Cobbler Seeks New Shoes: The Human Side of Being a Therapist

A pair of old brown shoes with holesMany of us have heard the story about the cobbler who is respected by all in the village for the wonderful work he does, yet wanders around with his toes sticking out of his tattered boots. We’ve also seen the medical practitioner who smokes, the mechanic who rides around in a junky lemon, and the cleaner who lives in a chaotic mess. Why is it so difficult for people to do for themselves what they are trained and skilled to do for others?

Taking an Objective Stance

It is unquestionably difficult to practice what we preach. Take, for example, the mother who is shouting at her child to “keep it down,” or the employer who chastises his workers for their tardiness while leaving early every day. It comes down to a lack of focused and intentional self-awareness.

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.” —Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror”

When one is able to take an objective stance and perceive their words and actions from the perspective of how they affect not only others, but themselves, herein lies the opportunity to make necessary changes, to lead by example. It requires an enormous amount of patience to slow down our reaction time to allow ourselves to deliberately consider our next move. Over time, however, if one successfully manages to make those modifications consistently, a new behavior will emerge and become natural.

So when a partner gets home from work tired and irritable, a gentle hug and empathy, which has replaced our reactive umbrage, will come naturally. Stemming from that, the partner may instinctually notice that something in the atmosphere has altered and, knowing it wasn’t at their instigation, just might feel compelled to take a look at themselves and consider their role in the interaction. They may take a look at themselves and also make a change.

By exemplifying behaviors that lead to good outcomes, we set off a process of osmosis which is far more effective than attempting to control others’ actions or responses with words. The observer of good conduct often does not even realize they have set off on a better course of interaction. A deep inner voice whispers, “I will be there for my partner to listen and empathize with their frustrations because I recognize that they are always there for me.”

Bringing Work Home

As a therapist who also produces a podcast, I have interviewed many other clinicians who practice in the area of relationship counseling. On several occasions, the question has come up about being able to take care of our own relationships as effectively as we help others to do. Inevitably, the answer emerges that we don’t always practice what we preach, we don’t always set the example of the lessons and advice we impart on daily basis in our work. At times, this leads to a shaky feeling of inadequacy in our chosen profession. We sometimes go so far as to question our ability and our integrity as relationship counselors.

“Medice, cura te ipsum.” [“Doctor, heal thyself.”] —Luke 4:23

The first thing we have to remember as therapists is that we, too, are only human—just as fallible, just as prone to step blindly into the pothole rather than recognizing it and figuring out a way to maneuver past it. We experience powerful emotions that, once in a while, refuse to be held down. The problem is we find it difficult to be forgiving with ourselves because we feel that as relationship counselors we should be perfect in our own relationships. If that were actually the case, not only would it be, frankly, a little weird and creepy, it would certainly be an indication of some kind of repression happening. There is no such thing as “perfect” in the sense there are never moments of conflict in a relationship.

One of the keys to having that “perfect” relationship is knowing how to repair those times of strain, how to reconnect with our partner and move forward—perhaps a bit scarred, but stronger for it. Rather than feeling defeated by any negative occurrences at home, we need to accept that they are normal, even for relationship therapists, and as therapists, this acceptance should be possible. Every now and then, however, we might need reminding from an outside source because it is difficult to keep that image in the mirror clear at all times.

Our Partners as Colleagues

Colleague: A person who works with you. —Merriam-Webster Dictionary

If there is one thing I have come to believe with internalized conviction, it is that a close and connected relationship is imperative to realizing satisfaction in life.

If there is one thing I have come to believe with internalized conviction, it is that a close and connected relationship is imperative to realizing satisfaction in life. Knowing there is one special person waiting at home who accepts you for all you are inspires a deeply rooted confidence of self that cannot be realized through any other mechanism. With that person, we have no cause to question our abilities as relationship therapists because no matter what short words may be exchanged, we can be confident that, in the end, they can be reduced to mere fragments that are easily repaired.

Furthermore, if we allow a partner into our therapy work (obviously maintaining our integrity by retaining patient confidentiality), they can then assume a role of pseudo-therapist in the home themselves. They can offer fresh perspectives and even call us on certain behaviors that may rear their ugly heads in our living rooms. We can give our partners the tools to extend themselves, beyond lovers and best friends, to colleagues. An intellectual repartee with someone who is in a better position to view a situation objectively frequently results in moments of enlightenment that we might never have experienced otherwise, moments we can bring back to our offices and into ourselves.

Experience Lends Credibility

One of the worst forms of self-flagellation I have witnessed in relationship therapists—to which I have also subjected myself—is the perception of our personal failure, namely having gone through a separation or divorce. We ask ourselves, “How can I possibly counsel people on how to have a fulfilling relationship when I was not able to manage it myself?” On the flip side, consider a person with addiction who faces their substance abuse therapist and demands, “How can you give me advice on how to cope with sobriety when you’ve never been addicted?”

In point, for a therapist to have shared similar experiences with those who seek their counsel is wonderful, but it isn’t enough. What lends that experience to our credibility is having emerged from the experience with a deeper understanding and empathy, a learning, and an ability to overcome any future threat of repeating the same mistake. The therapist who is able to go beyond, “I know how you feel,” to, “I know how to help you avoid this feeling in the future,” is the therapist who has assimilated their experiences into their nature and can, therefore, be trusted as a mentor.

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning, joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view.” —Oprah Winfrey

A mentor has been there and knows the path and is willing to impart it to others.

Why Self-Therapy Matters

If I take the time to look in the mirror, I will notice that my shoes have holes in them. If I trust in my abilities by looking back at the successes I have realized in my profession, I will know I can eventually fix those holes. If I am able to share my fears and doubts with one special person who I know loves me unconditionally, I will have the confidence to begin work on those holes. If I learn from the mistakes I made at my bench in the past, I will successfully avoid the pitfalls of my trade when I take up my tools.

Then, once I have done a good job, with humility but with confidence, I will be able to guide others to help them follow a path along which they need not fear a hole in their shoe here and there because they will know how to mend it.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Stuart B. Fensterheim, LCSW, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Abigail

    July 20th, 2016 at 6:43 AM

    It is kind of like the old saying that doctors make the worst patients
    so true

  • Rebecca

    July 20th, 2016 at 11:23 AM

    Do you ever get the feeling like I do that there are people who simply expect that you will always have all the answers because you are a therapist? And that sometimes those answers just don’t exist but what do you say when there are all of these expectations that are weighing on you?

  • Lise

    April 4th, 2017 at 6:26 AM

    I have several clients like this. Some times at the end of their sessions I feel like I have been through a grueling Q&A for which I was not prepared. I have learned to encourage them to look for their own answers – just as I have looked for mine. There is no one size fits all – each person is on their own journey and must find skills/solutions/answers that work for them. Brainstorming is often part of that process, but I try to avoid getting locked in to any one thing.

  • Kendall

    July 21st, 2016 at 7:05 AM

    There are probably lots of us who are in positions to take care of others who take very little care of ourselves. I don’t know if it is that instinct of feeling like we have to be doing for another person instead of for us or if it is just a neglect thing, who knows. But I just don’t see a lot of us in this industry who spend a whole lot of time concentrating on our own needs. Selfish we are not.

  • kim

    July 22nd, 2016 at 7:42 AM

    Knowing that I have my husband to vent to at the end of a particularly stressful day somehow makes things just a little bit easier.

  • Stuart Fensterheim

    July 22nd, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    I am thrilled so many people are commenting and this article is resonating with you. Kim I agree having a relationship that is secure really helps in having someone to share your life and experiences with. My wife is that to me as well.

    Kendall, Isn’t that the truth. As an EFT therapist we talk a lot about the self as therapist. So few counselors really understand the importance of self care. Taking care of your self is essential when we are working with people and their emotional needs.

    Rebecca yes we don’t always have all the answers but I am not convinced we need to as in other relationships we just need to communicate to people we are there and care.

    Abagail I know where you are coming from my brother is a Physician and doctors clearly docs are the most difficult and stubborn patients but also need to know someone is there for them as much as anyone else. Take Care

    Thanks again everyone for responding

  • brooke

    July 23rd, 2016 at 9:03 AM

    I guess my biggest struggle is that I am so conditioned to look out for others that I often forget that I am never going to be any good to another person without that level of self care. I mean, this is what I want to give to other people so why do I find it so hard to extend that same thought to me?

  • Stuart Fensterheim LCSW

    July 23rd, 2016 at 12:33 PM

    That is so true!!! I believe that is part of why counselors in my opinion dont value their worth enough. We really do Save Lives. If you recognize this and the value we offer then self care is just part of the prescription. I give back to the community in many different ways through my podcast, videos on you tube etc. This is my way of saying there is value in what I have to see and if I model this my clients will do as well. Thanks for sharing so vulnerabiy. #couples expert

  • jasmine

    July 26th, 2016 at 4:21 PM

    I wish that I could get my boyfriend to leave his work behind, leave it at the door but he always brings all of that work stress home with him and he can’t shake it. I’m sorry but this is beginning to put a real strain on the two of us together. I want to help him manage those feelings but wow, I’m just ready for some down time and he can’t let anything go long enough to even enjoy an evening at home together.

  • Sue B

    October 3rd, 2016 at 1:02 AM

    I wish that I still had that one and only person to come home to. What do you do when you’ve had that kind of unconditional acceptance and love with a person who has now gone? It was so special to know that everything written here is possible in creating and sustaining a wonderful relationship.

  • Caitlyn

    April 3rd, 2017 at 11:34 PM

    I know of a therapist who is having an affair with his patient. I also know that he has taken drugs, should this person be a practitioner?

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