Have you ever sat in session, listening to your client explain why they were angsty over some issue, only to find that you experienced a rising panic and sense of helplessness – because you, too, were dealing with the same issue? Have you ever finished a session with a deeply depressed client, only to find that you then felt very down, even though you were ok before the session? Both of these examples constitute sound reasons to engage a consummately helpful yet infrequently discussed aspect of professional self-care: that of therapy for the therapist. Carl Jung suggested that “a good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient” (Plata, 2018).

Being the “wounded healer” is controversial

This question of acknowledging the “wounded healer” in ourselves is important, and does not come without controversy. There is first the question of whether therapists can even practice ethically if they do not do their own therapy, which is said to be “far more informative than any graduate class or textbook” (Latham, 2011). As therapists, of course we wish to be ethical, but there is the accompanying question of what it will cost us. Some writers have commented on the reality in our associated helping professions that, while there is an acknowledgement that we are human, it is also true that there is still a stigma associated with having psychological distress – especially as a mental health professional – and having “vulnerability” is not necessarily seen as a strength.

Many counsellors fear professional repercussions if they acknowledge present or former psychological struggles (Plata, 2018). Certainly it is the case for some professionals that they must answer on their annual registration forms sent to the regulatory agency as to whether they have had any mental health issues. Some Australian doctors, for example, have expressed serious concern that they would be on the radar of AHPRA (the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency) by making such an admission, and choose to leave it out (personal communication to author, 2019). Other health writers note that, while some clients are comforted to know that their therapist has had therapy, others are disconcerted by it (Latham, 2011). Yet therapy is important. Let us examine why you are strongly recommended to engage in your own therapy as part of your helping work.

Therapy: Why do it?

To prevent burnout

Burnout and compassion fatigue are rife in the helping professions. A study of mental health professionals in Panama found that 36 percent of its community had suffered from burnout at one point or another in their careers (Plata, 2018). Personal support as found in counselling helps prevent the problem.

For greater empathy and understanding

We can be more empathetic with clients if we’ve had experience in “the other chair”, as we can anticipate unstated feelings more readily than therapists without that firsthand knowledge. For example, can you recall a time when you told a client that you were going on holiday and they protested that they didn’t know how they would make it without you for three whole weeks, (or whatever length your holiday was)? If you have done therapy yourself, you personally know the sense of loss and disruption when your regular therapist is away.

Concepts such as transference are more easily understood experientially than from textbooks. Even for those therapists who are non-psychodynamic, being able to recognise transference and other “real-time” emotional reactions (because they’ve had them themselves) gives therapists who have had therapy an advantage in terms of rapport, compliance, and other aspects (Reidbord, 2011).

To process clients’ thoughts and feelings

Hearing about heavy-going issues such as abuse, addiction, trauma, and other mental health challenges can weigh on a therapist. We can preserve our own mental health better by processing through therapy our reactions to what we hear (Forte, 2018). In terms of the transference, we note that those practicing psychodynamic therapies use transference and countertransference as essential treatment tools; it takes self-knowledge – acquired by dint of hard work in our own sessions — to use these tools therapeutically, because without self-knowledge we cannot sort the client’s issues from our own (Reidbord, 2011).

To deal with our own issues

A recent Antioch University of Seattle study found that 81 percent of psychologists studied had a diagnosable psychiatric disorder (although a large percent of these were mild), including substance abuse, mood disorder, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other personality dysfunctions (Plata, 2018). In doing therapy, we are forced to look at our own base instincts, neuroses, and “blind spots”: not always easy. The same study found that 43 percent of psychologists struggled to see the mental illness and psychological distress within themselves (Latham, 2011). In therapy, we get to confront our issues, learn to accept feedback, and strengthen our professional identity, thus reducing the risk that we will act out in ways that harm our clients (Reidbord, 2011).

To de-stigmatise therapy

When clients know that we, too, have had therapy, it normalises it. Apart from reducing the errors based on unexamined transference, our stint of therapy – acknowledged judiciously to clients – encourages humility and decreases hubris. It may very well strengthen the therapeutic alliance for the client to see that you, too, have human needs, challenges, and issues.

In the final analysis, ours is a profession which uses our own perceptions and reactions as sensitive instruments of therapeutic helping; thus it makes sense to take care of the equipment, by taking therapeutic care of ourselves. Besides, we are always there for others, listening with great attention and concentration to their woes. Isn’t it a nice thought that there can be a professional listener out there for us as well?

References

  • Forte, S. (2018). Why therapists need therapy. Pyramid health care. Retrieved on 12 May, 2019, from: website.
  • Latham, T. (2011). Why therapy is important for therapists. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 12 May, 2019, from: website.
  • Plata, M. (2018). Therapists need therapy, too. Vice.com. Retrieved on 12 May, 2019, from: website.
  • Reidbord, S. (2011). Therapy for therapists. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 12 May, 2019, from: website.