In all of the counseling courses I help teach, I’m always staggered by the number of students who raise their hands when I ask, “How many of you have never been in therapy?” What’s more, I’m always staggered by the number of professional therapists I meet who are in the same boat. Not good, people. Not good! There’s a reason the phrase, “Physician heal thyself!” is usually said tongue-in-cheek – usually because it’s a near-impossible task. That I can sense pathology in others does not mean I see it with clarity in myself. That I can help others mend broken relationships or irrational thinking does not necessarily intimate I can apply therapeutic balm in those areas of my own life. Of course, I’m not saying we’re helpless either. Just that one of the major flaws of some training programs is the glaring requirement omission to walk a mile in our clients’ moccasins. Sure, you had your group process class in grad school. Sure, you had some meaningful conversations with your advisor. Sure, you did some pseudo-counseling with your cohorts. But, if my experience is any indication, everything I learned by being in class was solidified, expounded upon, and given context by everything I learned while in therapy. Here are 3 reasons I think you’ll find being in therapy is an essential step to being a good therapist: 1. You’re screwed up. Just like the preacher who’s driven into the pulpit by his former life of sin and the athlete who claws his way to victory on the gridiron like he clawed his way through so much adversity, I have yet to meet a therapist who has not been driven (or chased) into this field due to some form of personal psychological angst. When working with budding counselors, the conversation along these lines usually goes something like this: “Why did you get into this field?” “Well, basically, when I was 5 years old, a traumatic event took place that….and then when I was 10….and when I was 17…and when I was 24….etc…and finally, I thought to myself, ‘Hey! I’m really screwed up! Why don’t I help other people who are screwed up?!?’” Please don’t hear me making light of traumas we’ve gone through. I’ve been through a good deal myself. But *not* making light of them is precisely what I’m talking about. To think that because we read some textbooks and attended a few lectures a straight line exists between stumbling through our own chaotic lives to helping others does a gross injustice to the validity and influential power of our own experiences. To hearken back to my earlier analogies, we see examples of preachers and athletes in the media everyday who spend so much time being driven by their former lives that they never really deal with them. Eventually, the fallout spills into a gaudy spectacle for the whole world to see. If there were a few more reality TV shows about therapists, my guess is we’d feel equally indicted. Here’s the bottom line. There are only a few kinds of therapists in the world – those who know they are screwed up, and those who do not. And of those who know, there are 2 more – those who seek help, and those who do not. In either case, the latter is far more frightening than the former. 2. Sympathy that leads to empathy. One of the greatest spiritual and psychological minds of our time was the late Henri Nouwen. His distinguished career saw him at the helm of the classrooms of Yale, Harvard, and Notre Dame – an “A-list” to be sure. He had this to say about getting in touch with our own “stuff” in his quintessential work, “The Wounded Healer”. “[We must] enter ourselves first of all into the center of our existence and become familiar with the complexities of our inner lives. As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as the light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work. The key word here is articulation. Those who can articulate the movements of their inner life, who can give names to their varied experiences, need no longer be victims of themselves, but are able to slowly and consistently remove the obstacles that prevent the spirit from entering.” Though Nouwen’s context here was spiritual, the psychological implications are equally apparent. And while I’m sure we all know the difference between sympathy and empathy, let me rearticulate it here. True empathy is not knowing how you would feel in your client’s shoes, and not even knowing how you have felt in a similar circumstance, but identifying and understanding how *they* feel in their shoes. But, if you are skillful, and know your own shoes well, sympathy can be a springboard to true empathy. Plus, if you’re unfamiliar with your own shoes, my guess is you’re counter-transferring quite a bit more than you may recognize. How will you know the difference between their “stuff” and your own if you’ve never dealt squarely with it? 3. I like this, but I don’t like that. Finally, and perhaps most practically, by sitting in the client’s seat you begin to get a sense for what feels good in therapy and what doesn’t – to the client! Seems important, doesn’t it? For example, you’ll begin to sense how good it feels when therapists empathize with you, or how nasty it feels when they steal the show and talk about themselves. You’ll know how nice it feels when therapists can sit with open hands (a la Dr. David Burns), or how much it sucks when they try to drag you by your hair toward a goal. You’ll find how wonderful it can be to have therapists collaborate with you on a problem, or how invalidating it can be when you’ve presented problem X, and their “therapeutic” response is, essentially, “Stop doing X.” Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve seen 3 professional therapists for individual therapy (since marrying, my wife and I also attend what we like to call “marriage maintenance therapy” - like keeping your car regularly tuned up, we love the thought of working proactively to maintain a good marital bond). While I’m fortunate that I honestly struggle to recall much of what I don’t like, here are some great memories of what I learned I do like: Therapist 1 – I like appropriate emotional displays! During one particularly powerful therapy session, while recalling a traumatic childhood event, I was weeping. The event had been one about which many knew, but failed to intervene. My childlike mind processed the lack of intervention subconsciously as a profound invalidation. In the midst of my crying, I looked up. My therapist – a tender, bearded man, like Will Hunting’s Robin Williams – had tears in his eyes. He was not weeping himself (i.e, stealing the show) – just teary. It helped me to realize that, in spite of the lack of response from others, my event had been every bit as horrible as I’d remembered it, and that I was not crazy for thinking so. This was the first person I’d told who’d not immediately purported my need to “forgive,” recognizing that I could not accept and move past a wound I’d never grieved. How validating it was to see his emotional response! Therapist 2 – I like working with ambivalence, so I don’t need to fix it for my clients! My second therapist was previously a counselor in the US-Air Force for over 20 years. He saw me pro bono, and usually caught up with me for lunch or a walk around the block outside his suburban office. His approach was casual, yet distinctly therapeutic. I had a hard time recognizing it as therapy at the time, but that’s definitely what it was. Motivational and choice theory techniques are tricky like that. I hated (but loved!) how he could buddy up to me, empathize with me, understand everything I was saying, and then turn around and sock me right in the stomach with the classic Glasser question: “How’s that working for you?” The answer at the time for most everything I was doing was, “Not very well.” That push-pull dynamic was simply him allowing me to run up the flagpole of my own ambivalence and slide back down again. As a result, I came to appreciate that within this context of conflict are found the birth pangs of real change. Therapist 3 – I like the value in working with opposite-sexed therapists! I sought out my third therapist distinctly because of her gender, and because of her expertise in certain relational areas. I’d had one string of bad relationships after another, and it had been suggested to me that I see a female therapist. The back and forth between us allowed me to confront some of the very relational struggles I had in my personal life, precisely because our opposite-sexed interaction provided a safe practice room. In other words, I began entrusting her with bits and pieces of myself I’d always had trouble releasing relationally. Because there was no romance or friendship to worry about, it felt safe. Perhaps not surprisingly, she encouraged me to begin practicing the same kind of thing in my dating life. Less than 2 years later, I heard wedding bells ringing. So…am I saying it will all be peaches and cream if you enroll in therapy? That you’ll share joy-filled moment after moment with clients? Well, yes. Sort of. But of course you’ll share a lot of bad moments too. But that’s the point. Working through your own stuff gets you out of the way long enough to put that $100,000 education to use with your clients. They need that. And so do you!
Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and managing director of The Change Group. More at http://changegroupcounseling.com