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Therapy

What Can a Therapist Learn From Being in Therapy?

A clinical psychologist reveals what worked for her when she sought treatment.

Key points

  • The experience of therapy greatly varies with different therapists.
  • How well a patient connects with a therapist is more important than the type of therapy they practice.
  • It's important to take time choosing a therapist who is the right fit. Seeing multiple therapists for an initial consultation may be beneficial.
Peggy & Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay
Source: Peggy & Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay

I spent many years providing therapy for adults and children with a wide range of distressing problems before the tables were turned on me. When my husband died suddenly in his early fifties, leaving me with three teenage children, I found myself desperately in need of support. I cried all the time. I couldn’t concentrate. I didn’t want to get up in the morning – in short, I wasn’t coping. I knew from my background in psychology that therapy might help, but would it? What would it feel like to find myself facing the therapist’s chair?

During the ensuing years, I worked with four different therapists. They were all women, and although they were well qualified, they differed in focus, technique, and theoretical background. Three were more psychodynamic in orientation (focusing on the relationship between them and me, exploring my unconscious thoughts, and tending to talk a lot about my past). In contrast, one was a CBT therapist (focusing more on current issues, exploring dysfunctional thought patterns, and finding practical solutions). Interacting with each of them felt very different.

One finished with me when she moved abroad. I finished with two others when I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere — in one case, after almost four years. The final therapy ended mutually after what I considered a supportive, helpful, and healing experience.

So what was the magic ingredient? There is a large body of research showing that the relationship with the therapist is key to the success of therapy, regardless of the therapist’s theoretical background. As psychiatrist Irvin Yalom put it, “A therapist helps a patient by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested; and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing.” Or as psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz stated, “The most important thing is that the patient should feel that what s/he came to say, needed to say, has been said, listened to and thought about.”

Therapists almost always make these sorts of pronouncements, and it is much rarer to read evaluations of therapy written from the patient’s point of view. So here I was in a fairly unique position: a patient but also a psychologist. What was it that worked for me?

My experience resonated entirely with the literature findings: I really liked the therapist I worked with best. She was warm and friendly, and she worked collaboratively, all of which mattered to me. She was an astute listener, really taking in whatever I talked about and able to summarise and reflect on it in a way that made me feel understood. She certainly challenged me often, but she also had a sense of humour, which also mattered. In short, I felt that we clicked.

Arek Socha/Pixabay
Source: Arek Socha/Pixabay

So how do you find the right therapist for you? From my own experience in the therapist’s chair, this is what I think matters:

  • Only consider a therapist who is properly qualified and registered with a professional body.
  • Use the initial consultation to get a feel for the person. Ask about their qualifications, what sessions will be like, how long therapy is likely to last, and anything else that matters to you. You need to know right from the outset what you are letting yourself in for.
  • Go to see more than one therapist for an initial consultation, and keep going until you find someone you feel comfortable with.

Always remember the importance of the connection between therapist and patient. As psychotherapist Valery Hazanov put it, “Conceptualisations, theories, interventions ... only matter if the patient remembers a person, something that person said or did for him or her that was real.”

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Moore, V. (2021). One Thousand Days and One Cup of Tea: a Clinical Psychologist's Experience of Grief. Hachette UK.

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