When I had just begun my psychotherapy training, a friend told me that she had once started training as a counsellor. “But” she said, “they were insisting that everyone should be in counselling themselves during training. I couldn’t see the point. I had a perfectly happy childhood, and things in my current life and relationships felt fine. Why on earth did they assume that everyone needs therapy?” My friend felt dissatisfied with the system and decided to quit the training.
At that time, I didn’t know how to answer that. My friend was making a good point. As the saying goes, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’
In a way, she’s right. Of course not everyone needs therapy! If you feel you are flourishing and fulfilled, that’s brilliant. If you feel comfortable with who you are, have relationships in which you feel free to express yourself and give and receive love and support, then by all means keep doing whatever you’re doing – it’s clearly working!
But here’s the thing: if you are in training to be a therapist or counsellor, I have come to believe that no matter how ‘sorted’ you are, and no matter how happy your childhood was, and however good your relationships are — you should still be in weekly therapy. I’d even go further, and say: you should consider being in therapy for a substantial length of time — several years rather than months.
The crucial thing that every therapist should know? It is that we therapists need to have a solid, living, meaningful and transformative experience of therapy ourselves.
Why? I think there are many reasons, but to me, these are the main ones:
- It’s really important to be able to distinguish between your own ‘stuff’ and that of your client. Personal therapy helps you develop much more clarity about whose issue is whose, and then you can be of far greater service to your client.
- It’s important to be in a position where you can really give to your clients without being caught up in feeling unhelpfully envious towards them for receiving your care and attention. Your clients deserve for you to have done your own work, and to have properly received enough care and attention from your own therapist. When you experience in your own therapy the feeling that you have really gotten your fill of something deeply valuable, you are in a much better position to offer to your clients what they need. Of course, some moments of envy, here and there, is normal — envy can be a perfectly acceptable emotion if it can be looked at, understood and moved on from. But if your envy towards a client hinders your ability to really let them blossom and shine, then this is a big problem and will interfere with the work.
- To feel — really feel — what being the client can be like. To be a therapy client can take enormous courage: you may be brought face to face with your own vulnerability, dependency, neediness, fury, impotence… Once you have deeply experienced these in yourself, you will be far better able to empathise with and understand your clients when they struggle with these sorts of feelings.
- It gives you a deep sense of confidence. When you have been in depth psychotherapy, and stayed in it as long as necessary, you ‘know what’s down there’. You know what your own issues and sensitive areas are. You are not afraid of discovering something scary and unexpected in your mental basement, because you’ve been down there so many times, and your own therapist has accompanied you and helped you feel okay about all your ‘shadow’ parts. Correspondingly, you are in a good position to help your clients explore the places in themselves that feel unknown and alarming.
- When you’ve been in therapy over time and have allowed yourself to contact your most vulnerable, innermost layers of self, you develop attuned respect for the seemingly small things that can sometimes trigger a client’s upset. Because you’ve been there, you’ve learned to understand and compassionately recognise the ‘child’ parts in yourself. When the therapist is truly respectful of the client’s feelings, the client will pick this up on a deep level and is likely to become more available for change processes to occur. It also means that because the therapist knows that she too has parts of herself that can be irrational/ needy/ selfish/ whatever, she won’t be likely to think of herself as superior to the client.
- A therapist who has done a great deal of personal work will have learned to ‘hold’ her own feelings in such a way that they don’t spill out and interfere with the client’s process — whilst at the same time not repressing them in herself. If a therapist simply represses her own feelings whilst with a client, the therapist will also be cutting off from similar feelings in the client – and will thus be unavailable to properly help her client manage those feelings.
- A therapist who has learned to really sit with the depths of her own distress and suffering, is well resourced for being in touch with any sorrow, grief and trauma that her client might need to bring. And a therapist who has felt the joy of deep in-the-moment connection with her own therapist, may be better able to look out for opportunities to foster those peak relational experiences with her client.
- We’ve all got our ‘blind spots’ – areas and themes that we tend to overlook, for all sorts of reasons. Over time, being in therapy helps us to notice and attend to our blind spots. But if the therapist is unaware of her own blind spots, then when these coincide with those of her client, she won’t be able to help the client. Both will stay in the dark, and the difficulties that brought the client to therapy in the first place may persist.
Of course, there are always going to be exceptions to every rule. I have another counsellor friend who was already a wonderfully skilled and empathic clinician for several years before she embarked upon her own therapy. And I’ve met the occasional therapist and counsellor who may have had quite a bit of personal therapy, but who still has substantial blind-spots and emotional blocks.
But on the whole, I’m convinced that therapists and counsellors are likely to benefit hugely from experiencing in-depth psychotherapy for themselves (and fortunately, many training programmes require it).
So, if you’re a therapist or counsellor (or you’re in training), and haven’t been in therapy yourself — I urge you to give it a go! A wonderfully rich, fulfilling and (yes) challenging experience awaits you…A rich, fulfilling and challenging experience for therapists... Click To Tweet