EMDR supervision within diversity

For this special issue on equality, diversity and inclusion, I have decided to devote my column to examining issues of diversity in the context of EMDR supervision. I plan to illustrate this by sharing some of my own journey in looking at these issues, which will hopefully help my readers reflect on how their own personal context may affect how much they are aware of such issues.

Until recently, my attitude towards this area was a rather naïve one: “I don’t know what the issue is; I just treat everyone the same; isn’t that enough?” It wasn’t until I started writing my book on supervision that a couple of my colleagues, reading earlier drafts of the book, pointed out to me that I was barely addressing these issues in the book.

So, what is my own context? I am a white, straight, middle-class man, brought up in a comfortable, intact family. There was discrimination and related trauma in a previous generation, as my mother was a Jewish refugee who fled from Nazi Germany as a 19-year-old. But I was protected from that. My father was not Jewish, and I was brought up with no religion. In fact, rather than feeling like a member of a persecuted group, I have become aware that my Jewish origins may have engendered in me a sense of superiority with the Jewish belief that we are God’s “chosen people” (Deuteronomy 7:6).   

I have been particularly helped by a colleague explaining to me about ‘white privilege’ or, more generally, ‘social privilege.’ This refers to any advantage based on education, social class, caste, age, height, weight, nationality, geographic location, disability, skin colour, ethnic or racial category, gender identity, neurology, sexual orientation, physical attractiveness, religions or other differentiating factors (Black & Stone, 2005). I advise you not to just skim through that list, muttering, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know!” like I first did. Please read it carefully and consider the implications of each for you personally. Also, perhaps you might think of more categories to add to that list.

This very much accords with the fascinating presentation at this year’s EMDR Association conference in York, where Myira Khan explained that diversity isn’t just something you tag on to your practice but imbues every aspect of your work. The title of her book, “Working Within Diversity” (rather than Working With Diversity), sums this up beautifully (Khan, 2023). It is, therefore, just as important in relation to supervision as it is in relation to therapy.

Returning to what I have told you about my own background, you can see that, although I might have been unaware of what it bestows upon me, many of my supervisees will be only too aware of this. For example, a Palestinian supervisee of mine appears to be more aware of my Jewishness than I am myself. You can see what this might mean for him, particularly in light of the terrible events that are currently occurring in Gaza. This is how he reflected on a supervision session with me when he discussed a client of his who is Jewish:

“I was cautious to put my words right to enable you to see that I tried with my Jewish client, who was a kind client. I was trying to explain how kind he is and that our agreement to terminate therapy was mutual. You became a little irritable with me, and you noted, ‘It does not matter; he is kind.’ I felt as if you did not attend to how I felt and how hard it was for me. However, you got my point towards the end. I would have liked you to ask me, how did it feel to me? But for you it was about the client. I know you meant no harm and perhaps you wanted me to understand that I do not need to try too hard just because he was a Jew.”

My supervisee helped me to realise that, if we discount a supervisee’s own background in supervision, we may, for example, be imposing upon them a western view about the clear boundaries we might have in therapy, which perhaps reflects the boundaried nature of western culture in general.

Like most people, I suppose I sometimes wonder what my supervisees say about me (some of you might be reading this now). My own fantasy is that they probably think, “Robin is a bit posh, a southerner, into classical music, and seems rather pleased with himself. Maybe he looks down on me and thinks I am thick and don’t know what I am talking about.” When I was reading Khan’s book, I was horrified that I ticked every box relating to privilege (white, male, heterosexual, educated, etc.) except, perhaps, ‘attractive’!

So, like many others, I have been unaware of the advantages that have been conferred upon me by my background. The privilege is often unconscious, and this lack of awareness obviously makes it all the more pernicious (McIntosh, 2019).

How might this be relevant to EMDR supervision? Ryde (2019) points out that it is unusual… “for the question in supervision to be ‘How do you think your being white impacts on this situation?’ It is more usual to ask, ‘How do you think this person feels about being black in this situation?’ The first question puts the focus on the white person and how their whiteness influences the dynamic. By looking at the issues in this way, we can start to address some of the responsibilities that white people have within a racial context. It makes the issue theirs as much as others and implicitly brings the unequal power dynamic to the fore. When we ask a black person how they feel or wonder how the black client feels, there is an implicit assumption that they are ‘different’ within a ‘normal’ context. This can subtly emphasize and reinforce the dynamic of the white person being the ‘normal’ one and therefore the most powerful.”

So, what are the specific issues relating to diversity that we should be aware of in EMDR supervision? Some therapists do not receive any supervision other than for EMDR. Also, they may present cases to their EMDR supervisor where issues of diversity arise in relation to the client or in the supervisory relationship. While such issues may not relate directly to the technicalities of EMDR, they may get in the way of the therapy or the supervisory relationship. In that case, they need to be addressed.

To what extent should supervisors work only with supervisees and clients who are from a similar cultural background? As well as the practical impossibility of always doing so, it is probably more important that supervisors cultivate a willingness and curiosity about looking at such issues between themselves and their supervisees. Scaife (2019) talks of the “continuous effort and imagination” (p.183) that is required to address issues of difference.

We must also be aware that we should never make assumptions and second-guess what we might think the issues are likely to be. As one of my colleagues said, “As a person of Indian descent and Caribbean birth, I might think that I ‘know’ where my Trinidadian client is coming from while unwittingly turning a blind eye to the fact that she is of a different generation, of a different social class and religion, and grew up in the sheltered confines of an elite secondary school in another country.”

cartoon of two robots and dogs chatting

Similarly, as someone with a Jewish mother, meaning that I am technically Jewish, you would think that I might have felt some connection to a client I saw some years ago who was an Orthodox Jew. Not only did I feel a massive cultural gulf between us, but I also felt it important not to disclose my heritage, as he might assume that I had extraordinary knowledge and understanding of his situation vis-à-vis his religious identity, before discovering that I was not ‘properly’ Jewish!

So, what can we actually do in supervision to address these issues? The following is based on a list of considerations provided by Scaife (2019), and I have modified it so that it will apply to both supervisors and supervisees alike.

Noticing how you feel

Firstly, notice feelings of discomfort and embarrassment in relation to the experience of difference between you and your supervisor or supervisee, and give full attention to them. An example of this might be a feeling of uncertainty as to whether to mention your difference when you think it might be a relevant issue in relation to the client being discussed and, if so, what word to use (e.g., ‘black,’ ‘brown’, ‘person of colour’).

Educating yourself and your supervisor or supervisee

If you do not know what you might need to know about your supervisor’s, supervisee’s, or client’s gender, culture, sexual orientation, disability and so on, then ASK them! Similarly, supervisors should suggest to their supervisees that they do the same with their clients. Remember that one should never make assumptions about one’s client’s values and beliefs based on their culture. It may be necessary to find out how the service is monitoring referrals by gender, ethnicity, disability, age and so on. Or what services exist for specific groups.

This is likely to be more of an issue for white British supervisors and supervisees, like myself, because these are issues we do not normally have to address in our everyday lives. My Palestinian colleague says, “As non-white supervisor, I found it easier for me to discuss these issues openly than my white colleagues or supervisees. It feels as if I allow myself to talk about it because it has been always relevant to me in both my professional journey as well my personal one. It feels home.”

Explore the power dynamics

Discuss with your supervisor or supervisee what might be significant about the differences between you and them or the therapist and their client. All pairings will have something particular to say about privilege, for example, a black, unemployed, male client with a therapist who is a white female or a Black, gay male, or a physically disabled, straight male. And then add in the characteristics of the supervisor and, perhaps, what fantasies the supervisee might have about how the supervisor perceives what they are telling them about their client in supervision. Ryde (2000) describes three forms of supervisory power:

  • Role power
  • Cultural power
  • Individual power.

Role power would be the power that comes with the actual role of being an EMDR consultant. Cultural power relates to diversity differences between the supervisor and supervisee. Individual power relates to the individual personality of the supervisor and, presumably, how this interacts with the personality of the supervisee. “When all three different sources of power are brought together in the same person, the effect might be quite overwhelming.” (Ryde, 2000, p.42).

Myira Khan says, “…it’s important that you’re able to acknowledge the impact of your intersectional identity on your supervisory relationships and work towards creating a supervision relationship in which power is acknowledged and flattened, and that you identify where the power may be re-enacted and re-experienced ‘in here’.” (Khan, 2023, p.212). However, whilst I quite agree about identifying and acknowledging the power that exists, we cannot get away from what both Ryde and Khan describe as ‘role power,’ i.e., the power bestowed upon the supervisor by nature of their role as EMDR consultant and gatekeeper, in order to evaluate their supervisee’s work and decide when they are ready for accreditation.

As much as possible, we need to flatten the power relationship. This is in reference to diversity within the supervisor’s office, but in terms of ‘role power,’ I do not see this as necessarily a bad thing. I recall asking my first EMDR supervisor many years ago whether I was ready for accreditation after I had received my minimum of 10 hours of supervision. “No, not yet,” he replied. “There are still aspects of the standard protocol that you are not getting right, and we need to do some more work on this.” He was exercising his power and authority over me at that moment, and although I was a little annoyed at the time, I now understand that my practice was enhanced as a result of him doing so. It is my belief that power can be used in a positive way to protect the client and enhance the supervisee’s development as a therapist.

Another story to finish with. I already told this story in a different context in my fourth column of this series, but as my Great Aunty Lizzie used to say, when we complained that we’d heard her stories many times before, “it won’t do you any harm to hear it again!”

Many years ago, before I was involved with EMDR, I had a supervisor named Michael, who is German and with whom I had an excellent supervisory relationship. I had an adolescent client, probably autistic, who repeatedly expressed neo-Nazi opinions during his sessions with me, making comments such as “six million Jews wasn’t enough.” From what you know of my background, it will be evident that I was understandably very distressed by this and decided to take it to supervision. However, this was with some trepidation, as I was aware that this might be difficult for Michael considering his own background. In supervision, I started by explaining the context of my distress by disclosing my own heritage, which I had not previously done. Before we discussed my case, Michael shared that his wife was also from a second-generation German Jewish refugee family. I don’t think he found it easy because of his own feelings of inherited guilt, but he was very supportive and helpful in discussing this particular case. In fact, my wife and I later became friends with them both.

It is important to accept that looking at issues of diversity is hard for all of us. It is crucial to recognise this for ourselves and acknowledge to our clients, supervisors and supervisees that we should try our best, but we may never actually get it completely right.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Omar Sattaur, Hamodi Kayal and Karen Beswick for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article.