Letters From Esther #38: How I Learned to do What I do

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

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Shall We Begin?

I have been working on something new lately and I’m finding it all-consuming in the best ways. I just finished filming two one-time couples therapy sessions for teaching purposes. And I’ve invited some of the best therapists in the world to dissect my work—the good and the bad—next month at my annual training conference Sessions Live. I’m told most people find the idea of being watched and critiqued this way terrifying. For me, it’s a return to my roots. 

Nearly forty years ago, when I began my training in Boston, I saw a one-way mirror for the first time. Inside the room, a therapy session was underway. Behind the mirror, I stood there with other trainees, listening to our teacher say things like “observe how she looked away from her husband” and “see how the child needs reassurance.” Sometimes he would pick up a telephone and the phone inside the room would ring. The therapist-in-training would pick it up to listen to the teacher strategize in real time. (To be clear, this type of live training is only done with full consent of the patients.)

The first time I was in the therapy room, I looked at the silver surface reflecting the scene back to me. I felt myself, my patients, and my work not only being observed, but perceived. I had never felt so exposed and vulnerable. That is, until I started taping my sessions to watch them back while my teachers and peers repeatedly paused the tape to reflect on the work and probe my intentions. Imagine a football coach but replace touchdowns with touching moments and interceptions with interventions.

I studied like this for four years. Watching others, being watched, and watching myself was profound. Memory can edit or omit but raw video has an unmistakable truth. It was an educational community with honesty at its core. The space we occupied together was full of purpose and meaning and learning. It was as challenging as it was supportive. We were there to become better therapists and we could only do it together.  

I learned to live with the vulnerability of being observed. Honestly, I did feel nervous many, many times, but I’m an experiential learner. It worked for me. And I came to see the other side of it, too: it wasn’t just the students learning. It was our teachers as well. They were there to extract the inherent wisdom and experience of the student. And that made vulnerability more comfortable. We were all there, together, to develop our personal skills and styles.

We asked each other questions: Who do you want to be in this room? What part of you do you bring to this session? What’s your understanding of the problem? How do you deal with your own anxiety and what is evoked in you by what the patients tell you? What do you do when you become aware that you’re not a good fit for someone? What do you do when the therapy is stagnating? These questions are no less relevant for me today. And nothing beats being in a group of colleagues who are ready to discuss these issues together. 

New therapists ask me all the time how I learned to do what I do. My answer is always: by continuing to learn, and especially from people who work with different approaches than my own. I now run training groups myself. I make a point of including diverse practitioners, from body-oriented therapists to those who work with psychedelics. We have psychoanalysts and emotionally-focused therapists. We have sex therapists and trauma specialists. And they all come from a range of racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds. I learned early that community is fundamental in this work. But to put a finer point on it, the diversity of that community—both professionally and personally—is critical. It has improved me as a therapist by shining a light on blindspots and mistaken assumptions. The vulnerability required can be scary, but it’s essential. 

On November 5th, you are invited to join me to see this rich and holistic live training experience up close and personal. On my podcast, “Where Should We Begin?,” you hear me in my role as therapist. In my virtual conference, Sessions Live 2022, you’ll see me as the student I have always been, learning from some of my most respected colleagues. Learn more about my annual clinical training event for therapists, coaches, and mental health professionals here. This kind of training exists all over the world behind closed doors. As always, I’m excited to open that door to you.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

  • What kind of a learner are you?
  • What educational practices have been most helpful to you?
  • How would you describe your experience with asking for help? 
  • When you have a problem, to whom do you turn? 
  • What kind of a helper are you? 
  • What is the role of community support for you? 

More From Esther

“I couldn’t listen anymore and I snapped.” / a newsletter

After decades of practice, I have learned that I can be critical about my work without falling into a slump of self-criticism, but it helps to be reminded. Read on to learn how my supervision group helped me reframe my “bad therapy” session as a learning opportunity.

“I Don’t Mean To Be Mean But….” / a podcast episode

Listen to Season 5, episode 4 of “Where Should We Begin?,” referenced in the story above. She has no boundaries; he’s walled off. And their opposing communication styles cause immediate tension in this explosive session.

“Inviting Vulnerability” / a newsletter

If we want our partner to be vulnerable with us, we have to accept that true vulnerability is not a mandate. It’s a possible outcome that grows out of closeness and trust. And there is more than one way to develop that.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

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