Why Therapists Need Therapy
Why Therapists Need Therapy
By Michelle DesRoches
I recently attended a professional event where I overheard a conversation debating whether or not therapists should be required to seek their own therapy. What stood out for me was the following comment, made by someone who did not see the relevance: “it's not like a surgeon has to undergo surgery in order to practice.” As an instructor in a therapy training program, I feel fairly confident in my answer, that ABSOLUTELY, therapists need to do their own therapy first, but the analogy of the surgeon stayed with me.
On quick and easy response is that we needn't have the same experiences as our clients in order to help them, but by doing our own therapy we can certainly have a better understanding of how vulnerable it is to be a client. I tell my students not to forget what it felt like the first time they ever walked into a therapist's office. But there is so much more to my emphatic absolutely than simply relating to the vulnerability of therapy. I also believe that this is how we prepare ourselves for the enormous responsibility of being a therapist.
First let's take a look at what a therapist actually does. We attempt to relate while remaining objective. We listen to content but also for the patterns and emotions of our client. We help clients become aware of their subconscious behaviours and attitudes. We are privy to the most private and sometimes horrific stories of a person's life. We enter into intimate relationships with our clients, even though the exchange of personal information is one-sided. Our professional opinions and assessments are sometimes considered when the client is seeking services. I could go on, but what is written here already paints a picture of the landmines that we navigate everyday. Mastering our own feelings and responses is essential. We are always walking the line between identifying with the client so much that we lose sight of them and becoming so removed from the client's experience that we appear cold.
Most therapists who have been around for awhile have many examples of how they've maintain excellent boundaries under complicated circumstances, and they also have moments of where the lines became blurred. This is a natural occurrence when two human beings have a conversation. What separates therapists from everyone else is that they have the ultimate responsibility to notice when the blur happens, hopefully before it interferes with the client's process. This takes skill and self awareness. This level of self-awareness is achieved through the therapeutic process.
There is also the issue of on the job self-care. Over the course of our relationships with clients, they may confront, blame, challenge, yell, leave, or fall in love with us. They may remind us of somebody we've known from our past. Not only do we need to be centered and clear in our responses when this type of transference or counter-transference occurs, but after the client leaves our office, we also need to know how to take care of ourselves. We can't expect our clients to make it better for us. We are responsible for the feelings that arise in us after a difficult client interaction. While supervision will also help us reset our professional boundaries, therapy will work with the root causes of our own vulnerabilities.
Before becoming a therapist, I worked in the corporate world. When I was feeling overwhelmed, tired, distracted or disturbed by something that was going on in my personal life, I was able to close my door, focus on my work, minimize my interactions with co-workers and just get through the day. I would sometimes put off tasks. As a therapist, I still have my own challenges and life lessons to work through, but none of the above options are available to me on a bad day. When clients arrive, I am with them for an hour and I don't have the option of 'keeping it light'. Clients come to discuss their relationships, stresses, anxieties, losses, money worries, families, etc. These can often mirror some of my own challenges and being neutral seems like a tall order. Having my own set of tools and coping strategies have been essential to staying present, making room for myself and my client to share the space.
At the end of the day, you don't know what you don't know. Unless you go through this process, you may have no clear of way of knowing what your impact is on those around you and how your own filters affect how you listen, react and respond in emotional situations and it would be irresponsible to assume otherwise. In conclusion, while surgeons do not have to undergo surgery to succeed, they would never be allowed to cut into someone without first sterilizing their tools and scrubbing in. As therapists, we need to do the same. Therapy is the way we make sure we are practising with clean tools and under optimum conditions.
Michelle DesRoches, B.A., R.I.H.R. is a Senior Therapist in our Counselling Clinic and teaches in the Total Self, Spiritual Psychotherapy, Group Psychotherapy programs and Intensives . She is a Case Supervisor, Spiritual Gestalt Therapist/Advanced Leader and graduated from Spiritual/Body Psychotherapy and Spiritual Director Programs. Michelle has co-facilitated sexuality and abuse treatment groups. She has a private practice in Toronto and runs psychotherapy groups.
Watch for Michelle’s new course – Experiential Psychotherapy Certificate Course for Individuals and Groups. Date to be announced.