Myth: The Therapist Has It All Together

man talking on phone while drivingEditor’s note: This article is the fifth in a series exploring why use of the term “patient” is harmful in the context of psychotherapy. For the fourth part, click here. For an introduction on the topic, click here.

Finally, let’s consider the idea that the therapist has it all together. The wise psychotherapist recognizes that within the therapeutic relationship, although there may be one person currently suffering, both members of the dyad will suffer during their lifetimes. We are all flawed, all part of the walking wounded, all struggling with our limitations and issues. All of us have been burdened by life, and all of us suffer. Therapists are not immune to suffering. In fact, it is the therapist’s own suffering which has equipped him or her to be able to help.

Many people assume that it’s the therapist’s degree or knowledge which makes him or her effective. Knowledge helps, but it is useless without a therapist’s ability to form compassionate relationships with the people they work with and to know, from the inside out, how to guide someone toward healing themselves. Furthermore, knowledge is potentially damaging in the hands of a therapist who has not done a sufficient amount of his or her own healing work.

My point is that therapists, just like the people they work with, are also on a journey toward health and wholeness. Those who grow into effective therapists are typically the ones who realized that they needed to get into their own therapy, have safely traveled to the most vulnerable places inside of themselves, have brought light to their blind spots, have witnessed and accepted their main protective strategies, and have learned to care for themselves in ways they’ve always needed.

These courageous therapists are the wounded healers who, because they have taken the path of healing, can apply their experiences to other people’s lives and struggles and more readily guide people through the process of transforming in therapy. At the other end of the spectrum are therapists who use their role and title as therapist as a defense against their own vulnerability, who don’t venture inward, who keep their wounds hidden in the shadows, who strive to help everyone else without ever getting their own help. These therapists may know how to fake it, may wind up wasting people’s time and money, and may sometimes cause great damage to the people they’re trying to help.

All of this is to say that every therapist exits somewhere on the continuum of health, each having unique struggles, each having some issues or parts of themselves that have been addressed and explored and other parts which haven’t. Any given therapist will be healthier than the people they care for in some ways and unhealthier in others.

This is the necessary occupational hazard of being a good enough therapist—it forces the therapist to continually do his or her own psychotherapy, to face new issues and parts of themselves that have been provoked by the people they work with. In my experience consulting for other therapists, talking with colleagues, and from my own practice, most therapists, including myself, often notice their own unfinished business as a result of helping others.

For example, on Monday I might work with a person with a terminal illness, forcing me to face my own death anxiety. On Tuesday I might work with a couple struggling with the same communication problem I’m having in my own relationship. On Wednesday I might meet with someone who is harboring shame, triggering a similar shame within myself that I hadn’t tended to. On Thursday I might meet with a person and wind up feeling hopeless about helping them, causing me to question my skills as a therapist. Finally, on Friday I might meet with a parent who reminds me of my dad, bringing up my own unresolved grudges and necessitating that I check my countertransference. Thank god it’s Friday, right?

What I’m hoping to demonstrate is that just because the helper is helping doesn’t mean the helper has it all together. (Read more about this here.) If the person seeking help is lucky, the therapist will be healthier than the average bear, but there is no avoiding the fact all people struggle, suffer, and benefit from help.

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  • Alex

    August 19th, 2015 at 12:08 AM

    This is an important article on idealizing therapists. I was not totally aware until recently how much I was idealizing my current therapist as well as my former analyst from many years ago. I suppose some us desperately want to put others on a pedestal. It’s worth exploring WHY that is. Perhaps some us of feel LONELY if therapists (and other people) are seen as not having it all together.

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