by Mark McKinley, Psy.D., Impulse Staff Writer



Involvement in a professional community offers many important benefits to psychotherapists. The community is a place to sharpen one's clinical skills, cultivate potential referral sources, and seek emotional support for the solitary work of psychotherapy. It is also a place to give back, expand one's own contribution to the field, and facilitate its development. Despite the many benefits of participating in a professional community, oftentimes clinicians hesitate to engage in one.   


At a recent public event, the Access Institute Alumni Association organized a panel to discuss the unique challenges psychotherapists face in building community and deepening professional relationships. As one panelist observed, unlike other professions in which the skills required to perform specific work duties can be easily separated from one's self, the practice of psychotherapy necessarily involves and implicates all aspects of the therapist's self. This makes the work of the therapist intimately personal. As such, it can open a space of vulnerability when discussing clinical work, sharing one's thoughts, or freely socializing with other colleagues as the boundary between the professional and the personal can be easily blurred. Worries about being judged are therefore not just limited to the professional realm but also can be felt as personal shortcomings.  


What is risked in reaching out to others is a sense of overexposure. This concern is amplified when we consider what is revealed about us, intentionally or unintentionally, in the company of other highly trained listeners. Will others find me too disturbed, disorganized, or unaware to practice competently, to refer patients to, or to include me in the next professional event?  Shame can be easily elicited. The result is often to uphold a heightened sense of self-censorship, constantly monitoring how fully we can bring ourselves to relationships with our professional colleagues.


At the heart of this vulnerability are concerns about whether one belongs to and is accepted by the community. By being sensitive to this vulnerability, we can contain both real and imagined fears of relating with our fellow colleagues and foster a more welcoming environment that makes space for the varied parts of ourselves to be seen. Herein lies a tremendous opportunity for increased intimacy and meaningful engagement with each other but also the risk of alienation. How individuals and the community come to manage, embrace, or disavow this vulnerability is pivotal in building a containing professional community.