The Cornerstone of Good Therapy? Do Your Own Work!
My jaw tightens to hold back a roar of anger and anguish as I listen to my new client describe emotional abuse at the hands of a former therapist. The mama-bear-therapist in me wants to rip this guy’s throat out so that he can’t ever harm another client. Ever.
Sadly, a few sick people defile the integrity of our profession and make a mockery of the tender relationships we invite people to enter when they walk into our therapy offices.
Though this kind of outright therapist abuse is rare, I hear too many stories about how a therapist (who means well) gets triggered into behaving in negative—even if not abusive—ways toward a dysregulated client because the therapist is unable to manage her own emotional states and recognize her internal biases as they arise in session. Worse, the therapist is too defended to recognize their part in the disruption and explore it on behalf of the client’s healing.
Certainly every therapist will at some point enact something negative from a client’s past. That’s inevitable in the healing process. (More about enactments to come in future posts.) But the key to using these enactments on behalf of the client’s healing vs. allowing them to re-traumatize the client is for the therapist to have at least a few brain cells of awareness of what is happening, to be curious about his part in it, and to be confident and humble enough to explore what happened and make repairs.
In our work we invite trust. We invite vulnerability.
When people trust us with their vulnerability, they can become raw and dysregulated. That’s the nature of the work. And our clients are impressionable in this vulnerability—they care what we think of them and believe that the ways we behave toward them are models of how they should be treated.
So when we invite this kind of trust in us and our abilities, we’d better be damn sure we’re worthy of that trust by being:
– strong enough to regulate intense emotions—our own and our clients’,
– aware of our foundational therapeutic goals [link, what and why] at all times,
– empathic enough to treat their (and our own) vulnerability with care and compassion, and
– familiar enough with our own internal worlds and biases to be able to feel our emotions and reflect on them at the same time, without defensiveness.
The best way to build this capacity to understand the vulnerability involved in being a client? The best way to learn how to regulate intense emotions? The best way to develop the dual awareness needed to understand the complexities of emotional interactions between us and our clients?
Is to go to therapy ourselves!
My own therapy was at least as important as my graduate school coursework in training me to be a solid, trustworthy therapist. My own therapy gave me a foundation of humility, gentle confidence in my own presence, and unshakeable trust in the unfolding process of the therapeutic relationship.
No matter how emotionally secure and stable we are, it’s only by doing our own deep internal work that we can understand how truly vulnerable it is to be a client. It’s only by exploring our own deep pains, insecurities, and childhoods within the context of a relationship with a caring other that we develop the capacity to deeply recognize, understand, and regulate our own emotions and internal biases. (And we ALL have pain and insecurity; we ALL have internal biases; and we’ve ALL been children with developing brains. No excuses!)
But it’s rare for counseling graduate schools and state licensing boards to require therapists to receive their own therapy!
It’s actually possible for a person to become a therapist without having ever received a single hour of therapy!
I encourage everyone I know to ask prospective therapists whether they’ve had therapy and what they’ve learned from it. I actively discourage everyone I know from entering therapy with anyone who hasn’t done his/her own internal work, or who won’t refer to it with their clients. It’s THAT important.
Doing your own therapy will help you to practice in a naturally ethical way and help you to enjoy your work more, because it will
– help you to heal your own emotional past, freeing you to experience a wide array of emotions in your own life and in your clients;
– free you from believing you must be perfect; and
– give you the mindful awareness and freedom from defensiveness to recognize when you are enacting emotional states from your client’s past, allowing you to step out of the fray and work toward healing.
It’s worth the risk, time, and money.
Your work will flourish.
You’ll naturally recognize ethical behavior.
Your clients will be safe.
Your self will blossom.
Have you done your own therapeutic work? Why or why not? Do you understand what you can gain from therapy? If so, what strengths have you gained from your own therapeutic work? If not, how can you look your clients in the eye and tell them that therapy works?
(If you or someone you know has experienced abuse by a therapist, please seek support. A wonderful place to start is www.therapyabuse.org.)