CLINICIAN HEAL THYSELF! (featuring guest blogger Lucy McLellan)

 As former Program/Training Director/Blog Editor at CANY, I was honored to be invited to contribute this month’s post. Although I live 1,000 miles away from NYC these days, situated in Madison, WI, I continue to follow SYNTHESIS on a monthly basis. It keeps me connected to the ideas and practice swirling around the CANY and wider drama therapy community, something that keeps my clinical heart beating as one of only three Registered Drama Therapists in the state of Wisconsin. What I offer below speaks to this experience directly. It is an invitation to you, reader, to consider the ways in which we remain connected to our knowledge, skills and passion on the job.



I am high energy person. Even in middle age, I barrel through daily life with intensity. It is, to draw from Tich Nach Hahn, a habit energy; not as much an innate state as an energetic drive that I have adopted over the years, pushing me on.

As a drama therapist, however, my high energy serves me well. I enter the therapeutic space comfortable with emotional intensity. I do not fear the stories or the roles conjured up in the playspace of the trauma-affected clients I work with. I am drawn to the vigor of enactment.

All that said, I am as prone to compassion fatigue as the next clinician, arguably more so. My high energetic out-put requires conscious replenishment, a lesson I have learned the hard way. Staying clinically engaged and countering the secondary hurts of posttraumatic stress has become a necessary labor of (self) love for me. Over the last year, I have repeatedly found myself drawing from Mary Jo Barrett’s concept of ethical attunement as a way of managing my energy as a therapist.

Understanding Ethical Attunement

“Ethical Attunement is a non-reactive therapeutic stance in which practitioners are open and responsive to their own internal processes and to those of their clients.” (p.60)

Ethical attunement demands that we as therapists monitor our own energetic resources and as necessary. Compassion fatigue becomes a clinical certainty when we energetically give in the treatment of others and neglect to restock our own energy stores. Mary Jo nails it – “We cannot stay ethically attuned if we are energy-depleted.”(p.59)

In the office space I share at work here in Madison, WI, I have created a large chalk copy of Barrett’s infographic “Manage Your Energy for Optimal Ethical Performance“. For me it provides a simple and applicable blueprint for remaining plugged into my energetic needs so that I can recognize and meet those of my clients.

Of course there’s more than just high energy. One of my favorite aspects of Mary Jo’s energy management action plan is her attention to both low positive (drinking warm tea) and high positive (running, dancing) energy replenishers. A brief survey reveals a broad spectrum of ways in which my current co-workers like to energetically restock, ranging from “yoga” and “solitude” to “smashing playdoh”. Whatever floats your energetic boat!



As a drama therapist, I wonder also about creative replenishment. Mary Jo identifies five domains of ethical awareness, each a player in overall well-being:

  • Emotional
  • Physical
  • Intellectual
  • Spiritual
  • Sexual

I would argue that there is a sixth; creativity being that missing piece.

In my work with CANY over a ten year period, I experienced both the energetic highs and lows of group leadership. For every exquisite metaphor enacted, there was a drama that spluttered into life, sometimes refusing to spark altogether. Regardless of what happened in the playspace, my role as a drama therapist was (and is) to hold the energy of possibility. It’s the “yes” of improv; creativity at its essence.

Let me give you a concrete example. I used to facilitate a weekly group with Heidi Landis, CANY’s Associate Executive Director. Together, we would drive to Westchester to co-lead a group with teenage girls who shared a history of commercial sexual exploitation, more commonly known as sex trafficking. Before even entering the room, our knowledge of the girls’ traumatic history arguably impacted our energetic potential. A therapist can sometimes feel crushed by psychosocial knowledge of a client in a way that counters the zesty, fierce (albeit traumatized) individual that walks into treatment.

The group experience itself was textbook chaos, characterized by unscheduled interruptions and dysregulated expressions of anger and distrust. Unsurprisingly the clients seemed avoidant and disconnected. Planning sessions that prefaced weekly groups left me feeling clueless. No activity or intervention seemed safe from rejection. Post-group processing was equally gruesome as we dissected the blood and guts of what happened, searching for something that we might call therapeutic progress.

How could Heidi and I remain ethically attuned to the emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual and sexual experience of our clients in our stuckness? How could we honor their creative potential too when we were felt so artistically deflated?

Simple. We reminded ourselves of our therapeutic potential by returning to our creative roots. We played, we laughed; from the sublime to the ridiculous. We listened to 1980’s rock ballads we drove north on the Henry Hudson Parkway. We bought reviving coffee in Dobbs Ferry. We talked about our lives and about the lives of our clients. We remembered our times as actors, shared comic tales of touring our respective nations. We talked about our values, our beliefs. We tied them into group plans and the hopes we had for these remarkable, though life-battered girls. There was an investment in each domain of ethical awareness, including our creativity. And thus, when we arrived at and left our group each week, we were ready to engage. Our doubts, our stuff on hold so that we could be present and attuned to the stuff of our clients. This was how we managed our energy for optimal ethical performance.

I realize in concluding this blog post that I have written a letter of gratitude to my co-therapist, Heidi. Indeed to all my co-leaders at CANY. The very model that CANY offers its employees essentially allows for the management of energy and thus ethical attunement through relationship, which in my opinion is the very best medicine of all. So, thank you, Heidi (and CANY) for helping me to reconnect with my creative heartbeat before and after each group. We didn’t get to smash playdoh together but we replenished in a whole host of other high and low energy ways.



Lucy McLellan, MA, RDT-BCT, LCAT


1 Comment

  1. Wow, Lucy. This is brilliant and deeply inspiring. As usual, your life force and your intellect are equaled by your unflagging dedication to your craft and your love of and respect for play in all its magnificent spontaneity. Thank you. Blessings to you and yours. I am forever in your debt.

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