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Parallel Process in Clinical Supervision: What Is It?

“Humans process new information and anticipate new situations via previously established schemas and scripts”(Kevin O. St. Arnaudl, 2017).

What is parallel process? It was first coined the “Reflection Process” by Searles in 1955, where he found “it’s as if supervisees were unconsciously communicating their clients' difficulties to their supervisors.” Here are a few more recent definitions of parallel process that I found helpful:

“Parallel process is a phenomenon in which supervises present to their supervisors as their clients have presented to them” (Rhonda L. Norman, 2013).

“Counter-transference reactions from supervisors to their trainee also showed parallels in the trainees counter transference reactions towards their clients. That is, not only did trainees bring therapeutic dynamics “up” into supervision, they also brought supervisory relationship dynamics back “down” into therapy.” (Kevin O. St. Arnaudl, 2017).

To reiterate, parallel process is an unconscious experience the supervisee is presenting in the clinical supervision setting that is the same as the client is presenting in the therapeutic session. Let’s say a client comes to your session feeling “stuck,” stating that nothing is changing in his life and he feels frustrated. You as the therapist then come to supervision with the same feelings of frustration. Your supervisor might then feel frustration about not being able to help you, the supervisee. If supervisors are not aware of this process the care of the client and the development of the supervisee can be negatively impacted.

Understanding and discussing parallel process can be an incredibly valuable and corrective experience for both clients and supervisees. Studies continually show that the supervisory relationship is the foundation for supervisee growth. Having an environment that evokes a sense of safety and security to openly discuss how your past experiences show up in a therapeutic setting is paramount. This happens when your supervisor normalizes that your past experiences will reveal themselves in therapy sessions.

For both the supervisor and the supervisee it is a delicate dance to know when the level of safety is present. Knowing when to openly discuss how these schemas are showing up in sessions without creating too much vulnerability. In turn, new therapists can struggle with knowing when to directly address client’s growth areas.

To put it all together, I found a wonderful article by Kevin O. St. Arnaud where he explains examining supervisees’ wounds can be an impactful influence on their work with clients. Supervisors navigate between helping the supervisee but by not providing therapy. Many of you become therapists because of your past experiences. Understanding your wounds and openly discussing how they show up in parallel process is a challenging and necessary part of your therapeutic development.

Have you ever experienced a parallel process in supervision? What was it like for you? Talking about these experiences in supervision can feel vulnerable. With the right supervisory relationship, you can learn to embrace and value those vulnerable parts, in order to enhance therapeutic relationships and skills.


If you or someone you know are interested in learning more about our Clinical Supervision and Clinical Consultation services with Catalyss Counseling, including our group and individual options, contact us at 303-578-6318.

We help therapists throughout Colorado further their professional growth and connect with others who are as passionate about this work as you are.

Author Biography

Kristen Dammer is an LCSW specializing in women's issues and postpartum depression.

Kristen Dammer believes in addressing the whole health needs of you as a person, and her dedication, creativity, and flexibility as a therapist are her greatest strengths. Her holistic approach to anxiety, grief and trauma helps you feel in control and creates a welcoming environment for you to share your vulnerabilities, fears, and experiences. She is trained in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and uses it to treat anxiety and trauma. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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