Despite the growing number of people in the UK who are accessing therapy there still seems to be a belief that its something which only those who have in some way been “broken” by life would contemplate. Perhaps it is the idea that working on ourselves is selfish, or maybe there is still that mindset that we “keep calm and carry on” regardless of the damage we are doing to ourselves. I touched on the idea that therapy doesn’t have to be shorthand for the destination of last resort here.
It is therefore unsurprising that people are sometimes shocked that I myself have a therapist. There are I think a number of things going on, which I hope to unpack a little in this piece.
We are not finished
Any therapist should of course have worked on their own trauma, should they have any, and anything which may intrude into the therapeutic relationship in a way which is detrimental to the client. I choose my words carefully here, because it is important that people realise we are not robots, and we bring our own experiences to the work. If I tell a client that something they have said provokes anger, or sorrow, or wanting to comfort them, I do so because I believe it will be useful information for them to hear. To be able to do that assessment, to know I am sharing for their benefit not my own I have to have reached a certain level of self awareness and reflection. Or to put it a bit more simply, I need to know what is my stuff, and what is yours.
So, whilst as Rogers described, therapy is a meeting of two people, one of whom is (hopefully) congruent and not in a place of vulnerability, this does not mean that we are somehow finished or perfect. As a trained professional I may have skills to help you find the answers in your life, it doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes have my own questions about my own journey.
It can be hard for some people in therapy to accept their therapist does not know everything, and is not perfect. Often we are given the role of the idealised parent, all knowing and all wise, especially when the actual parent has in some way failed to offer the unconditional positive regard that a child needs. The idea that we are seeking our own answers can feel very frightening, with the thought of “If they are not finished, how can I ever hope to be”. The answer of course is, that none of us are ever finished, so long as we are alive, and nor should we want to be. To be alive is to know that there will always be more questions, more answers, new destinations on the journey. Healing is about approaching these with hope and curiously rather than fear and trepidation.
Compartments and Confidentiality
One of the questions people sometimes have is “What if you talk about me in therapy”. Confidentiality is of vital importance, and people need to know that they can trust their therapist. However, the answer to this is perhaps an unexpected one. My personal therapy is for me, not anyone else, so why would I be talking about someone else during it?
I am on Quora, a question and answer site, and it fascinates me how many questions can be boiled down to “does my therapist think as much about me between sessions, or after therapy has ended, as I think about them.” The therapeutic relationship is intimate, and a huge bond can build up, it can be hard therefore for the client to truly understand that they are one of many in the therapists life. You might even say that all therapists are professionally poly whilst all clients have to be serially monogamous. I can have many therapeutic relationships, you must only have one (at one time). This imbalance is why I think sometimes clients assume that a therapist would be thinking and talking about them in therapy.
We do need to reflect on the work we are doing, but if a client intrudes into our minds this is something to take to supervision, a professional space where we can work out what is going on for us with a particular client. Supervision is not therapy, it is a very different space. I am not saying a client would never be mentioned in our own therapy, something may remind us of our own work, or bring up issues we believed to be long resolved. However compartmentalisation is one of the key skills of being a therapist. Knowing whether something is a therapeutic or a supervisory issue is one of the ways a good working relationship with your supervisor is vital.
So to answer the question, it is unlikely that a client would be discussed in therapy in any identifiable way, and you should already be aware that your therapist may discuss clients during supervision, in a completely confidential manner.
If it works, it works.
Imagine if someone was trying to sell you a new health drink, and when you asked them if it tasted good they replied “Oh I don’t have a clue, I have never tried it”. You wouldn’t have much confidence in their product. I am a counsellor, I trained because I knew it had helped me, and believed I would be good at it. I am taking a postgraduate gender and sexuality and relationship diverse training because I believe in the importance of properly qualified therapists. If I believe therapy helps other people then surely I have to believe it also will help me? I can’t be the person trying to sell a drink I have never tasted.
Now this does not mean that every therapist has to be in therapy all of the time. One of the huge areas of personal growth I have recognised in myself is around reflective self awareness. If I sense a strong emotional reaction in myself I can very often turn inward and trace its journey through my emotional landscape, finding its source. So the exploratory safe space that therapy creates for many people is not always needed. All of the therapists I know and respect seem to be expert navigators of their emotional landscapes, and able, and willing to map new or unexpected areas.
However, this does not mean I can never be unsure, or need help with the process, or that even if I know what is going on for me and why, I still don’t find it helpful to have someone walk alongside me, as I walk alongside clients.
Keeping clients safe.
Whenever counselling ethics is discussed one of the core concepts is that therapists need to know themselves. Part of being ethical is to explore how we feel about different identities and behaviours.of clients Being “non judgmental” does not cut it if we feel revulsion at a clients liking kink, or have unexamined prejudices against certain racial minorities. It is one of the reasons why the common statement of “ I just see everyone as human, without labels” (usually coming from a white cishet middle class person) can be incredibly dangerous. We all have prejudices and biases, we cannot but help it, the unexamined life is a life where we allow those prejudices to influence our interactions with others, including our clients. There are of course many ways we can explore issues such as our attitude to things such as sex, relationships, race, class, disability, and so forth apart from therapy. Sometimes though if we have not undergone a sufficiently deep therapeutic exploration of ourselves those unconscious biases and prejudices are too close to the surface, influencing our conscious thoughts, feelings and choices.
Even though we may be in therapy for ourselves, and our own personal growth, it makes us, I believe more able, and ethical therapists. So, yes, I am a therapist, who has a therapist, and it is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact it is something to be proud of!
Many thanks to Karin Brauner whose piece here inspired me to write this.