Therapists who see therapists

I saw a hashtag recently that was designed to bring attention to the commonality of seeing a therapist (which of course I can’t remember of find now) and thought about my own experiences talking with other therapists and social workers about going to therapy. I would like to say that it’s openly accepted but the unfortunate truth is that the stigma about mental health services is still such that even though practitioners know they shouldn’t openly judge one of their own for going to therapy, you still see the wide-eyed looks briefly cross faces in a room if you casually announce that something you learned is from your own therapist. I started to pick apart why I think that is.

Of course there is the obvious cultural stigma that’s to blame, but I think within ourselves mental health and other helping professionals have our own issues about therapy. A lot of us go into this field to help ourselves, maybe without realizing it. I read this excellent book called Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist by Margalis Fjelstad and it made me realize that being someone who is used to caretaking for others who have mental health issues can actually be its own mental health issue. A lot of us who choose to work in therapy are good at listening or helping others because we have been in some way conditioned to do it, and it’s not always healthy for us. We may be used to ignoring our own problems, used to being the ones who fix everything, have difficulty letting others in or trusting that they’ll do it right, and all of that can lead to a lot of unhappiness.

Aside from that, it can feel a little stupid to need therapy if you’re a therapist, because on some level people DO expect that your mental health is completely together if you’re providing services to other people. It’s a weird Catch-22: there is a perception that clients often have that the therapist is above the issues they face, and yet clients frequently state they prefer to work with a therapist who is like themselves. This isn’t a bad thing, honestly I believe that having our own issues helps us relate to clients because as much as I love Cassilda (my robot vacuum) nobody wants a robot sitting across from them when they’re exploring their innermost feelings. Definitely, if a therapist is good at what we call “use of self” they are approachable to the client and can make great progress because a client can see a living, breathing example of a person who’s come out the other side of a problem that may seem unsolvable for them now. Being consumers of therapy can enlighten us to other aspects too, not just the therapeutic experience but the experience of all things outside the session that make therapy accessible or inaccessible to a client – insurance billing, appointment scheduling, the office, session frequency, communication between sessions, etc.

I was driving from a therapy meeting with a client to go see my therapist, and wondering if my therapist sees a therapist too, and I started thinking about a concept I learned in a French film class – the “mise en abyme.” Literally meaning “put into the abyss” (spoooooooooky!!) this is the concept of something self-referencing, like a picture within a picture within a picture, that goes on and on forever until it forms its own kind of abyss. Dark as that metaphor may seem, it’s kind of refreshing to think that me getting help from my therapist is giving me things that I can help my client with, and maybe my client is using them to help someone else. I believe that kind of thinking requires me to place myself on a level with my client and have some respect for the therapeutic process that takes place without a master’s degree – the help that people give each other on a day-to-day basis.

When you think about therapy as a hierarchy, with the therapist having authority over the client, it doesn’t seem quite right that a therapist would need therapy. But if you consider therapy as people who have a specific kind of relationship, where one is guiding and teaching but they also learn, then the chain of seeking and giving help is completely natural. Modern therapy isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a Hannibal-Lecter style of conversation where the client pours out themselves to a stone-faced academic in a wingback leather chair who then tells them what’s “wrong” with them. Going to therapy myself required a level of humility that I believe is good for me in my practice. It required me to acknowledge first that I come into the therapy room as a person, and if that person is not doing well then my job is going to suffer. It required me to recognize that I don’t know everything and I have blind spots and knowledge gaps, and there’s always going to be people who know more than I do. I try to take that into my sessions too and make sure I’m open to learning from my clients, because ultimately they understand their own lives more than I ever will.

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