Counseling professionals have often been in counseling themselves. While clients sometimes enter the counseling experience with the idea that counselors “have it all together,” mental health professionals have often faced their own personal trials, and have accessed therapy as a source of healing and learning.
Years ago, I was chatting with the owner of a counseling clinic about the possibility of joining his practice for my internship. We got to talking about the person of the therapist and the idea that some Masters programs require therapists-in-training to go through some therapy themselves. I asked if he requires, (or at least encourages) his clinicians to undergo their own therapy. He reacted as if this was a strange concept, and dismissed the idea. “I’ve actually never been in therapy. I feel like it wouldn’t work for me, because I would just sit there and criticize the therapist the whole time, in my head.” Alarm bells began to ring as he said this, and I politely backed out of the conversation. This was a surprising answer, and out of the norm for what is generally accepted in the field of counseling.
Sometimes, while working with a client early in the process of therapy, they feel as if “having to” be there is a consequence.
- I’m here because I got a DWI.
- I’m here because my wife gave me an ultimatum.
- I’m here because I got fired.
- I’m here because I cheated.
- I’m here because I messed up.
- I’m here because I’m stuck.
There are therapeutic interventions that can be helpful for those that feel they just need a brief, solutions-based intervention. The approach can be summarized: “I’m stuck, help me figure out my next move.” But often, thinking of therapy as a consequence rather than an opportunity to learn about ourselves, reflects the stigma of seeking counseling. It distorts or diminishes the value and purpose of therapy. This approach can be summarized: “I’m stuck. Help me figure out how I got here, and that will help me understand the best way forward.”
Carl Jung, one of the godfathers of modern psychological thought, believed that a therapist should have gone through their own journey of deep self-reflection. He didn’t view unhealthy behaviors and thoughts as something to avoid or run from, but rather, to recognize as signposts of deeper meaning. Jung stated , “Thank God he became a neurotic! Just as pain might make a man realize that there was something wrong with his body, so neurotic symptoms could draw attention to the psychological problems of which the individual was unaware.”
As you consider counseling to help you heal and reach your potential, ask yourself:
- Do you want a therapist that has never asked for help, or invited anyone else in to help them learn about themselves?
- Are you looking for someone to give you advice, pointing you in the right direction? Or would you rather have an empathetic professional who has done some hard work trying to figure themselves out walk with you through your story in an effort to help you find more meaning?
- Would you rather view counseling as a consequence, or as a catapult?
The owner of a counseling clinic who has never been in therapy is a little bit like an Herbalife salesperson who never felt the need to use their own product. “This remedy is good for you, but I’ve never needed it” may work for a medical doctor, but it is not a good approach in mental health.
The reality is that most therapists enter the field because they have “gone through some things.” We come from dysfunctional families. We’ve experienced loss, tragedy, trauma. We’ve lost our way before. We’ve messed up. We’ve been stuck. The best therapists have done the work of self-reflection and self-improvement, and are in an ongoing process of understanding themselves. This is the bond in a good therapeutic relationship. When you are working with someone who you know isn’t asking you to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves, it becomes easier to trust that person to be there to listen, empathize, and gently guide you along the way.