Lessons from the short: When service providers are triggered
by Kristine Ives, CCASA Blogger
A delicate intensity of emotions surrounds the film Short Term 12, which stars Brie Larson as Grace, the supervisor of a group home for at-risk teenagers. The movie poignantly evaluates the impact of trauma and loss through not only the youth, but the staff members as well. Grace has been avoiding her own history of victimization until Jayden moves into the house. As Grace sees her own scars traced into Jayden’s wrists, she finally begins to recognize the need for personal healing.
What I love most about this movie is how it evaluates the reality of triggers in the lives of service providers. In graduate school, we are taught about countertransference and how our own feelings and experiences influence our work with clients, but rarely are these incidents discussed in supervision or consultation. In particular, it seems to be rare for clinicians to talk openly about our own formative experiences and how they impact our work, both with our clients and with supervisors and colleagues. Young therapists specifically seem to shy away from this discussion out of fear of appearing vulnerable, weak, or inexperienced. It may feel as though being triggered indicates a deficiency rather than an opportunity. Some of the most effective therapists I know are willing to share parts of their own story in order to help clients process.
When self-disclosing, it is important to evaluate motivation. As long as the clinician is sharing in order to benefit the client, I have seen it be extremely useful. This does not only translate to discussing aspects of one’s narrative with the client, it can also mean sharing things that are coming up in the moment throughout a session. For instance, if I notice I am feeling tightness in my chest during a specific discussion, I can voice this and see where it lands with the client. Maybe it is a parallel process that can help the client identify his or her own anxiety. When countertransference arises, it is a chance to work through relational patterns with clients. When supervisors neglect to model this process it leaves our budding clinicians missing an important component of competent psychotherapy: vulnerability.
While watching this film I thought about my own “Jaydens,” the kids who worked their way into my heart and served as a mirror for my own experiences. A few months ago I went to one’s wedding. This girl taught me a lot, both while she lived at our group home and in the years since as we developed a friendship. While she is flourishing, I also reflected on a few “Jaydens” that continue to experience significant struggles. There are some with whom I talk occasionally and others that I have not heard from in years. There was one girl with whom I tried extremely hard to connect. She had given up on herself and it seemed like many others had as well. I tried to show her she was worth more, but she would not let me in. After multiple runaways, she was moved to another facility, and we lost touch. It was heartbreaking for me, as I felt completely helpless. Each of these kids gave me new opportunities not only to care for others, but also to further heal myself.
Towards the end of the movie, Grace is with her boyfriend and co-worker Mason, and she is boiling over with emotion. Mason knows he has been shut out of a lot of her experience, and he finally loses it and says, “I have been waiting three years for you to take the advice you give your kids every five minutes and talk to me about what’s going on in your head.” Her struggle between choosing to trust or flee is so intense that I felt it viscerally. I understand that feeling. Watching her eventually start to reach out for support illustrated the freedom that is found in vulnerability.
Grace not only helped Jayden approach her trauma, but she allowed Jayden in to her own process and modeled healing on another level. While I think it is clear that some of Grace’s actions at the end of the movie push not only ethical but also legal boundaries, I think these things are for cinematic effect, and I choose not to count those as strikes against her. Instead, when evaluating her words and direct interactions with Jayden, I believe that Grace was not seeking support from Jayden in an inappropriate manner, but rather was illustrating authenticity and vulnerability. Many might argue that her disclosure was excessive, especially in light of how raw the material was for Grace, however this admission catapulted Jayden to a place where she was finally able to speak her own truth. I imagine Jayden would reflect on this exchange as one of the most powerful in her life.
As service providers, it is vital to recognize how our own life experiences influence how we work with others. We need to allow that to be not just tolerated in our clinical work, but valued and appreciated for the richness it adds. I wish supervision and consultation groups would more openly allow for personal discussion in a manner that is not group therapy, but instead a holistic discussion of who we are in the room with our clients. What we bring to the therapeutic relationship is important and can be used in powerful ways.