Supervision of Mid-Life Supervisees

Supervision of Mid-Life Supervisees

This article first appeared on May 1, 2018 in the newsletter for the San Francisco Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. Click here to read the original article on the SF CAMFT website.

Feature Article:
Supervision of Midlife Supervisees

By: Marla Cass, LMFT

One of the many interesting things about the practice of psychotherapy is that it is a profession that attracts people from a wide range of backgrounds. Unlike many career paths, becoming a psychotherapist does not require any particular background prior to graduate school, aside from a college degree and a few psychology courses. As a result, becoming a licensed psychotherapist is a career people can pursue later in life, often after being in other professions and after considerable life experience. To add to the appeal for older career changers, it is also one of the few careers in which being older is actually valued.

The transition from being in other professions to becoming a psychotherapist, however, is not an easy one. Many older Interns/Trainees/Associates are moving from careers in which they felt competent and were recognized in the form of praise and compensation. While they may have anticipated the challenges of returning to school as older students, they are often ill-prepared for the experience of working under a clinical supervisor.

Psychotherapy supervision is a hierarchical model that requires that the supervisee take direction from the supervisor. This may be an efficient and arguably necessary structure (not to mention a legal requirement), given that the supervisor has more experience in the field and the supervisee is working under the license of the supervisor. However, it often fails to recognize the unique perspective that an older supervisee brings to his or her work, as well as the psychological difficulties involved in transitioning from a person who felt competent in his or her job to being a person who now needs to take direction.

Coming to this work with considerable work and life experience is certainly an asset with respect to understanding clients, but it can also be a liability when it comes to learning to become a psychotherapist. For example, it can be difficult to grasp the many ways in which the role of a psychotherapist is different from whatever role they may have had in their previous profession. And even where similarities may exist, therapists may approach seemingly similar situations very differently from people in other professions.

In addition, supervisees are expected to talk about their feelings and personal reactions to their work with clients, and to be vulnerable with their supervisors. In most professions, however, talking about feelings and being vulnerable with peers and superiors is inconceivable. It may take a supervisee time to adjust to this cultural shift and the process may be slow and difficult. This can be puzzling to supervisors, especially to supervisors who have primarily worked in the field of mental health where such openness is expected and normal.

As an older supervisee, it can help to slow down and try to understand the perspective of the supervisor. What is the underlying reason for the supervisor’s position? Ask questions about the concepts you are being taught and listen to the answers with an open mind. Recognize that learning to be a clinician is also an entry to a language and professional culture that may be very different from that of your previous profession.

For supervisors of older supervisees, it is helpful to recognize the experience the supervisee brings to his or her work and to consider how you can make use of this in supervision. Keep in mind that older supervisees may be used to dealing with their superiors in a very different way, as compared to younger supervisees. Older supervisees are more likely to challenge their supervisors when there is a difference of opinion, and it can be harder for them to take direction when there is disagreement. The emotional upheaval of being the learner rather than the teacher can be disconcerting and lead to frustration and impatience. Older supervisees may also feel the need to display a level of confidence that may not match the uncertainty they feel inside.

While supervision is not therapy, many of the same principles apply: listen closely, ask clarifying questions, try to understand the underlying feelings, and consider how the past experiences of the person in front of you may have impacted him or her and be showing up in your work together. Think about the transference and countertransference that may be occurring in the supervisory relationship.

Don’t forget about the cultural issues and recognize that psychotherapists have their own culture, too, which can present a steep learning curve for supervisees, especially those new to the field. Keeping these tools in mind will not only help clinicians get the most out of supervision and supervising, but they will also help to make them the best therapists and supervisors they can be.

Marla Cass (MFC 45402) is in private practice in downtown San Francisco. Her focus is on working with women who are successful in their careers but not in their relationships. She has been a group supervisor at The Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research, Pacific Center, and The Women’s Therapy Center; and is currently an individual supervisor for Queer Life Space and Community Institute for Psychotherapy. For more information, please see her website at

Questions about psychotherapy or about my approach to psychotherapy? Please see my website at and contact me at: 415-218-2442 (phone link works from smartphones only) or at