Today I spent an unusually long time scanning articles for something interesting to talk about. I was looking for something new on the importance of the relationship between the therapist and client. It’s not hard to find articles on therapeutic relationships, but few go beyond saying that the relationship is the most important factor, and that the characteristics most important to a strong therapeutic relationship are empathy, respect, and genuineness.
Ok, but what else? That can’t be all there is to it. I know that most therapists pride themselves on their empathy, respect and genuineness toward their clients. Yet most that I know of are not particularly effective at helping their clients resolve their presenting concerns. Many of them simply sit with their clients each week, listening intently, nodding, maintaining good eye contact, reflecting back their understanding of what the client is saying, and maybe asking a few probing questions. The relationships may be decent, but while some clients report that they enjoy therapy things aren’t really improving in their lives outside of the therapy session.
Then I found the attached article. This writer talks of her lifelong effort to maintain boundaries in her professional relationships with clients. Yet one day when she is at the supermarket with her own screaming and tired child she encounters a client whom she’s seeing for help with parenting. She’s mortified that her client is seeing her struggle to maintain control and composure with her child. She’s sure that the client will realize that she’s incompetent and will fire her before their next session. But that’s not what happens. The client comes in to the next session feeling empowered and more focused than ever on improving her parenting. The experience of seeing the therapist’s own struggle helped to humanize the therapist for her. She could see for the first time that the therapist really did understand her problems and wasn’t just pretending to. It helped her to consider that if the therapist could keep trying then she could too. It was a breakthrough moment.
I just love stories like this that make it ok for the therapist to be another person in the room. We, as therapists, know that it’s not ok to take over therapy and make the session be about us. We know how important it is to maintain a therapeutic focus on the client. But really, is it so awful to use our own experience to help the client to feel less alone? Do we have to be a completely blank slate? I am so happy to see this article, and how it changed one therapist’s perspective so that she could bring more tools from her own life to her work with clients. I’m a big fan of appropriate therapist use of self, because it can empower clients to be courageous in making change. For me, that’s the best way a therapist can show their ability to be genuine in their relationships with clients. http://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/populartopics/ethics/504-nightmare-in-the-aisle