Saturday, February 18, 2012


Mastery is a sometimes elusive sense of competence, success, and/or achievement. It comes when we engage in any activity (work, hobby, household task, etc.) and get positive results, meet or exceed our own expectations. It's an important ingredient in mental health, and reduces emotional vulnerability to life's inevitable difficulties.

While it sounds simple, it's unfortunately not for the vast majority of client's I've seen.  Some have limited opportunity for mastery due to socioeconomic status, too many demands on their time, and/or multiple psychosocial stressors. Others do not experience themselves as competent, regardless of their ability levels, due to low self-esteem and/or perfectionism. Some have areas of competence but are impeded from pursuing them by low energy and motivation, high anxiety, etc. All of the above are missing out on a key resource for recovery and longer-term health.

Sometimes clients' symptoms actually offer them some sense of mastery. For example, weight loss creates a feeling of success in clients with eating disorders, and following particular rituals perfectly may offer a feeling of competence to someone with OCD. In these cases, mastery is a double-edged sword: its power as a reinforcer may strengthen the symptoms we're working with clients to change. As a result, it becomes even more crucial to help clients find something other than the symptom through which they can experience mastery.

The need for mastery applies to therapists, too. However, while work is a core source of mastery for many people, therapy perhaps offers fewer opportunities to experience mastery than other fields might. The work we do is definitely not concrete, rarely visible or measurable, and change happens slowly. While there are those breakthrough moments that are exhilarating to witness and leave us with the feeling that we're making a difference, there are also many moments where the results are much harder to recognize. Many of the therapist I know compensate by finding mastery in other areas (e.g., hobbies or family roles), and a surprising number even find comfort in the "busy work" of the job - paperwork, data entry, even adding labels to charts.

Is mastery an issue for your clients? Do you address it in your work? If so, how? Where do you find your own sense of master?

1 comment:

  1. As a therapist, I struggled for a long time with the whole mastery thing. I felt like I wasn't making a difference. I found myself liking the patients that were getting better and dreading my sessions with patients who were still struggling. It made me very unhappy and for a while, I no longer wanted to be a therapist. Over time, though, I came to realize that a patient getting better or not getting better was not necessarily a reflection of my skills (or worth) as a therapist. Sometimes people get better DESPITE having an unskilled therapist; sometimes people don't get better, despite having the most skilled therapist out there. I had to learn to just be the best therapist I could be and to be OK with that. As for mastery and achievement, I decided that perhaps work was not the best place to look for that, at least not for me.