Who’s afraid of the big, bad, therapist?

One of the things i have noticed, on forums and other places where people discuss therapy is how often worries about how a counsellor perceives their clients comes up. The obvious answer is “Ask your therapist” but clearly many feel a barrier around doing this.

This intrigues me. Obviously as a counsellor anything which acts as a barrier to a good therapeutic relationship is worth reflecting on, and trying to learn from. What is going on when a person takes to the online sphere to ask questions which one would hope they could ask of their therapist? What are they afraid of saying in session directly to their therapist? Perhaps more accurately, what impact are they afraid of their words having?

Role models and role playing

The first thing that seems to be going on is that people, in some way, look up to their therapist as some idealised example of a human being. How can they therefore admit a failing, or a fault to them? I am reminded of Rogers’ assertion that when client and counsellor meet, one is incongruent and in need whilst the other is congruent, and not in the state of vulnerability. To put it another way, we look like we have got our shit sorted to clients.

There is a dilemma here. We must, in order to qualify and be any good at our jobs, have worked on ourselves. We must not be playing a role, but instead, have worked through many of the issues which clients may present themselves with. To use a personal example, it would be no good to have a therapist who worked with gender and sexual diversity who was in denial about their own gender or sexuality. The process of training gives us little room to hide away our own baggage. Indeed a lot of it is designed to make us unpack that baggage in full view of our fellow students. This is vital so we can be that congruent and authentic professional described by Rogers. Perhaps then it is inevitable that some clients see what is in fact a work in progress as a perfect end product. This is made more complicated by the thorny issue of therapeutic disclosure. Thousands of words have been written about what it is, and isn’t, OK for a therapist to bring into the relationship. Most of it boils down to the idea of not taking up space which belongs to the client. Each professional has to make their own decision around this.

So perhaps each therapist has to take their own line, one which is authentic to them, in saying, I am only human. Part of this might be an explicit reminder that a client only sees the professional face, they do not really “know” the person sitting in the other chair. This might be hard for some clients. We enter into their inner worlds, share secrets they have never dared tell anyone, develop one of the most intimate relationships two people can, but they never know me as a friend, or partner might know me. For some clients this provokes a struggle around the genuineness of the relationship. So such discussions have to be handled delicately, but they should not be avoided if it seems a client has developed a false belief in a therapists perfection.

Judge not lest ye be judged

Another concern people seem to have is that they might be judged by their counsellor. This will sometimes be linked to my first point, seeing the therapist as a perfect person, who would look less favourably on someone, and cease to care about them, if negative behaviours or thoughts are revealed.

However sometimes clients have very real fears. I work largely, but not exclusively, with gender and sexually diverse clients. Many have real life experiences of prejudice and of being judged to be wrong. Wrong about some of the most fundamental experiences which form our sense of self. They will have been told their gender or sexuality is just a phase, deviant, sick, unchristian, a sign of mental illness. Others will have faced rejection by friends and family. In these circumstances it would be odd if they were not concerned with being judged.

It is not enough for therapists to say they are nonjudgmental either. All too often people will have faced prejudice from other professionals, even from therapists. We must ensure we engage in the reflective practice which allows us to be aware of our prejudices, educate ourselves, and openly demonstrate what non judgemental means. (Especially as training is still so lacking in some areas around sex, sexuality and gender). It is an area where we have to do the work. We need to show, not tell.

Perhaps we can never totally get past the fears some clients might have, and hopefully the fact other spaces exist where they can ask these questions is a positive development. If a client is afraid to ask me if a gift of cake would be acceptable (to quote one example I read) then the fact they can ask at all is hopefully going to benefit them in the long run. However I think as a counsellor I can learn from how common these questions are, and consider how I might be being perceived by clients. Only by accepting I am not finished, not perfect, and embracing it in fact, can I present myself as a genuine, and flawed human being to my clients.

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