Reflections on Therapeutic Mastery, Part 2

Excerpts from a personal interview, continued

Posted Jun 11, 2015

Q.  What do you think is most important in identifying or defining an extraordinary therapist, one who stands out from her or his peers?

A. Again, a very complex question but I would say that the main factor is the sense that the therapist is centered or aligned within him or herself, a sense that he or she experiences an "inner home," to which he or she can return as more or less needed, and a sense that the therapist really can clear a space to provide the kind of healing that the therapist has undergone for him or herself.  This ideal does not preclude other more visible qualities, such as intelligence, a professional and stable demeanor, and a knowledgable skill set, but it means that those latter traits have become integrated in such a way as to have become "second nature" when working with the therapist, and certainly secondary to the prime qualities of a humane and highly present disposition. I know that my mentor Rollo May used to say that he rarely chose analytic training candidates for how good they looked on paper (e.g., for their grades or fine clothing), but on the basis of how much they seemed to have struggled in their own lives, and whether they seemed to have come to a place of acceptance or appreciation for that struggle, and the courage that is needed to face it in the here and now.  I think I look for similar dispositions in those I train, or help them to work with those dispositions. From my own experience, it is vitally important to sense that a therapist has somehow "been there" with a client--not in exactly the same place, but in a parallel place, and has found ways to work his or her way through...but always with the humility that life can tear one down at any moment, and that the best we can do is appreciate that, and draw on it to help us appreciate the moments of our possibilities and aliveness. 

Q.  What do most people, and even most professionals, not really understand about what it takes to be really accomplished in our field?

A. One's own "down and dirty" no-barred inner work, one's own grappling with inner demons, there is simply no easy way around that in my view, if a therapist is to provide the kind of care that is demanded by the deepest client struggles.  This also highlights a growing problem with the kinds of training that are offered increasingly in our country.  They tend to be overly focused on the mastery of techniques (or in the case of psychiatrists, psychopharmacology) and woefully underfocused on the candidates' own tumultuous lives, their own capacities to discover a "home" within those lives so that they can offer that template to others in profound distress.  This means that we need more training that focuses on  experiential (that is, immediate affective, and kinesthetic) aspects of therapy transactions, and also more focus on experiential forms of personal therapy for the candidates.  Of course I say this having been blessed by some of the greatest experientialists (my early therapists, Rollo May and Jim Bugental) extant, but it doesn't in any way invalidate the overall point.  I think we need to shift our priorities both financially and professionally to optimize our therapeutic offerings as a field, and the latest contextual outcome research in my view upholds this contention. Correlative to the above, I think training candidates as well as professional therapists need to spend a great deal more time with the arts and humanities, both in their schooling as well as their avocational life.  These are the realms that also help to sensitize therapists to the great therapeutic teachings of the past as well as present that can sensitize, deepen, and inform all who heal. 

Parts of this interview are excerpted from On Being a Master Therapist: Practicing What You Preach by Jeffrey Kottler and Jon Carlson.  For more information see:

For more information about Kirk Schneider's work see