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?

Honesty in recovery

I found this amazing blog the other day called Voice in Recovery.  It is a comprehensive narrative on the struggles, challenges, victories, feelings, and wonderings that occur along the path of eating disorder recovery.  It is an accessible resource to all — those who are struggling with an ED, those who have recovered/are in recovery, and families and friends of those affected by EDs.  The topic brought out recently in this blog that I was inspired to write about is honesty in recovery.  The blog author talked about being honest with all of the feelings, cravings, desires, and motives that you might have in your recovery.  I was struck by the HIDDEN theme in the post.

Eating disorders are complex and intricate mental illnesses that affect every part of a person’s life: their mind, body, emotions, feelings, soul, and their family and friends.  The ED can completely alter the way that you perceive the world as your are seduced by the powers of the ED voice.  The most essential ingredient in recovery, in my opinion, is the way that you fight back against the power of the ED, reclaiming who you are and revitalizing your strengths.  To find yourself and reclaim that fighting voice, you must be honest — with yourself, your family, your friends, your therapist, and anyone else who is in your life and who you would like to support you in your recovery.  While we are surrounded by people who love us and want us to be healthy, we cannot stand only on the feet of others…we must learn to stand on our own and we must turn inward and take a stark look at the factors that are contributing to the ED behaviors.  This can be intimidating!  It can bring feelings of guilt, shame, and loneliness – the very feelings that EDs thrive upon – to open ourselves up and try to heal the wounded parts.  I VERY strongly suggest that you do this with the help of a therapist, someone who is trained to hold those feelings for you as you sort through them and find ways to not let them be so central to your perspective.  Those uncomfortable and sometimes painful feelings that can surface when honestly looking at recovery may tempt you to close up and HIDE again…but they will not go away until they are exposed and you are freed of them.

Honesty is crucial in every part of life: in intimate relationships, in financial transactions, in college applications, and in legal documents.  Being honest can bring with it a feeling of freedom and release.  For someone who has suffered from an eating disorder, you may yearn for that feeling of freedom and release, but find yourself confronted with a dark and tangled forest of secrets, low self-esteem, and negative feelings that leave you exhausted before you even take a step.  Being honest is the key to getting to the light on the other side, and with that honesty must come a promise to embrace yourself with acceptance as you wade through the tangled roots.  I think the most liberating thing about honesty, whether it is in recovery from an ED or if it is involved in a relational issue, is the fact that you are letting a weight off of your shoulders that you may have carried around for some time.  And as you feel emotionally lighter, there is less and less obstruction towards the freedom and healing that you have been working towards.   Ultimately on a journey towards honesty, you will end up in a place where you can say “I am okay”.  Those three words can be very powerful.  When you are able to say “I am okay” and “there is nothing wrong with me”, and ED begins to lose its power and you begin to regain the strength you crave to design your own free life.