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  • Jason Krause

Walking the Tightrope Between Supervision and Therapy

Clinical supervision is an integral part in the education and development of a budding mental health professional. Supervisors guide their protégés through stages of growth as mental health counselors, providing valuable feedback as supervisees debrief their experience working with their clients. These supervisory experiences aid supervisees in coalescing their education into more practical applications in the professional world.

In the supervisory relationship, supervisors wear many masks: teacher, mentor, advisor, and role model to name a few. Done well, this relationship helps the supervisee find their footing and discover who they are theoretically and professionally. And while supervisees may not initially notice similarities between the relationship they have with their supervisor and the relationships they are developing with their own clients, the comparison is apt.

While supervision is not a therapeutic relationship, it would be nearly impossible to avoid some overlap when working with supervisees. This is true because supervision involves honing the tools a supervisee brings to bear when working with their clients. The most important, and certainly most complex, tool in this field is the supervisee’s mind. The mind frequently, and oftentimes unbeknownst to the supervisee, comes packed with its own biases, idiosyncrasies, and for lack of a better word, baggage.

In supervision, it is the job of the supervisor to aid their protégé making sure they understand the ethics, laws, theories, and overall nuance of working in the sensitive profession of mental health. The supervisee will fall somewhere on a spectrum from blissfully unaware to painfully obviously aware, of the baggage they also bring to bear. The supervisor, just like the therapist, establishes rapport with their protégé and attempts to slowly unpack and dissect the contents of that baggage.

But while they aid in unpacking and dissecting the baggage, it is the role of another therapist to assist in the reordering and processing of it in order to gain insight and allow for personal improvement.

This is true because supervisors are bound to a code of ethics which discourages them from entering into multiple relationships with their supervisees. In order to insulate the supervisory relationship from exploitation, specific personal therapeutic intervention is reserved for a therapeutic relationship. This is similar to why a mental health professional is unable to provide therapy to their spouse, family, or friends (except for rural settings or locations in which the therapist is the sole dispenser of mental health . . . but that is for another discussion).

A supervisor is to provide guidance and oversight, not therapy. Yet sometimes the distinctions which are drawn conceptually, are a little more complicated in practice. It is essential for a supervisor to make their protégé aware of issues such as transference and countertransference which may be encountered during therapy. These phenomenon are part and parcel to the process of therapy. When a supervisee is aware not only of what they are, but also of how their own emotional reactions to clients are impacted by the baggage they are trying to unpack, it allows for better professional development through supervision.

So, how is a supervisor to foster this kind of insight without crossing into therapy?

By walking a tightrope.

If the supervisor is able to not only aid their protégé in discovering elements which need improvement, but also able to guide them into understanding how these elements need work with an outside therapist, then the supervisor has effectively walked that tightrope. Another reason why the line is often so thin between supervision and therapy is that supervisors also have an obligation to ensure their supervisees are emotionally and psychologically sound enough to practice therapy with clients. This requires them to be vigilant in assessing the needs of their supervisees and also in monitoring their emotional and mental health. Focus on self-care is a vital method to counteract the strain on counselors inherent in this field in order to promote longevity and that the needs of each client these counselors will work with are met effectively rather than harmed.

Supervision is no easy feat. Supervision and therapy are different but the same. It sometimes requires the supervisor to dig into their own tool bag, but not too deep, in order to provide effective guidance and oversight into the progression of a protégé from supervisee to licensed professional.


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