Parallel process is a supervisory phenomenon whereby relational interplay, feelings or experiences which occur in the therapeutic relationship are re-enacted in the supervisory relationship. This can be a result of identification with a client, countertransference processes, or even just an unconscious means of making sense of what is happening in the therapeutic dynamic. I think it is a curious and fascinating occurrence in supervision and that’s why I wish to talk about it here.
I make no secret of the fact that I am deeply intrigued by unconscious processes and the way in which our unconscious minds operate seemingly entirely independently with great complexity and purpose. The fact that parallel process offers us a way to notice, explore and utilise our unconscious functioning to enhance our therapeutic work with clients is absolutely thrilling to me.
Without discussing the work I bring to supervision, I want to briefly explore an example of parallel process which once occurred in my own supervision: One session, as I discussed my feelings around some therapeutic work, my supervisor explained how we could explore this in supervision. I suddenly, unexpectedly and disproportionately became very angry with him for explaining supervision to me. The more cross I became, the more he explained himself, and the crosser I became, until suddenly, in a moment of clarity, I realised we were experiencing parallel process. I reminded my supervisor of the previous session where he had stated that my tendency to over-explain therapy and the therapeutic process to my clients in some situations, particularly when I felt under pressure, may not allow enough space for open exploration and self-direction in therapy. I pointed out that he had been doing exactly what he had advised me not to do, and sure enough I had felt stifled, frustrated and not heard.
I think that, on this occasion my unconscious was looking to find a way to make sense of my own process as a therapist, and what potentially could have occurred for clients, and additionally, I feel there may have been an element of projecting my anger and frustration at my own over-explaining onto my supervisor. Those feelings were brought into the room and unconsciously became part of the interplay between me and my supervisor. My supervisor appeared to take on my feelings – wanting to explain himself – without either of us being conscious of the significance of the exchange in the moment.
This tense and difficult session provided a very worthwhile and productive conversation about what was happening for me (and for my supervisor) in that moment which I was able to hold in mind going forward in my therapeutic work. I felt energised from the supervision session and in awe at what both my, and my supervisor’s unconscious had to offer the supervisory process.
This week is International Supervision Week, and today I have met with my current supervisor for the last time as he moves towards semi-retirement. So this feels like the perfect moment to honour the supervisory process, and to thank my supervisor for his part in my journey as a practitioner. Moments of learning such as the one I describe above, undoubtedly nurture my growth as a therapist and teach me both the value of supervision, and of paying attention to the wondrous unconscious.