“In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?”
~ Carl R. Rogers
The client-therapist relationship is pretty one sided. Therapists are ethically prohibited from sharing personal information with clients except in very specific circumstances. As a client, I can attest that the little bit of information that I did learn about my therapist was often too much information. But as a therapist, I think that there are a few things that will help you understand the process of therapy a little bit better and hopefully get more out of it.
1. Our hearts are more important than our brains.
No matter which theories and modalities we advertise that we specialize in, research has proven over and over again that the variable that influences the outcome of therapy the most is the quality of the relationship that you have with your therapist. If you don’t feel heard and understood by your therapist, if you don’t think they are calling you out on your “stuff” honestly enough, if you don’t feel like you have an amazing connection with them- get a new therapist. The latest clinical techniques and tips that we have mastered are only secondary to the bond and trust that we can help create with you in the therapy session.
2. Grad school doesn’t prepare us very well.
In grad school we examine studies related to human behavior and the treatment of mental illness, read case studies, and learn the theoretical basis for different approaches. Most programs let us practice therapy under supervision with some guinea-pigs during our last year. At least for me, it is the act of practicing therapy with real clients that helps me understand the theories, not the theories that help me understand how to work with clients. So when presented with a new issue, most therapists don’t have a book of knowledge stored in our mind that we learned in grad school that we can sift through. Especially in our first 10 years as therapists, we will probably learn about how the problem effects you, and then consult the literature or a trusted consultant to look for guidance on how to how to treat you.
3. Sometimes we are not on point.
We get distracted, worried, and feel off just like you do. Just like in real life, it is our relationship with you that gets us through these rough patches. We can’t tell you that we had the most epic fight with our husband the night before, that the adoption of our foster child just fell through, or that our best friend might have cancer. We will try to be as present as possible, put our problems in a box and set them outside the door until it is our time. If the problem is really significant, we might even take a break for a few weeks to get ourselves back together so that we can be there for you without thinking about us. If you detect that we are “off”, don’t assume it’s you. You can ask us about it, and we will give you a very non-specific answer, but it is a good way of practicing right relationships to ask when you are unsure.
4. We can’t get you through it all.
The highest purpose of therapy is to help you not need to be in therapy. Ethical therapists are always trying to work themselves out of a job by preparing each client to manage the situation at hand independently next time, or at least to know when to reach out for help before it gets out of hand. The best that we can hope for is that you internalize what it feels like to be in a healthy, loving, safe relationship with someone who cares deeply about you and respects you as an individual. If you learn this and feel it in the core of your being, you will recognize it when you feel it again, and you will know that you can trust that relationship.
5. We care about you more than you will ever know.
It is true that we do a good job of not thinking about you when we are not in session with you. For our own mental health, we try to separate our work from our personal life. But I can tell you with complete honest that I have deeply loved and cared for every client that I have treated- even and especially the difficult ones. In school it is referred to as “unconditional positive regard”, and it means we accept and respect you without judgement or evaluation. This is not something that we are taught to do, it is simply the mark of a good therapist. I am regularly humbled by the pain that my clients have survived. I am grateful daily for the lessons my clients have taught me about resilience, perseverance, and courageous battles that are fought every day against mental illness. And I will be forever touched by the sheer privilege that it has been to be invited into the inner worlds of such amazingly beautiful people who have faced brutal truths and lived to eloquently tell me about them. Don’t confuse our professionalism with callousness. I am delighted when life reminds me of a former client and I enjoy taking a few minutes to remember their strength, wonder how they are doing, and wish them well. Therapy doesn’t just change clients, each clinician is changed forever by the amazing amount of love and respect that occur between a therapist and her client.