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.