The therapist-client relationship is unique. Therapists are prohibited from sharing their personal information with clients due to a strict code of ethics. But as a therapist, I can’t help but share some secrets with you.
- What is in our hearts is more important than what is in our brains. The theories we specialize in are all wonderful, but research has proven time and time again that what influences how much you benefit from therapy is the quality of the relationship with your therapist. If you don’t feel understood and heard by your therapist, if you don’t think they are being honest enough with you and pushing you hard, if you don’t feel like you have an amazing connection with them, find a new therapist. The latest clinical techniques and tips that we have mastered are secondary to the bond and trust that we can help create with you in the therapy session.
- Getting a master’s degree doesn’t prepare us very well. In grad school we study research explaining human behavior and the treatment of mental illness, dive into case studies, and learn the theoretical basis of different styles and methodologies. Most programs let us do an internship to practice our skills during our last year of school. 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.
Most therapists learn about your condition from you, and learn what to do to help you from the experts. Especially in our first 10 years as therapists, we will probably consult the literature or a trusted consultant to look for guidance on how to treat you.
- We are not always at our best. We get distracted, worried, and feel off just like you do. This can be difficult for clients to deal with, but it is our relationship with you that gets us through these difficult periods. We can’t tell you that we just lost our dog, that our child has a serious medical condition, or that our best friend just moved across the country. We will be as present as possible and leave our problems outside of the therapy room. If we feel that we are really compromised, 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. Mention it, and we will give you a very nonspecific answer, but it is a good way of practicing right relationships to ask when you are unsure.
- We can only take you so far. The master plan of therapy is to help you not need to go to therapy at all. Ethical therapists are always trying to work themselves out of a job by preparing you to navigate life independently, 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 feel this at the core of your being, you will recognize it when you feel it again, and you will know that you can trust that relationship.
- We care about you more than you may ever know. It is true that we try not to mix our professional and personal lives. For our own mental health, we maintain a strict boundary. But I can tell you with total honesty that I have deeply cared for each client whom I have treated — even and especially the difficult ones. “Unconditional positive regard” means we accept and respect you without judgement or evaluation. It 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 take our professionalism for lack of warmth. I am delighted when I am reminded of a former client and I enjoy taking a few moments to remember their story, wonder how they are doing, and wish them the best.
Therapy doesn’t just change clients. Each clinician is changed forever by the amazing amount of love and respect that occurs between a therapist and his or her client.
Therapist photo available from Shutterstock