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In conversation

"In ‘The Internal Supervisor’ Alison Rickard describes how the art of self-reflection can underpin and support therapy. In conversation with Professor Colin Feltham, the author explains her perspective further."

Volume 22
Issue 1
February 2011

  • Category: Features

Taking time to turn our attention to thinking about our client work and ourselves will lead to a stronger and more confident internal supervisor

  • The internal supervisor

  • by
  • Alison Rickard
  • You’ve just sat down to assess a new client and you thought their name sounded familiar. Now, 10 minutes into the assessment, an alarm goes off in your head. Not only do you know who they are but you also know that they caused a lot of difficulty for an organisation that you now work with. If this was a game show you’d have the option to phone a friend, and you certainly wish you had your supervisor at the end of a phone right now! But you don’t, so what do you do, and what helps you to make the right decisions for yourself and this client?

    I have always been intrigued by the concept of the internal supervisor, a way of describing reflective practice summed up by Casement.1 I have often wondered whether this is something to be acquired or something already present that needs uncovering and developing. Casement introduced the idea of the internal supervisor as a friendly super-ego that can be consulted at times when formal supervision is unavailable. Others have developed this concept, underlining the importance of reflecting on therapeutic work as a way of maintaining good practice.

    The nature of professional therapy, with its demand to remain up to date with the latest thinking and research while also attending to one’s personal and professional development, surely causes us to take seriously the art of self-reflection, self-awareness and self-supervision. With this in mind I have attempted to draw together my thoughts about how we can understand the internal supervisor; how the internal supervisor can help to underpin and support our therapeutic work; and how it can be developed in a way that enhances our work and helps to maintain good practice.

    Understanding the internal supervisor
    Is our internal supervisor the combined voice of the best teacher and supervisor we have ever had, internalised in our head, that we can tune in to when need arises? Perhaps this is the case in the early days of therapeutic work, when it is wise to take on board the thoughts, evaluations and guidance of our supervisor. And when, in sticky situations in a session, to resort to trying to think how the supervisor might think.

    Certainly, in his work with trainees, Casement noticed that they often relied too much on the advice and comments of their supervisor and needed to develop a sense of their own internal supervisor that they could call upon during a therapeutic session, to guide them in their work with the client. Continuing this theme, Tudor and Worrell2 observed that the therapist takes in their external supervisor’s style of thinking, and by developing the capacity of spontaneous reflection, where the internal and external supervisor voices dialogue with each other, reaches a stage of autonomous functioning. Thinking back to how I felt as a newly qualified counsellor, I realise how important it was for me to discover my own meaning, my own answers, my own solutions within supervision, and how this parallels the learning process in therapy, as we encourage the client towards self-knowledge, understanding and autonomy.

    Rogers3 wrote of a dawning realisation: that moment when the penny drops and the individual realises that they have within them the capability of deciding their own values and judgements. He spoke of the self-referent as the internal locus of evaluation. In the context of supervision, an internal locus of evaluation can lead the supervisee to a lessening reliance on the evaluations and opinions of others (including the supervisor), and to developing more faith and belief in their own judgement. It is especially important for trainees and newly qualified counsellors that within supervision they are enabled to find and develop their own supervisory voice and have space to experience their own ‘penny dropping’ moments.

    When I asked colleagues and supervisees to think about whether there was a cartoon character or fictional person who represented their internal supervisor, I had varied responses. Many thought of Owl from Winnie the Pooh, others said Bugs Bunny, a ‘still, small voice’, and a wise grandmother. Bolton4 refers to reflection and the internal supervisor as being like a hawk in your mind, a constant presence, circling overhead, watching and advising while we are practising.

    I was also struck by the differing ideas and opinions concerning self-supervision, ranging from those who thought it a dangerous notion, to those who were genuinely uncertain as to how the theory worked with regards to their own practice. I have observed that some therapists have a natural bias towards self-reflection and are very aware of their own internal process of reflection on their client work, while others are not necessarily aware of any internal process at work, preferring the external process of reflection in the context of formal supervision. It seems important to stress that self-supervision can never and should never replace formal supervision, but it can help to underpin and support therapeutic work.

    Underpinning our work
    The theory I have found most helpful in understanding how the internal supervisor works in practice comes originally from Schon5 and is covered in some detail by Henderson and Bailey.6 Here, two processes that the internal supervisor uses to support therapeutic work are described as: reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. Reflection-in-action refers to the use of the internal supervisor within a therapy session, to monitor the work, to observe and notice any change of focus or any felt sense, and to judge the appropriate use of self in relation to the work. Reflection-on-action refers to the time after the session, to think and reflect on what has happened, what worked, what did not work, to consider what might have been left unsaid, and to prepare for presenting the work in supervision. The skill needed to carry out such an internal process while remaining ‘present’ to the client can perhaps only come with time and experience and the encouragement and support of the supervisor.

    I have observed that supervisees who are naturally reflective, who have a clear sense of who they are in relation to others, find it easier to know what thoughts, feelings and emotions in the room belong to them as opposed to the client. Personal awareness helps them remain grounded, so they are less likely to be swamped by the content and experience of the client. Self-awareness (the recognition of our thoughts, feelings, motives, desires and internal processes as they occur), and reflexivity (our ability to know our thoughts and feelings about them) would appear crucial to self-understanding and insight, and are key to how we are when in relationship with clients. I would suggest that self-awareness and reflexivity are also pivotal to how we are able to use supervision, and the extent to which we are able to understand the concept of the internal supervisor.

    The internal supervisor has an important part to play in helping the therapist to monitor ethical issues and considerations that occur within their therapeutic work. While in formal supervision it would be a shared responsibility with the supervisor to attend to ethical issues, when the therapist is in the room with the client, the responsibility is with the therapist alone. For many and varied reasons it is not always possible to attend supervision, and missing occasional sessions is sometimes an occupational hazard in busy lives. At these times an internal supervisor can help to alleviate any concerns we may have about our work. We don’t have to wait until formal supervision to reflect in depth about the ethical implications of a particular piece of work; we can begin the process in our own time, and this, in many ways, helps us to be better prepared for supervision when we do attend.

    Developing the internal supervisor
    Thinking about how we develop the internal supervisor leads me to consider my own training, development and progress in the field of counselling. For me, counsellor training came as a development of an existing vocation – 20 years involvement in lay ministry (non ordained) within the Church of England. Added to this, I have been a vocations consultant (VC) for nearly 10 years.

    In my work with vocations enquirers (those who think they may have a calling to ordained ministry) I am required to guide them through a process of discernment that expects them to think deeply about their strengths and weaknesses, gifts and abilities, beliefs, faith and ethics, and their experiences and spirituality. This is a process that I have gone through myself: when I was selected for ministry in 1987, during training, when I was commissioned as a Church Army Evangelist (1990), my training as a counsellor and more recently my training as a supervisor. A discernment process of any type, whether it is for ministry or counselling, demands us to be honest about who we are, to consider the reality of which we are made and what we might achieve.

    I believe that the theory and skills involved in counselling have had a positive impact on my work as a VC, and the explorative and reflective skills necessary for theological study and the discernment process have had an equally favourable influence on my therapeutic work. Through my various roles within ministry and as a therapist, I have learnt the value of self-reflection, self-questioning and of making the time and space to think deeply about myself and my work with others. This has also informed the way I use formal supervision and the development of my own internal supervisor.

    The other experience that I feel to be key here concerns group supervision. The participative groups in which I have been involved have given me the opportunity to test out my ‘supervisory wings’. In a participative group supervisees are invited to take an active role in supervising each other under the direction of the supervisor. The supervisor plays a crucial role in facilitating a safe space where the individual internal supervisors can come out to play, to vocalise the internal process of self-supervision and use those skills and processes to think, question and reflect on the work of others.

    The formative task of supervision described by Inskipp and Proctor7 involves a shared responsibility in supervision for the counsellor’s development in skill, knowledge and understanding. It promotes the idea of the supervisor as teacher who highlights where theory informs practice, introduces new concepts, challenges strongly held ways of working, and encourages the continued development of the therapist’s internal supervisor.

    In my supervision practice and in my role as assistant manager of a counselling service I have been constantly challenged to exercise ethical thinking, possibly more so than in my client work. I have coped by giving a higher degree of thought to the theory and philosophy of self-supervision. I have learnt that, as with many things in life, the learning is in the doing – nurturing and developing a skill takes practice!

    Finding time in our busy lives to think things through at a deeper level is not always easy. Some people find it best to find a quiet place to be alone. Personally I find that I do my best thinking while doing the ironing (no, really!). Colleagues tell me their thinking time is while driving or walking their dog. This is another instance when self-awareness is so important, so that we know what works best for us. Whether self-reflection is something that comes naturally to us or not, taking regular time to turn our attention to thinking about ourselves and our client work will lead to a stronger and more confident internal supervisor, and this will be reflected in our practice. Developing an internal supervisor is not just about maintaining good practice, it is also about taking care of ourselves and giving the right amount of time and attention to our own development as human beings.

    Talking to some trainees recently, I was reminded how as therapists we never reach an end in our learning. The ongoing learning and self-development involved in therapeutic work can feel tiring and overly demanding at times, but it can also be stimulating, challenging, exciting and very rewarding. The internal supervisor can best be understood as an invaluable resource, a meaningful friend and companion to monitor our work and guide us in our thinking. Even if self-reflection is not something that comes naturally to us, we can learn the habit by taking time to practise the skill.

    So for all those sticky moments in a session when an ethical dilemma presents itself, when there’s something going on in the room that we’re just not sure about, when a boundary is in danger of being challenged or the client does something unexpected, that’s the time to metaphorically ‘phone a friend’!

  • Alison Rickard is assistant manager of Hastings & Rother Counselling Service and has recently completed the Cascade training in supervision. Please email

    Please email contributions about supervision to our Associate Editor of supervision, Bernice Sorensen, at

  • References:

    1. Casement P. On learning from the patient. London: Tavistock; 1985.
    2. Tudor K, Worrall M (eds). Freedom to practise: person-centred approaches to supervision. Ross-On-Wye: PCCS Books; 2004.
    3. Rogers CR. Client-centred therapy. London: Constable; 1951.
    4. Bolton G. Reflective practice. London: Paul Chapman; 2001.
    5. Schon DA. Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 1987.
    6. Henderson P (ed). Supervision training: issues and approaches. London: Karnac Books; 2009.
    7. Inskipp F, Proctor B. Making the most of supervision. Middlesex: Cascade; 1994.

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