The Embodied and Relational Self in Professional Identity

What has happened to our ability to dwell in unknowing, to live inside a question and coexist with the tensions of uncertainty?  Where is our willingness to incubate pain and let it birth something new?  What has happened to patient unfolding, to endurance?  These things are what form the ground of waiting.  And if you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re also the seedbed of creativity and growth—what allows us to do the daring and to break through to newness. . . .
(Sue Monk Kidd, 1990 cited in Rohr, 2021a)

It had been about 10 weeks since I had begun my immersion into the world of practicing professionally and, up until that point I had thought I was doing ok.  In reality however I was deceiving myself.  As I see it now, in the subconscious depths of my mind a rousing of identity had begun to shake the delicate equilibrium between fear and courage, doubt and faith, and a movement between who I was and who I am becoming – this was a rousing just waiting to be awakened.  Even now as I look back, I am astounded by just how much I was shaken and just how much internal fear and doubt I felt, and that, in part, I still feel.  What was it that through me of kilter awakening such intense discombobulation?  Was it the swirls amid my internal, emotionally ridden perceptions and interpretations of responsibility?  Could it have been the whirls of confusion between what I heart-fully know about therapy, what I have been educated about therapy, who I want to be as a therapist, how I want to practice, and the various forms of feedback and advice about therapeutic interventions I was receiving at the time?  Or perhaps it was that I was not sure how to balance all the incoming information, that a part of me knew that this was a subjective science with no definitive application, yet a part of me thought I “should” know exactly.  I knew this was being recorded and graded, and it truly felt like there was a “right” and a “wrong” to how I was practicing.  Vitally, I recognise that deep down the swirls of my monkey mind kept asking “am I practicing ethically?  Is this in the best interest of my client?  What if my actions led to harm?”  This was real.  Really real.  I was affecting vulnerable people, and because of that I truly began to doubt my capacity to be an effective practitioner.

It is now a further 10 weeks since that discombobulated state, and while my internal sense of Self as a practitioner is a work in progress (Kottler & Carlson, 2014) slowly becoming more confidently congruent, I now have an awareness of the process of the development of Self in professional identity.  As such, it is my desire to explore with compassionate consideration what professional identity is and why it is important; why professional identity is wrought with self-doubt and how this impacts the client; as well as the developmental phases of professional identity as an ever-emerging and integrating form of my Self in relation to Others professionally and personally.  This will be done with the knowledge that such exploration is needed to continually cultivate efficacy in practice as I move into and through my career as a therapist.

What is professional identity and why is developing a professional identity important to the emerging practitioner?

What is this thing we call identity – none the less, this phenomenon of Self?  Is it a who or a what, a verb or a noun?  And why is any of this relevant, right now?  Though these may be questions that have been posed for eons, and certainly questions that I have explored in depth previously as they relate to my personal identity, right now they are vital questions to revisit as they relate to the person I am becoming professionally – my Self in the professional identity of therapist.  This cannot be done without, at least in part, looking at the concepts of Self and identity.

In both a personal and professional sense, at least in my eyes, Self (capital S) is the one who reflects all that has been (past), all that is (present), and all that will be (future) (Cozolino, 2014; Ephesians 1; Genesis 1:27).  In ones most integrated state, the Self reflects a matrix of value ridden interactions between the body (biological), the mind (psychological), and relationships (sociological) in a manner that that senses, perceives, interprets, and adaptably responds to situational stimuli in a meaningful way (Cozolino, 2014; Siegel, 2010; Sigelman & Rider, 2012).  I cannot negate here that whilst Self is a reflective matrix that appears to be woven into a singular sense (2 Corinthians 13:14; 1 John 4:11-13; 1 Peter 1:2), Self is also relative: though there is coherence, coherence is multifaceted, and expression is varied contextually (Cozolino, 2014).  Indeed, Self is neither and both a who and a what – Self is an emergent process that encompasses various expressions of being and doing, or what I understand to be the Self in an identity (Siegel, 2012).  That is, although the Self holds a grounded set of values, beliefs, and attitudes, in certain contexts with certain Other’s, the Self is in an identity.  Such is that in which the Self expresses those values, beliefs, and attitudes in at a particular way at a particular moment in time (Kottler & Carlson, 2014; Skovholt, 2012); identity is a contextual expression of a coherent Self.  For example, in this moment I am a student becoming a practitioner (student identity) writing a paper – I am the Self who is expressing her value for knowledge, depth, challenge, and growth, as well as for mastery of intrapersonal and interpersonal interactions based in care – I am exploring my value for therapy that makes a difference through the eyes of a student; and, as I do this I am aware that a shadow of self-doubt lingers within me.  Moreover, as I write this paper I am tapping into the notion of my Self as the practitioner (professional identity) who believes in a culture of compassionate, humanistic, and benevolent ethical practice that supports therapy based in presence, attunement, resonance, and care; one that is dedicated to making a difference, no matter how small (Badenoch, 2019; Kottler & Carlson, 2014; Siegel, 2010).  However again, this is a Self that is often shadowed by self-doubt, even though in this identity the Self depicts a demeanour of assurance.  Thus, we can see that not only is there Self that is expressed in identity(s), but there is also a level of congruence between these identities – in my example here, whilst I have named the explicit values of care and therapy that makes a difference, as well as the shadow of self-doubt, implicitly there are congruent values of safe connection, acceptance, authenticity, integrity, gratitude, and I cannot negate my ever present shadow of “not good enough” – these are congruent values that exist no matter what identity my Self is expressing.  With this explored, the question remains: what specifically is professional identity and why is developing a professional identity important?

Succinctly put, professional identity is the embodied and relational Self who knows the values, beliefs, and attitudes that ground expression as a professional.  Moreover, just as with all of Self’s identities, professional identity is an ever-emergent process that involves making sense of intrapersonal and interpersonal interactions and events spatiotemporally.  Importantly, understanding that professional identity is a process of value, belief, and attitude differentiation and integration is vital to the emerging practitioner for various reasons.  Primarily, and again as is with the full spectrum of our Self’s, when I know my Self and the various values and shadows that are present within these identities, I am more ready to notice, accept, and approach the shadows – this in turn facilitating a robust trust in Self with professional motivation, efficacy, competence, growth, resilience, and the ability to hold the paradox’s that affect therapeutic outcomes (Gazzola et al., 2011; Gibson et al., 2010; Kottler, 2017; Skovholt, 2012).  This knowing and trusting of Self is indeed a complex process and as such is best appreciated through explicitly driven developmental phases that that allows for cohesive movement and growth (Kottler & Carlson, 2014; Skovholt, 2012).  And, as we bring this notion back to my Self as an emerging practitioner, I rearticulate that it is only with knowledge of the process that I can, with intentional attention, attend to it and counter the shadows that befall me – specifically here my shadows of professional Self-doubt.

What exactly is Self-doubt, why is professional identity wrought with it, and how does this impact the client?

There are numerous theories that can be encompassed within the notion of self-doubt.  Indeed, one could consider the impact of Self’s overall esteem, Self-concept, Self-efficacy, or levels of Self-criticism; here however, Self-doubt is conceived as the emotions and thoughts that ascend from an insecurity and uncertainty about one or more aspects of the Self; specifically here this is the emotions and thoughts pertaining to one’s knowledge, abilities, actions, or capacity to be a therapist (Thériault et al., 2009).  Such Self-doubt surfaces from subjective depreciating evaluations of Self (Thériault et al., 2009) – the questioning of one’s Self within a professional identity and the perception that one may not have the proficiency required to achieve a desired outcome (Braslow et al., 2012; Thériault et al., 2009).  Albeit, while many students moving from final year study into their new professional roles may innately have a level of Self-doubt, the professional identity of a therapist holds a distinctive kind of doubt that is associated with the subjective nature of what makes an ethical and effective therapist.  Efficacy in therapy holds the particular quality whereby “who you are is as important as what you do” (Kottler & Carlson, 2014, pp. 167-181; see also Norcross & Lambert, 2019), and, inherent to such is the transferal and countertransferal phenomena that are awakened in such a relationship (Gelso, 2019).  That is, a therapist is continually exposed to affective ridden interpersonal encounters that inevitably awaken affective memories (most potently at an implicit level) which necessitates parallel processes of examination (Gelso, 2019; Kottler & Carlson, 2014).  As therapists we are (and certainly I have been) continually reminded of our own humanness through interpersonal feedback – clients are continually providing verbal and non-verbal reactions or responses to our way of being and doing therapy that require intrapersonal processing for ethical practice (Kottler, 2017).  Correspondingly, the therapist in training is subject to a variety of feedback sources that are often so discordant and paradoxical that internal conflicts and feelings of incompetence have been stated to be inevitable (Gazzola et at., 2011; Hecimovich & Volet, 2009; Kottler, 2017).  Likened to looking at one’s Self constantly in a mirror (Kottler, 2017), and combined with the sustained academic pressure that is inherent in university, it is no wonder that the process of transiting between student identity and professional identity is wrought with Self-doubt.

With this in mind, I cannot help but to question just how Self-doubt within a professional identity impacts the therapist-client relationship.  How do my prevailing feelings of “not-good-enough” affect my clients and our relationship?  With time and appreciation I have come to understand that whilst initially one may see Self-doubt as inherently Self-limiting, doubt can be held in paradox with faith.  That is, with awareness and choice I can harness my doubt with an appreciation of faith (McLaren, 2021 cited in Rohr, 2021b).  Such faith in practice is the knowledge that whilst doubt can create a reciprocal atmosphere of fear, doubt can also bring a reciprocal atmosphere of courage (Joshua 1:9; Proverbs 3:5; Rohr, 2017; 2 Timothy 1:7;).  Though Self-doubt may stimulate distraction in the therapist which may cause performance anxiety, repeated attunement ruptures, as well as a lack of containment, direction, and leadership (Hecimovich & Volet, 2009; Teyber & Teyber, 2017), with the therapist’s awareness, acceptance, and willingness Self-doubt respectively holds the potential of increased responsiveness and being more deliberate outside of, and within sessions (Hecimovich & Volet, 2009; Siegel, 2010; Thériault et al., 2009).  This is what it means to live what one teaches or to cultivate a parallel process of change (Kottler & Carlson, 2014).

It is with the knowledge of these paradoxes of doubt and faith, fear and courage that I have come to appreciate the value of reflective practice – both in-action and on-action (Cattaneo & Motta, 2020).  For example, whilst working with five main clients over a period of five months I have been faced with multiple situations whereby I have felt well beyond my capacity to help.  I am reminded of the scenario whereby I failed to notice “crisis” and apply the theory that I felt, previous to this encounter, I was particularly apt in.  Within session my exterior presented as contained, calm, and confident, yet internally I was in a state of discombobulation wondering if I was “enough”.  Not only was the client in crisis, so too internally was I – a paralleled process that was not in the best interest of my client.  With the session complete I was aware that I required assistance.  Turning to my mentor I was given assurance, however as the day came to an end, I was feeling most shaken and uncertain.  Accordingly, I requested to present within group supervision whereby a group of my peers were able to highlight the state of crisis my client was in and the countertransference that arose in me.  More so, after processing the information that the group had offered, I realised that there was a further parallel process whereby, just as my client had been in session, I too had been resistant to feedback.  With this in mind, I further turned to my supervisor and my personal psychologist to work through the continuing feelings of doubt, and indeed some deep-seeded fears of falling into unethical practice and the potential that I might harm my client.  And, whilst the impact was a doubt-filled misattuned session whereby effectiveness was limited, I have come to understand the opportunity this experience gave me.  Such opportunity began with the courage to confront my concerns with my mentor, a group of my peers, and most challenging opening in vulnerability to my supervisor and psychologist about the Self-doubt that had grown into Self-depreciating thoughts of not having the competence to be a therapist.  And, whilst this Self-doubt still remains, I am intentionally cultivating my courage to further open my mind in deeper appreciation of trusting the process, specifically a new level of faith in relationship and the power of coming back – for me personally, to God, to Self, and to Other.  Moreover, I cannot negate that this experience has opened the door to the knowledge that efficacy in practice is a life-long unfolding processes of development that continually awakens fear and Self-doubt yet is correspondingly one that can be continually nurtured with courage and faith (Gelso, 2019; Kottler & Carlson, 2014; Teyber & Teyber, 2017).

A process of the development of Self in professional identity

As I began attending to the notions of professional identity and Self-doubt it became clearer to me that whilst identity development is a process of value, belief, and attitude differentiation and integration, it is also a process of becoming that entails certain phases that can be explicitly explored.  Moreover, within the therapist’s developmental journey there are certain critical incidents that strongly influence professional identity and as such, also necessitate exploration (Kottler, 2017).  Indeed, I am truly coming to fathom that for professional identity to be an ever-emergent compassionate consideration that involves making sense of intrapersonal and interpersonal interactions and events spatiotemporally, particularly in a manner that cultivates cohesive movement and growth, there are certain incidents and phases that can be explicitly named and continually considered with compassion (Kottler, 2017; Kottler & Carlson, 2014; Skovholt, 2012); this consideration enriching awareness and thus developing a stronger sense of Self in professional identity.  With this in mind I herein reflect on three of the researched phases that are personally meaningful at this point in my journey toward professional development.  These phases include 1) Coming to a personal understanding of the definition of the work (Gibson et al., 2010); 2) Explicit acknowledgement of the personal meaning and motivations for entering the field (Kottler, 2017; Faber et al., 2005); 3) Moving from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control (Gibson et al., 2010; Skovholt, 2012) and reliably doing the work behind the work (Giblett, 2000; Gibson et al., 2010).

Coming to a personal understanding of the definition of the work

Whilst there are various established definitions of therapy (counselling or psychotherapy – see PACFA, 2021), and indeed established research (see for example Gibson et al., 2010) as to why it is relevant within the development of professional identity, here I shall simply reflect upon my own definition of “the work”. 

I personally vision therapy to be fundamentally “based in the idea that well-being resides within a coherent and connected (integrated) sense of Self; a uniquely individual flow of being (right-brain) and doing (left-brain): a fluidity of physical, mental, and relational synchrony and equanimity that produces health and wellness throughout the ever-changing milieus of life” (Yntema, 2020).  More specifically, “my aspiration is to offer hope: to be with individuals as they move toward contextual coherence through co-regulated connection and compassionate collaboration” (Yntema, 2020).  To be most succinct, I personally define therapy as a collaboration between therapist and client that idiosyncratically explores and facilitates awareness and insight, affect regulation and self-compassion, meaning and empowered autonomy (response over reaction). 

Acknowledgement of the personal meaning and motivations for entering the field

Again, whilst there are many reasons as to why one might enter the field of therapy – indeed thematic responses include a profound interest in the humanities, psychological mindedness, the wounded healer, personal therapy as a strong influence, and anticipated career satisfaction (Faber et al., 2005) – here I reflect upon my motivations for entering and continuing my journey toward qualification, as well as the meaning and connection I currently feel and anticipate feeling as a therapist. 

I began my degree in 2013 at which point I had recently begun with a therapist who, in a short amount of time, was able to assist me substantially more than previous therapists had.  The prevailing thought had been “if only I had had this sooner” – back then it was my aspiration to work with children and adolescence as this was my “sooner”.  As time has progressed, I have moved beyond my desire to somehow save the child and adolescent version of myself and have become aware that there are numerous conscious and subconscious motivations behind my love of therapy and my desire to serve (Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 4:8-11).  For example, I am aware that stemming from the interpersonal dynamics over my lifetime are the self-based motivational desires to serve as a confidant or mentor, to understand and to protect vulnerable others, to share the wisdom I have learned along my journey, and to be intellectually stimulated.  These motivational desires are in conjunction with a naturally inquisitive “why” mind that was encouraged by family and caring others, culture shock and marginalisation, as well as trauma and the compassion needed for its resolution – all of which are biopsychosocial influences that impacted my therapeutic impetus.  I am particularly mindful that although I find strong motivation through the intellectual stimulation and the personal growth that being a therapist demands – as it stops me from stagnating in my own journey to wellness – so to it leaves me vulnerable to the blind spots that prevent me from truly empowering a client through their own theory of change (Faber et al., 2005; Duncan at al., 2004).  Importantly I must not negate that whilst I have acknowledged these consciously known motivations and their countertransferal hazards, subconsciously many other interactions and topics within practice will stir up the Self-doubt which shall require processing at that time (Faber et al., 2005; Gelso, 2019; Kottler, 2017).  Finally, even with the experienced Self-doubt throughout the past 20 weeks, the meaning behind the work remains the same – I truly want to be the change I seek.  That is, I find deep meaning in simply being present and listening to hear others and offering insights into human biology, psychology, and sociology that in some way empowers an Other.

Moving from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control and doing the work behind the work

One of the major developmental tasks of identity, and indeed of professional identity, is differentiation (see The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2021) and the ability to move from an external locus of control toward an internal locus of control (Gibson et al., 2010).  Specifically here, this is the capacity to hold multiple Self’s – the personal Self, the student Self, the doubtful Self, the courageous Self, the caring Self and the wounded Self (to name a few) – within the context of a professional environment and thus within the professional Self.  This is the ability to move from a Self relying on strong direction or specific instruction/skill development, external validation or reassurance, feedback or grading systems, and supervised reflection-on-action toward an integration of intellect, intuit, skill, and spirituality into a grounded guiding set of values, beliefs, and attitudes (Gibson et al., 2010; Kottler, 2017; Skovholt, 2012).  Such integration involves an internalisation of previous lecturers, mentors, supervisors, or inspiring practitioners’ guidance in a manner that allows one to reflect-in-action and to reflect-on-action with Self-validation and responsibility (Cattaneo & Motta, 2020; Gibson et al., 2010; Kottler, 2017; Skovholt, 2012) – this is a professional Self who has differentiated various values and shadows in order to integrate them with wisdom. 

Personally, this is a progressive movement from my long-standing student identity into a professional identity – a slow movement of finding my place within a professional culture, of learning to acknowledge the feedback that fits and that which does not fit, of learning to stand back and de-personalise, of finding my own voice in all the knowledge and wisdom I have acquired over the years, and of  welcoming my shadow of self-doubt with courage and faith (Kottler, 2017; Skovholt, 2012; Thériault et al., 2009).  Such progression requires a continual attendance to the work behind the work: an immersion into a professional culture that corresponds well with my values and supports my shadows, the continual engagement with a community of professional support including group supervision and individual supervision, a community of personal support including authentic friendships and personal psychology, as well as continually connecting to a deeper spiritual receptivity (Giblett, 2000).  This spiritual receptivity is personally meaningful and includes that of seeking connection to deeper identity (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 2:8-10), being loved unconditionally (1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:7-21; John 3:16), owning and loving my shadows (Genesis 3; Romans 5), a strong sense of my own and others agency, grace and graciousness, deep self-acceptance, mutual humanity and morality, as well as an appreciation for “finding [my] life by losing it” (Giblett, 2000, p. 37).  Indeed, it is this work behind the work that brings about a more differentiated and integrated sense of professional identity, yet it is one that is recurrent requiring dedication and living what one teaches (Kottler & Carlson, 2017), coincidentally tying to my desire to be the change I seek.

Conclusion – Holding the paradoxes of Self in professional identity

Sharing a story of a discombobulated state of fear and doubt, I began this written journey from a remembered place of confusion – an identity that had been shaken.  This was a very confronting moment in time, yet it was a moment that was needed so I could begin to see and define with clarity the expressions of Self that form my professional identity.  That is, I could begin to differentiate and integrate the values, beliefs, and attitudes that ground my Self’s expression as a professional.  This discussion began by clearly defining the notions of Self and identity to more clearly understand Self in an identity – a contextual expression of being and doing.  Further consideration importantly uncovered that a contextual expression of being and doing is embodied and relational, and as such necessitates making sense of intrapersonal and interpersonal interactions and events spatiotemporally.  Significantly, whilst I have articulated throughout that Self in professional identity is an ever-emergent process that one can know and attend to with a level of compassionate consideration that supports efficacy in practice, I have also highlighted that it is only with intentional attention to the unfolding of this process that one can attend to the shadows that may be present within professional identity; specifically here, the shadows of Self-doubt that can impact the client and effect therapeutic outcomes. 

Respectively I explored in more detail the notion of Self-doubt as it applies to professional identity, particularly its counterpart fear and the harsh reality that therapists are working within a subjective environment whereby efficacy is in the eye of the beholder – therapists are only as effective as the strength of the relationship they cultivate with the client.  Further, it was not negated that Self-doubt may be perpetuated by the inevitability that affective content within the client-therapist relationship will awaken implicitly stored memories within the therapist, such requiring the therapist to continually reflect in- and on-action.  Notably, I have captured the nature of the paradox of doubt and its counterpart fear as they respectively coincide with faith and courage in a parallel (mirrored) process of interpersonal-to-intrapersonal connection.

Finally, I compassionately considered making sense of intrapersonal and interpersonal interactions and events spatiotemporally in a manner that aimed to cultivate the foundations cohesive movement and growth in the development of Self in professional identity.  This was done by looking at certain incidents and phases that were research based, that which could be explicitly named at this time, and that which can be continually considered with compassion in the future.  These phases included: naming a personal definition of the work of therapy as a compassionate collaboration between therapist and client that idiosyncratically explores and facilitates awareness and insight, affect regulation and self-compassion, meaning and empowered autonomy (response over reaction); Acknowledging that the personal meaning and my motivations for entering and continuing in the field has always been and remains to be the change I seek in the world; And, moving from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control which includes doing the work behind the work, importantly including a continuation of Self differentiation and integration in professional identity and the ongoing dedication to living what one teaches.

Ultimately just as I attest that Self in professional identity is an embodied and relational Self who knows the values, beliefs, and attitudes that ground expression as a professional, so too I attest that professional identity is an ever-emergent process that involves making sense of intrapersonal and interpersonal interactions and events spatiotemporally – which surprisingly cannot be separated from all of Self’s identities.  To be secure professionally, I must be secure personally, welcoming and holding all the enigmas that arise with courage and faith, and above all self-compassion.


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