There are certain words of wisdom that stay with you the rest of your life — especially when it concerns something you practice every day: your profession. For the therapists below, the advice they’ve received from former teachers, mentors, colleagues and books has played a pivotal role in informing their work. Below, they share the best advice they’ve ever been given when it comes to conducting therapy.
Shari Manning, Ph.D, a licensed professional counselor, CEO of the Treatment Implementation Collaborative and author of Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder.
Marsha Linehan taught me something that Gerald May had taught her. He said that there are two things necessary to do good therapy. The therapist has to stay awake and care. These may seem simple at first but staying awake means being aware of subtle changes and emotions in your clients. You have to be alert and ready to respond. Most of us get into doing psychotherapy because we are compassionate people, but if we truly care, we will stay current on new research, get supervision and consultation and do the hard work even when it would be easier not to. As a behavior therapist, caring means not reinforcing problematic behavior or punishing functional behavior while moving the client to his/her ultimate goals, even when I would have it differently.
Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist who specializes in couples.
Make mistakes! From Pete Pearson of the Couples Institute. You learn from making mistakes, and if you’re afraid to make mistakes you can become so risk averse that you don’t grow and learn. As Pete points out, most innovations – in therapy and elsewhere – have come from taking risks, and many have come from mistakes! You succeed by making mistakes (I think there’s a book out now with a title along those lines).
As therapists we can learn a lot from theory, mentors, etc., but ultimately, as with any art, each therapist has to develop his or her own voice and style. Giving yourself permission to make mistakes (since we all do, whether we like it or not!) allows you to learn to trust your own intuitions, and develop the experience that shapes that style.
Also: Admit to your clients when you don’t know, or when you’ve made a mistake. It models vulnerability and willingness to self-reflect, two critical components of self-growth and connection.
Amy Pershing, LMSW, director of the Pershing Turner Centers in Annapolis, and clinical director for the Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor.
I was given a tremendous piece of advice by a professor of mine in graduate school. He said the moment you think you know everything about a client, what they need, who they are, you’re dead in the water. At that moment, you’ve stopped listening to the real expert in the room: the client. I’ve never forgotten this. I cannot understand “top down” therapy, the idea of therapist as the primary source of wisdom. I do have training and expertise that my client may not have, but I am mostly a mirror for them, occasionally a guide, and always a witness to their story. They are the ones in the room doing the work and taking the risks, not me. I fully believe people have everything they need to heal; they just have to relearn how to listen to, and believe, what they hear. This has always guided my clinical work, and I am grateful.
Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, relationship advisor, therapist and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.
When I first started doing couples counseling as a graduate student, I thought that my role as a therapist was to keep couples together; therapy was a success if the two partners stayed together. My supervisor/mentor said: Success should not be measured by whether the two partners stay together as a result of counseling. Instead, success is helping a client make the best decision for him/herself, in terms of happiness and well-being. This comment/advice made a huge impact on me as a therapist.
John Duffy, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
During my internship, I was working with a man I found to be wholly unlikeable. He was mean. He hardly worked. He drank too much, and bragged about cheating on his ex-wife. I went to my supervisor, requesting a re-assignment of this client. He said no. Instead, he said, “Arrange another meeting, and this time, be curious.” When I asked why, he suggested I consider the fact that if I, a trained empathy pro, cannot connect with this guy, why might that be? Why does he put up such a façade? He helped me to slow down, place my initial impressions aside, open my mind, and find the connection. This curiosity has driven my work ever since.
[And as for the client], once I accepted him, he was far more likeable. His father, as it turned out, was much like he was himself: angry, dismissive, cruel at times. And he grew up with this model, and feeling rejected by his father as well. Who wouldn’t be bitter carrying all that around? One curious thing about this client is that I have not seen him in about a dozen years, and he sends me a very thoughtful, gracious Christmas card every year.
Elvira Aletta, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and founder of Explore What’s Next, a comprehensive psychotherapy practice.
I love my work, but there are those days when I find myself stressed out. Maybe it’s because I’ve over-booked myself too many days in a row, or had a series of challenging sessions or maybe just one person I wonder if I’m really helping. On those days, before I decide to chuck it all and go work for Mary Kay, I remind myself of what Dr. John Ludgate, of the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Center of Western North Carolina, said at an advanced CBT seminar.
Therapists tend to be an idealistic bunch. Our professional core values reflect the demanding expectations we have of ourselves, like, “I must be successful with all my patients all of the time.” To reduce stress and possible burnout, he invited therapists to use CBT techniques on themselves. For example, instead of dwelling on “There is no progress. I am not helping this patient,” which only makes me anxious, I could write down alternate, more reasonable thoughts like, “Think about where that person was three months ago instead of just last week. There’s been plenty of progress!” Result: I feel better!
Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., psychotherapist, author and teacher.
I feel like the greatest help has come from those I’ve never met, the teachers and writers who offered their wisdom through their books and examples of how they have lived their lives. Martin Buber’s notion of I and Thou reminds me always to hold the space between myself and the client as something sacred and transformational in and of itself. That is probably the most important conscious awareness that I have as a therapist…
I once had the honor of sitting down to talk with my clinical and literary hero, Irvin Yalom. At one point he said that therapists must strive to maintain a curiosity about their patients and fertilize the patient’s curiosity about himself. Whenever I’m feeling a bit lost in a therapy session this simple idea brings back my focus.