ACA Blog

Natosha Monroe
Mar 22, 2012

Can You Help Others When You Have Unresolved Problems Of Your Own?

Must a counselor have a spotless past and a picturesque present to effectively assist a client? Should a divorced counselor be the one to help a struggling couple stay together? Can a childless counselor give parental advice? Will a doctoral dropout be able to assist a fretful PhD student? What if a client walks into the office facing the exact same challenge as the counselor? Can and should the counselor help? Is there hypocrisy in this situation? Does the counselor risk being biased or blind to certain aspects of the client’s issue? ACA’s Friday keynote speaker, Dr. Irvine Yalom, tackled this question in his book, “The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients.”

In his book, Dr. Yalom points out different points of view regarding whether or not a counselor should take on a client who may have similar difficulties or issues. He also addresses the question as to whether or not a counselor can assist the client in forging ahead to a place even the counselor has not yet been able to go.

Dr. Yalom cites words of Nietzsche “Some cannot loosen their own chains yet can nonetheless redeem their friends” and of Karen Horney, “…if the therapist removes obstacles, patients will naturally mature and realize their potential, even attaining a level of integration beyond that of the facilitating therapist.” Dr. Yalom shares with his readers that he has “often had patients whose change and whose courage [has] left me gaping in admiration.”

Dr. Yalom also goes on to point out the many “helpers” over the years who have been far from pictures of perfection but yet helped countless individuals and made lasting contributions to psychology. “…consider Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (extraordinarily isolate, anguished souls), Sartre (alcohol and drug abuser, interpersonally exploitative and insensitive)…[and] Jung, no paragon of interpersonal skills…” He also cites the sexual exploitation of patients of Jung, Freud, and others as well as the noteworthy discord amongst psychology institutes and institutions “whose members, despite their expertise in assisting others, have at the same time characteristically displayed so much immaturity…and disrespect...”

My response is yes, counselors can help clients who have similar concerns and difficulties. Why? Many reasons, but for me it boils down to something simple: No one is perfect. Sure, some people appear to be blissfully well-adjusted while others visibly are not. But who knows what lurks beneath the surface of that picture-perfect person? And who knows what lies at the heart of that desolate person— who might that person have been at one point in time or what circumstances led to the current state? Many people may have had difficulties and trials in their lives but have overcome them and are now in a place to help others going through similar circumstances. And even if a counselor is currently facing difficulty in some area of life—this might provide insight and empathy which will be of great use to a client.

So, is perfection a prerequisite for counselors? Or might struggles, trials, and moments of humbleness enrich a life and make a counselor that much better? What is your answer?

Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.

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