In Dr. Benjamin Caldwell's book Saving Psychotherapy, he outlines four tasks that psychotherapists must embrace to help "save" the field of psychotherapy. If you've read my review of the book, you know how much it resonated with me. However, the final task (accepting accountability for the quality of our work by deliberately working to better our skills) has haunted me.
I do want to be the best therapist I can be, but I've felt a little lost about how exactly I'm supposed to work on my skills to get there. The unarticulated message I've received during my first year of graduate training has been that "getting good" just happens through some alchemy of learning theory, being congruent, asking circular questions, avoiding microaggressions, and seeing clients. Lots of clients. (I'm obviously being reductive for the lulz--I think my program is doing the best they can within the current paradigm of therapist training. Even so...)
It's this last bit, simply seeing lots of clients, that really hasn't been sitting well with me. Learn by doing just seems like a cop-out, like no one was able to figure out how to teach something so they presumed the best way to learn must be the way they learned, which is by muddling through until it gets easier. That's all fine and good when we're talking about needlepoint or something. But I'm being asked to help people who are having serious life problems. Needlepoint this is not.
And y'know what, since you bring up needlepoint . . . there's actually a deliberate way to work on getting better at needlepoint. Samplers. Young girls used to work on them to perfect their skills before they were married off and had to work on their husbands' socks or waistcoats or whatever.
Where's the sampler for psychotherapy??
<<MUCH FANFARE>> Meet Tony Rousmaniere, author of Deliberate Practice for Psychotherapists: A Guide to Improving Clinical Effectiveness. Y'all, I'm a little frustrated I haven't been assigned this book in any one of my classes yet. Why wouldn't you assign a beginning graduate student a step-by-step guide to becoming an effective clinician? I am forever grateful to my friend and colleague, Ben Fineman, who recommended this book to me and lent me his copy. Because what Rousmaniere has to offer is, in fact, a sampler for psychotherapy.
Rousmaniere begins with his own experience as a clinician in training, despairing about the fact that no matter how hard he tried, about half of his clients were not benefiting from therapy. As it turns out, this is not an outlier--in fact, this rate is about average. Which seems to directly contradict the research presented by Caldwell as a beacon of hope in Saving Psychotherapy--that therapy is effective. How can half of clients not benefit from therapy if therapy itself is effective? The problem, Rousmaniere and Caldwell seem to agree, lies with therapists.
Rousmaniere argues that the current model of clinician training is a "path to competence." That is, the end goal of the current system of training and licensing therapists is simply to produce competent therapists, who have a decent success rate. But the truth is, some clinicians are better than others--and those that are better have better success rates. What makes some clinicians better than others? Rousmaniere argues these clinicians take the "path to expertise."
This path is the harder path. The research presented by Rousmaniere demonstrates that the only way to get to expertise is through deliberate practice. He takes issue with the misconception popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that it simply takes 10,000 hours of doing something repetitively to achieve mastery--what it actually takes, he says, is repeatedly and deliberately working at a level just beyond your current skill level. Simply playing tennis matches over and over will only incidentally improve your serve, but spending an hour every day drilling serves will deliberately improve your serve. This, Rousmaniere argues, is the faster and more effective path to mastery than simply muddling through a learn-by-doing process.
So how can psychotherapists deliberately practice? We can't conjure up a fake patient to do therapy with when we're off the clock (yet). The good news is--we don't need to. Rousmaniere has created a curriculum of sorts composed of several exercises designed to isolate specific psychotherapeutic skills, and the cornerstone of all of them is the humble video camera. He recommends video-taping as many of your actual sessions as possible, then using the taped sessions--both alone and with a coach--for the prescribed exercises.
For those of us in COAMFTE-accredited programs, we're already familiar with the idea of video-taping sessions; it's a requirement for our fieldwork and we can't accept a placement that won't allow recording of at least some sessions. But most other graduate programs do not require recording of sessions, and the whole idea might seem crazy. What client would be ok with this?? But apparently, clients seem to be pretty ok with the idea of their therapist recording the session both as a quality-control measure as well as a way to get more (maybe better) input.
Now, I hate watching myself on camera. But Rousmaniere points out that this very reaction is standing between me and becoming a better therapist. So while I have been dreading having to record my sessions, I'm now looking forward to it (at least I'm telling myself I am). Rousmaniere has even created an exercise specifically targeted towards working with this reaction and I can see how it would really be effective.
After reading this book, I'm now planning to make recording sessions standard in my personal practice once I'm a licensed clinician, and I'm going to try to implement deliberate practice as soon as possible.
I know what you may be thinking, because I thought it, too--what graduate student has time to do MORE practice outside of everything else?? Rousmaniere beat us to this punch, though, and he addresses the issue of not having a lot of extra time to dedicate to practice outside of work by encouraging us to start small--just a few minutes per day at first. This goes for students as well as already-practicing clinicians who are interested in upping their game. No matter who you are or what your schedule is, you can make some room in your life to work towards expertise.
And when I step back and think about it . . . a lot of Olympic athletes aren't superstars with lucrative sponsorship deals and personal assistants. They're regular people with normal jobs who happen to also have a crazy passion for shot-put or sprinting or skiing. They manage to put in the extra time and effort to become world-class athletes in order to represent their country at the Olympic Games. The least I can do to help my clients is put in the time and effort to become a world-class therapist. Now, with Rousmaniere's guide, I feel like I finally know how to get started.