Before becoming a therapist myself, I wondered about the experience and life of my therapist.
She seemed so “normal” and well put together. She always knew the right responses to help me navigate my confusing and often painful life.
I imagined there was no way she had ever dealt with similar issues I was working through, and if she had, that was way in her past. She was always calm but cheerful, seemed stable and secure, and her business was booming. Did she ever even need her own therapy? Would my life be that perfect by the time I became a therapist?
I soon learned that no one, not even therapists, are perfect or have everything in their lives figured out. In fact, that adversity might even be what makes therapists good at their job!
I didn’t think to tell my therapist about my impression of her life until years later, and she told me that she wished I had known the reality about her earlier. I wondered what else she wished I had known in those years as her client.
While I can’t speak for all therapists, here are the top five responses I received when asking myself and colleagues what we wish our clients knew about us:
1. We are flawed humans. Maybe even with similar struggles. We have problems, too! Lots of them. Sure, we’ve (hopefully) done enough work in our personal lives and in our own therapy (more on that next) that we have wisdom and guidance to offer and it doesn’t get in the way of our ability to help our clients, but we don’t live seamless, emotionless lives. Some of us have also struggled with depression or anxiety, or are also in the middle of a difficult and confusing divorce, or swipe endlessly on dating apps trying to find the right partner. Some of us also use our phones way too often, use food as a way to cope with stress, or feel unsure of the next career steps to take.
We often can empathize with our clients’ struggles more than they know because we’ve been there before, or at least somewhere similar. And if not, we’ve probably been through something different but with similar intensity and impact. As long as we have a deep understanding of our own issues, being flawed humans with complex experiences allows us to better understand our clients and the healing process.
2. We are in therapy, too! We know what it’s like!
An important part of training for any therapist is for them to be in therapy themselves. While not all therapists are currently in therapy, they likely (hopefully) have spent many years sitting on the couch, too. This is for both the benefit of learning how to be a therapist and also so they can effectively work through their own issues to be more available to help their clients.
As I mentioned previously, therapists also have real-life problems, but they should have enough stability and wisdom that they can show up for their clients without that impacting their work.
3. We genuinely care about our clients and their progress. Not just because it’s what pays our bills (more on that next), but because we are compassionate beings who want to help. We have dedicated our careers to helping others, usually because it’s in our nature to want to help others heal.
Even though it might seem like a one-way relationship because the client is doing most of the sharing, the therapist shows up each and every session to support the client. That is meaningful to them as well. We see our clients grow and change, and they become a part of our lives in those moments.
4. While we do love our clients, it is a job/business. This is often our source of income, and therefore we must treat it like a job and, for some, a business. We have spent money on school, additional training, our own therapy, and if it’s our own business, expenses like office rent and furniture. We have to keep strict boundaries around things like fees, cancellations, and office hours. Just like any other business. This doesn’t take away from our genuine care for our clients, but these are the realities of a business.
We also have to keep boundaries around the type of contact we can have. The client-therapist relationship must remain just that. No dating, after-work drinks, or phone calls just to chat, as much as we might want to extend the relationship.
5. Our clients don’t have to protect us. We want our clients to be completely honest with us and not hide something because they are worried about hurting our feelings or making us upset.
If our clients are angry at us because of something we said the previous session or because of a business policy, we want them to tell us. If they aren’t benefitting from the work we are doing, or if they want something different to happen in the session, they should tell us! If they’re thinking of ending therapy, we definitely want them to tell us as soon as they start having that thought. If they have a burning question about our personal lives, we want them to ask us. We might not be able to tell them the answer, but it’s certainly important to ask.
The session is for the benefit of the client, not the therapist. It’s okay if our clients make us uncomfortable or put us on the spot. Most importantly, if we don’t know something is on the minds of our client, we can’t respond to it.
Therapy is a wonderful gift to give ourselves, but navigating the client-therapist relationship can be tricky. I hope these points offer some guidance.