My Most Important Insight as a Psychotherapist After 40 Years

Sacredness, respect, dignity, and reverence organizes and centers me. And you?

Posted Dec 01, 2020

I have been practicing psychotherapy for almost 40 years. Beginning as a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at the University of Kansas in the early 1980s, until now as a licensed psychologist in northern California. I have a part-time clinical practice while maintaining academic positions at Santa Clara and Stanford Universities. There is so much to learn and to know to conduct psychotherapy with competence, which is why psychologists are required to get a doctoral degree, along with postdoctoral training, to meet the minimum criteria to be called and licensed as a psychologist.

Psychotherapy, especially today, can often sound complicated and like alphabet soup with popular approaches and techniques such as CBT, DBT, EMDR, ACT, and so forth. You certainly learn a great deal about people as a psychotherapist and there are many interesting books that describe the inner thoughts of psychotherapists from excellent writers such as Irv Yalom, MD, and the recent popular book by Lori Gotlieb, MFT entitled, Maybe you Should See Someone. All worth reading for sure.

Although it may sound rather simple and certainly not something that you need to obtain a Ph.D. and a license to practice as a psychologist to understand, I tend to think that the most important insight that I have received from being a therapist for so many years is that everyone is sacred and should be treated as such. I know that this does not sound like an earth-shattering or deep insight.

What do I mean and why is this insight so important?

People struggle in all sorts of ways. Moreover, life experiences, challenges, disappointments, and so forth tweak them in ways that can be remarkably difficult. Many people can be terribly flawed, difficult to deal with, and in our culture, can often simply act like entitled and narcissistic jerks. Our terribly polarized political system and society really drill this issue home. People get scared, angry, frustrated, disappointed, and act out in ways that certainly do not reflect their best selves. As a psychologist, I have seen it all and have worked closely with many people who are deeply despised and demonized in society. However, even those who may appear on the surface to be wonderful pillars of the community often have a dark side that only close family members, coworkers, or their psychotherapist can see. We all know that people can behave in very bad ways and there are likely to be a long list of these folks who you would want to avoid.

Yet, I conclude that everyone is indeed sacred and thus important and worthy of being treated with great respect, dignity, compassion, reverence, and even love. Sure, there are many people who you (and I) do not like and who are not pleasant to be around. Plenty of people make you want to pull your hair out with upset and frustration. They are sacred too. In my view, they deserve respect, compassion, reverence, and love as well.

In the Hindu tradition, there is a well-known greeting Namaste. This means that the sacred or divine in me sees and recognizes the sacred and divine in you. It is a greeting often accompanied by hands held together with a slight bow. Think about it. It is a recognition that all are sacred and divine, likable and agreeable, or not. Imagine if we lived with a Namaste attitude towards others, regardless of one’s religious tradition or not. In the Rules of St. Benedict within the Christian monastic tradition, there is a rule that everyone should be treated as if they are Jesus himself. If you come from a Christian tradition and you live this rule you would easily find the sacred and divine in all.

Therefore, I suggest that the most important insight of being a psychologist and psychotherapist for four decades is that people are sacred and should be treated as such. It organizes and centers both my professional and personal life and I believe makes me better at both. What about you? 

Copyright 2020 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP