As a professor in a Marriage and Family Therapy training program I have had the pleasure of working with countless developing therapists. One of the things that has always struck me about many of our students is the diversity of reasons for which they joined the program. It is no secret that most therapists are, to use Henry Nouwen’s phrase, “wounded healers.” We mental health professionals are no different from the rest of the population when it comes to experiences of brokenness, hurt, remorse, doubt, and generally difficult life experiences.
One of the traits that often does separate mental health professionals is the specific training we have received in how to cope with and alter difficult feelings and circumstances. Unfortunately, all the training and schooling in the world are not enough to give us the experience that our clients have of being brave and vulnerable in sharing the darker, more troubled portions of our stories. This is where the idea of therapists going to therapy may start to sound less odd.
One of the many reasons therapists seek out personal therapy is to gain the experience of being “on the couch.” There’s really nothing like it. It’s exhilarating. It’s nerve wracking. It’s calming. It’s frustrating. It has the potential to be nearly everything you want in a relationship and at the same time, it’s not intended to last, however beneficial it may be. At minimum, it helps therapists to have empathy for their clients in a more direct, experiential way. This is invaluable clinical experience because they will regularly ask clients/patients to go through that same personal stretching.
Aside from the professional development reason above, personal therapy (whether individual, group, or couples/family) has the indirect consequence of helping clients by healing the healer. I’m a firm believer that it is not entirely necessary for a therapist to have been through the exact experience that their client has, but I do believe that it is important for a therapist to have struggled. With something. Someone. Anything.
People seldom come to therapy because life is going exactly as planned. I often say that in therapy there is no growth without tension or resistance. If everything is comfortable at all times, nobody is changing. Things will stay the same, and goals will not be met. It is important for therapists looking to join with their clients in their struggles to have wrestled with their own demons.
When it comes down to it, therapy is just people in a room talking, working out the details and struggles of life, trying to manage the difficulties and maximize the joys. Therapists who have successfully explored and endured their own hardships can feel more confident in their ability to connect with and facilitate healing for a wide variety of clients who may call for an appointment.
Bottom line: If we have learned to struggle with and manage our own difficulties we are typically better prepared to help others to do the same. The specific issue struggled with is less important than that we have struggled. If you are a therapist and have not experienced therapy from the couch side of the treatment room, you might want to check it out. Maybe get a recommendation for a therapist and get some unbiased feedback during sessions. Or perhaps join a therapy group for therapists and benefit from several experienced sets of eyes and ears every session. It will be great for you and help you to be even more effective as a clinician than classes, books, workshops and even clinical experience could ever do by themselves.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.