Loss is part of transition: every change implies something left behind (as well as something newly gained).Ondine Smulders
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are embedded throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Ondine Smulders, an Existential psychotherapist and supervisor with experience spanning more than ten years.
What are the main influences drawing you towards your particular interests of depression, loss, and transitions?
The experience of depression in my late teens/twenties drew me into personal therapy initially. Learning that life is not static and that transitions form an integral part of it, sparked my curiosity. Loss is part of transition: every change implies something left behind (as well as something newly gained). When we do not mourn our losses, depression can take hold. It pulls us away from the world and our engagement with others. We become trapped in a meaningless void, lacking past and future. This is all the harder when others do not understand us, making us feel deeply alone and isolated.
I work phenomenologically, which means that I focus on the experience of the client rather than on seeking a truth, especially the happy truth. We live in an era of constant optimism, where society tells us that we are failing at life if we are not ‘happy’. Phenomenology allows me to bridge the gap of isolation, to establish a human connection and a feeling of understanding. I shine a light in the darker corners, assist the client in finding possibilities in their despair, thus gaining a different insight, and (re)discovering value and meaning in future projects and people.
Are they the same influences that keep you in the field today? How have they evolved?
I will never get enough of my clients and their stories, each one a unique voice in the vast sea of our lives. The way clients invite me into their lives and psyches, how they tell me about their suffering, makes me feel privileged, time and again.
There is so much need. When I started, I did not realise how many of us struggle with life’s continual process of change which covers most aspects of our existence. There are the obvious changes such as leaving school or university, getting a new job, our first intimate relationship and breakup, becoming a parent, illness, and of course death, the ultimate transition. But there are also the less obvious transitions we experience daily, namely that minute and constant adjustment of our-selves because of every encounter and experience (or lack thereof) that we have.
What do you think it would be like if there was no such thing as confidentiality in therapy?
I believe there would be no work for psychotherapists without confidentiality. I have no doubt that most clients would dislike delving deeply into themselves without the safety of total privacy. It would be like asking a client to get undressed in public. For most of us, myself included, that would be excruciating. I respect and protect my client’s right to confidentiality. What I offer, to be heard in complete privacy, is powerful. Only when the client and the therapist trust each other can problems be spoken aloud, worked through, and constructive feedback offered.
That said, confidentiality can be broken if a client is considered a danger to themselves or another person. When this occurs, I always aim to discuss with the client my concerns and the actions I am about to take.
What is your idea of the ‘wounded healer’?
The concept of the wounded healer was conceived by Carl Jung, a psychoanalyst. It basically describes a person who seeks to heal themselves by healing others. Many of us are drawn to help others, often to alleviate our own pain and find some form of wholeness. I am no different.
Psychotherapy is a powerful instrument for both the client and the therapist. The therapist offers a safe space, listens without judgement, and truly sees the client. Their acceptance of the client’s psychic reality and the therapeutic bond are healing for the client. What is restoring for the therapist is the process of being open to the other and learning from them. This can help us find meaning in our life. I have dwelt in both chairs, that of the client and the therapist. First, I felt the healing presence of my therapist, then I experienced (still am) the other side as a professional. Through the work I have not just found meaning for me (I know, it sounds a bit cliché but nevertheless it is true), but I have also learned a lot from my clients. This is helping me to live a more fulfilling life—I know for instance that I am a little less rigid these days, more accepting of my limitations, sit easier in silence, and have become a bit more comfortable with uncertainty.
Are there any experiences you can share which you found particularly striking in your work?
Since I started working as a psychotherapist, I have never felt that I had more clients than I could handle. It feels strange to say it, perhaps stranger still to read it, but it is as if the universe is looking after my practice and me. ‘Uncanny’ as Freud would have said. I am as busy as I am capable of at any one time. In the last few years, I experienced a couple of serious losses which reduced my psychic space for clients. Amazingly, their numbers dwindled organically to just the right level. When I felt fit and capable once more, my diary quickly refilled. It has made me realise that I am a tiny part of the universe, it is inside me and I can trust it/myself.
What are the greatest lessons you learned as a psychotherapist?
One of my life’s great lessons came in my late twenties, long before I started my training. It is my guiding light still—St Francis of Assisi’s Serenity Prayer expresses the idea that we need to accept our lack of control over others/events, that we only have control over ourselves (limited–my belief) and that real wisdom lies in knowing the difference. Living these words well remains a daily struggle. For instance, it can be tempting to rescue a stressed client but know that it is better to respect their individuality and allow them to develop at their own pace. I have also had to learn to accept that some clients do not want to change. That is difficult to accept as a psychotherapist. After all, I am here to help others. I help clients clarify their situation and offer possibilities, but sometimes these are not what the client wants, or change comes at too high a price and they choose (actively this time) for the status quo. All I can do is watch and learn.
Read more about Ondine Smulders at her website: https://www.counselling17.com/