“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates
Our clients put their trust, their lives, in our hands.
They come to us in emotional distress, vulnerable and fearful. Some with lives collapsing and falling apart. Pain is their impetus to seek help. Often, we are a last resort.
They are asked to divulge their most private and sensitive experiences to someone they hardly know. The relationship is not reciprocal. Therapists may occasionally share small details of their lives as a therapeutic intervention, otherwise, it is a one-sided experience of intimacy.
It is imperative, as counselors, that we engage in a life-long examination of our own lives, our values and beliefs….cognizant of the fact we will be most useful to our clients only to the degree to which we have worked on ourselves.
This requires an honest examination of our blinds spots, recognizing our biases and short-comings. Therapists, for instance, might benefit from an awareness of how components of their upbringing could skew their thoughts and feelings toward unhealthy beliefs inadvertently passed on to their clients.
Our ethics must be impeccable. Our skills sharp. Our interventions crisp, candid, compassionate.
My first therapy experience was at age seventeen. My first therapist warmhearted, inviting, empathetic….and blind. As though she had sight, she sensed my muffled tears and tenderly acknowledged my sorrow. She created a safe, welcoming space for adolescent angst to be shared. That early therapy encounter of kindness and gentle directive…. impacted the decision to make this my career.
I have sought therapy throughout my life as one of several forms of personal exploration and growth. Working with someone you respect and trust….who holds with you your most fragile thoughts and emotions, aids in sifting through jumbled feelings and unproductive thinking, assists in challenging perceived injustices or in identifying projected hurts and wounds….provides a valuable opportunity for emotional healing.
Each therapist I have worked with over the years has played an angelic role in guiding me through all phases of life….. struggles in relationships, bumps in my marriage, the loss of my parents, challenging transitions….and now….the navigation of this daunting, yet delightful period called the ‘Autumn Years’.
My preference was finding someone with honed skills and hair as gray as mine….reflecting someone having traversed similar life stages and phases…. and possibly better able to relate more personally with my therapy goals.
My current life guide more than fits the bill.
Energetic, bright, warm, yet firm….I feel safe in her presence and believe she will ask the questions meant to rattle me to consciousness, and call me on my BS.
The ‘work‘ this go-round is hard, but liberating.
I am seeking a sweet spot between my public/professional persona and burrowed shadow side…hoping to better integrate the two.
Some of the objectives I have in mind are to develop a more definitive picture of what life could look like during these senior years, explore and identify new interests as I age, develop the confidence to expose my creativity more publicly, melt any facade between me and my authentic self….and achieve the life I desire as I grow closer to seventy.
As an example, a recent appointment with my therapist led me to revisiting a childhood trauma flooded with difficult images, recapturing the scenes of decades ago. For several minutes, I was pummeled by powerful emotions.
At the next session she asked,
“What were you thinking and feeling right after you left my office last week…and how was it for you to share at such a deep level with me?”
I paused for a moment, checking-in with that tender and sensitive place of honesty and authenticity.
“Hmmm,” I replied, looking away for a few seconds, attempting to recreate the last session in my mind and recall my reactions.
“I felt self-conscious and exposed. My self-confidence was shaken and I wondered and worried about how you were experiencing me…..I even questioned if you were making a judgement on whether or not you felt I was a competent therapist?”
She chuckled a little, and responded.
“Actually, I thought to myself that you are most likely an excellent therapist. You bring a combination of emotional depth and analytical understanding to your own personal work…. and I assume you must bring that balance of both to your clients as well”.
If I allow myself to be ‘real’, to be raggedy, warts and all….if I am open and willing to be less guarded and embrace my ‘shadow’ side…..the more authentic I become as a person….and the more effective I am as a therapist.
However, a frenzied debate remains among colleagues in the mental health field regarding whether or not it is important for a therapist in-training to engage in their own personal therapy, as noted in an excerpt from the article, “Personal Therapy for the Future Therapist: Reflections on a Still Debated Issue” which appeared in the European Journal of Counselling Psychology in 2013:
“The issue of personal therapy in the training of counsellors and counselling psychologists has long been debated and is still being discussed. Although some people believe that trainees’ processing of personal issues helps increase their self-understanding, they do not consider it mandatory. Others argue that personal therapy is an integral part of training for future therapists revealing the characters and personalities of those who are fit or unfit to practice this profession.”
Regardless of this debated issue, I hold to the notion that a therapist is only as good as the degree to which he or she seeks a conscious life through an examination of self-perception and self-exploration.
I believe the better I know myself….the more understanding and helpful I can be to the apprehensive, but hopeful client sitting across from me in my office….and….the more I can fully appreciate what it is like to walk in their shoes.