwhelmed by the impossibility of this essay. These few exclusive paragraphs must bear the onus of illustrating the densely tumultuous and profound growth that has occurred throughout the past three years. I can only hope that this essay has failed at that task and only alluded to many more stories well worth sharing.

I have recently begun the application process for becoming a student member of the American Academy of Psychotherapists, which is a fairly intensive process. The “summary of myself” I provided to be broadcast to (and feedback solicited from) all members of The Academy read: My life and my work are largely centered around leaving ripples in people’s lives. I’ve been working with children and adolescents for about two years and am very passionate about that population, particularly in the realms of trauma, dissociation, self-harm, suicidality, and sexual abuse. My clinical approach is similar to my experience of AAP; it is not the promise of healing or comfort, but an environment capable of evoking, containing, and nourishing an unbridled exploration of the soul.”

Defining the humanistic practice of psychology and psychotherapy (as to be distinguished from the practice of “Humanistic Psychology”) is an onerous task. However, I might briefly, in an attempt to provoke further thought and discussion, provide the following opinions based on personal experience and the collective developmental processes I’ve incurred throughout my tenure in Melson Hall. This (practicing psychology in an utterly and beautifully human way) is not an ideology or a pedagogy. This is a willingness not to abandon or forsake what may ease the distress and dis-order of those we’re charged with caring for. This is not radical acceptance of vapid hedonism. This is bearing witness to love and strife playing out their fate in the hearts of mankind. This is ownership of the cost of freedom and desire. This is an act of will to learn and to grow with the understanding that it will almost certainly be painful and only hopefully “worth it.” This is loss of hope, and doing it anyway. Regardless of their namesake; the souls, spirits, and psyches of the suffering stare out to the world and hunger to be met and cry to be seen. I must meet their gaze. It is, undoubtedly, where I can learn the most and that is where I must go.

Originally published at

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