Why Therapy Is Important for Therapists
Therapists can benefit from being in therapy as much as their patients.
Posted Jun 23, 2011
One of the questions I will sometimes be asked by my clients is whether I myself have been in therapy. It's a legitimate question and one I'm always open to discussing. Typically, when clients inquire, I take a moment to explore their question before responding. I've heard a number of responses over the years but generally what I've come to appreciate is that clients have an understandable desire to know whether I can be helpful to them. Depending on the individual, the fact that I too have been on "the other side of the couch" can be a source of comfort, for others it may be disconcerting.
While I suspect there are a small number of therapists who are able to practice ethically and effectively without the experience of personal therapy, the majority of us will enter into it at least once during our careers. For many, the experience of being in therapy is far more informative than any graduate class or textbook. Therapy can be an important component of our professional identity as we learn from our own therapists. In doing so, we are forced to look at our own base instincts and empathize with our clients' all too human wishes and impulses. According to Irvin Yalom, a gifted psychotherapist and author of several books on the topic, therapy allows all of us to work through our own "neurotic issues," examine our blind spots, and learn to accept feedback. The therapist who is able to identify and work through these personal conflicts is far less likely to "act out" with their clients in ways that can potentially be destructive. In fact, some have argued that therapy should be a requirement for anyone entering the profession. Indeed, this was what Sigmund Freud had intended when he wrote (Freud, 1912):
Anyone who wishes to practice analysis should first submit to be analyzed himself by a competent person. Anyone taking up the work seriously should choose this course, which offers more than one advantage; the sacrifice involved in laying oneself bare to a stranger without the necessity incurred by illness is amply rewarded. Not only is the purpose of learning to know what is hidden in one's own mind far more quickly obtained and with less expense of affect, but impressions and convictions are received in one's own person which may be sought in vain by studying books and attending lectures... That analyst, however, who has despised the provision of analysis for himself will be penalized, not merely by an incapacity to learn more than a certain amount from his patient, but by risking a more serious danger for others.
While I concur with Freud that being in one's own therapy can be personally enlightening and informative, I do not believe it can or should be mandated of all therapists. With that said, I would hope that anyone called to this profession would understand the maxim that in order to help others you must first help yourself. From my perspective, entering into therapy is one way of doing just that.
For those interested in reading more about this topic, I would strongly recommend Nancy McWilliams' essay, "The therapist's preparation" in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy (2004).
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.