Because therapy is confidential and done behind closed doors, it can seem almost cryptic. Even if you’ve seen a therapist several times, you still might be confused about how therapy works. Which often explains why we hold so many misconceptions about what therapy really is and what it really looks like. But we’re not the only ones. Therapists also make all kinds of assumptions about the therapy process. Which is why we asked different clinicians to share what they assumed was true about practicing therapy but—as it turned out—was actually quite the opposite.
When Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, was in graduate school and first started doing therapy, she thought she had to do things in her sessions. That is, she assumed she needed to give out worksheets, and conduct certain interventions. However, she soon realized that therapy is less about doing and more about being.
“It’s about being present in session and holding the client’s pain,” said Hanks, executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy clinic. For instance, this might mean crying with a client as they share a devastating memory. It might mean empathizing with a client and telling them, “I feel you. I am here with you. You are not alone in this experience.” It looks different for every client, Hanks said.
Similarly, Chris Kingman, LCSW, who specializes in individual and couples therapy, assumed that being an effective therapist meant mastering techniques, “being a masterful technician so to speak.” He assumed it meant being less “emotional” and more “professional,” which he interpreted as: “emotionally distant, controlled, impersonal.”
Since then, he’s learned that effective therapists are vulnerable therapists. That is, they’re emotionally open and flexible. What does this look like?
When clients ask Kingman about his life, he’s happy to share and answers honestly — whatever the topic. This includes “how I think about and handle challenges in my own marriage and parenting; my own 12-step recovery process; [and] how and why I became a therapist.”
Before starting her private practice, Liz Morrison, LCSW, who specializes in kids and families, also assumed that sharing personal information was a bad idea. However, she’s found that in many cases, especially with kids and teens, self-disclosure is tremendously helpful and builds a stronger connection between client and clinician. For instance, she’s shared her past fears about going to sleep away camp with a younger child who felt frightened about it. She’s shared her own apprehensive feelings about applying to college with a teen who felt anxious about the process.
(Here’s another example of how powerful and healing it is when therapists share their hearts in session—as one therapist reveals to her client that she, too, lost a loved one to suicide.)