Can you talk the talk if you haven’t walked the walk?: why therapists need to be clients themselves

One of my greatest strengths as a therapist is the fact that I am human.  I am achingly human.  In school, they try to teach therapists-in-training how to set boundaries between yourself and your client — how to leave the feelings, emotions, and process of therapy in the office so that it doesn’t affect your home and personal life.  On the other hand, we are taught (and it is reinforced) that having empathy is a primary asset of a great therapist.  So….being able to “walk in my client’s shoes” should help me become a more dynamic therapist, but I also need to learn to leave those shoes at the front door.  Whew!  This is one of my biggest challenges currently in my career.

Being able to feel and connect with clients can help build that relationship that allows the client to feel safe and secure to risk what it would be like to make some changes in his or her life.  I think that this ability to empathize deeply with clients can ignite a charge of positive progress in the therapy, and I also think that this quality needs to be carefully monitored.  Therapists are at risk of burn-out if they don’t engage in self-care on a regular basis.  And I think that being a client ourselves is one of the highest forms of self care — for several reasons.

I have had clients ask me if I have been in therapy myself.  Honestly, I can’t imagine not having been in therapy, and I am quite open about it.  When I chose my career path (or it chose me…), much of the drive and inspiration that took me there came from experiences and growth I have had in my own years of being a client in therapy.  I learned valuable tools to help myself find peace and happiness and I also learned a lot about the therapy process itself.  How could I know that I wanted to be a therapist if I’d never laid on that couch?  I couldn’t imagine it.  In my training program, we were encouraged to attend therapy ourselves, and though it was not required, it was given to us for free.  This, my university and professors thought, helps to build an amazing counselor — one who knows what it’s like to be across from the therapist, one who is open to working on his/her own issues, and one who can process the anxiety and awkwardness of a first therapy session with you — because they’ve been there.

I am writing about this today because I feel it is crucial for our interests and most especially for the interests of our clients that therapists engage in self-care.  A therapist who is burned out and has no outlet to process will have challenges being present for his or her clients.  I also think that if we are in therapy, or have been in therapy, we are showing a commitment to the therapeutic alliance itself.  We believe in it.  We respect it.  We are just like everyone else.  I get the sense that sometimes therapists are regarded as “in power” or “the leader” in the therapy room.  This, in my opinion, is furthest from the truth.  The client is the expert of his/her own life and story, and the therapist is the listener and sometimes the guide.  I know that if I was a client today and my therapist shared with me that he/she has been in therapy at some point in their lives, I would feel very connected to my therapist — that he or she is a person, just like me, who has things they need to work out, just like me.  And they care enough about themselves (and their clients) to talk to someone about those issues.

Going back to the start: I am human.  This serves me well sometimes, as it enables me to empathize and connect with clients on a very real level.  This also challenges me sometimes, as I work to define my own emotions in my own life.  Therefore, I go to therapy.  Going to therapy, though it can come with all sorts of pre-conceived notions and judgments, is the act of a strong and resilient person — someone who cares enough about him or herself to commit the effort to making a better life for themselves.  I’m not going to lie — it often takes a lot of hard work, patience, and honesty.  But for me, those three are virtues in the handbook of freedom and happiness.  Being a client in therapy has made me a better woman, therapist, friend, family member, and citizen.

What has it done for you?