Polishing the mirror: why therapists need therapy.
Some therapists do not require to have their own therapy when they are training and there is no requirement to be in therapy yourself if you’re a qualified therapist. There are two very good reasons why therapists should consider going to therapy, whether as trainees or as practising professionals.
At the very minimum, and it’s so obvious I’m not including this as one of the two things, therapists should have an experience of being a client. How can you even begin to imagine what it must be like for someone walking into your office for the first time if you’ve not done the same thing yourself. Of course you can imagine what it’s like and, in fact, we don’t have to experience trauma or mental illness to provide help to someone who has. But having experience of building a therapeutic relationship from the perspective of a client is relatively easy to do, so why not?
The first main reason my therapist calls “polishing the mirror”. You polish a mirror in order to see your reflection in more detail: to see things more clearly, with a little distance. In practice we are focussed on clients and the experience and processes they bring into the consulting room. We spend hours between sessions thinking and reflecting on what they have said or demonstrated; their effect on us and what our feelings might mean. The focus in supervision is on our practice, in how we work with clients and how we might work better. Therapy in addition to the work and the supervision of the work, allows a time to focus on ourselves. Just as we allow a space for clients, we must also have a space to look at ourselves and focus on our own feelings. We don’t get to do that in supervision, or shouldn’t very much if it’s not in relation to client work. Examination of our feelings, free from judgement and at a slight distance from the events that provoked them, can be invaluable. This is especially true when we are training. Training provokes a great deal of personal growth and knowledge. Learning theory should make us reflect on our lives and relationships in a new way. Training changes you and having time to organise these changing perspectives in a safe way is almost indispensable. If you are training as a counsellor or therapist and your course does not require you to have personal therapy, do it anyway, it will make you a better practitioner and it may help you avoid become a statistic in the high attrition rate and relationship breakdown inherent in counselling and therapy training courses. If you are a practitioner, it is stressful work. Not all modalities recognise or teach transference but that doesn’t mean clients don’t project their unwanted or uncontainable emotion onto their person centred or congnitive behavioural therapist. You have to have somewhere to process your own emotional reactions and be able to separate them from the projected emotions of clients, especially when they are starting to get in the way of your personal life outside the therapy room.
The second reason should also be obvious. We have shit we need to sort out too. We didn’t all have perfect childhoods, where all of our needs were met at exactly the right time. We sometimes have difficult relationships with partners and parents and children. So it makes sense to see someone to work out what’s going on with that awkwardness about money, or the shame surrounding a defensive behaviour or why your relationships never last more than four years. We need to be more self-aware and have our stuff worked out to a greater degree than the people we are trying to help. To paraphrase Sheldon Kopp we need to be less lost in the woods than our clients are, otherwise we can be of no use to them.
So you owe it to your clients to be self-reflective and self-aware. Try polishing your mirror from time to time.