Why no therapist can take you further than they themselves have travelled

One of the most important criteria when choosing a therapist is finding one who has travelled their own path and faced, if not completely worked through, their own difficult issues.

They don’t need to have everything perfectly resolved, even if that were possible. But they do need to have done the hard work of looking at themselves in their own therapy.

Good therapy will have helped them become more aware of aspects of their own Shadow. The Shadow is like our blind spot and is the parts of ourselves that we have unconsciously rejected. It may include vulnerability, anger and sexuality. It is not uncommon for us to see these rejected parts of ourselves in others, and to judge them.

The danger of seeing a therapist who has not done their own work to a deep enough level is that certain areas of the client’s life may subtly become “off limits”, at an unconscious level, in the therapy room.

Danaan Parry in his book Warriors of the Heart tells the story of his therapist who was puzzled about the fact that clients brought all kinds of issues but no one ever came to see him about sexual problems.

He asked for feedback from his clients and one told him she felt very comfortable with him, he was a good listener, made good eye contact and gently encouraged her to go deeper. But she told him:  “However, John, whenever I bring anything up that has to do with my sexuality – all the blood drains out of your face!

“It’s fascinating because nothing else changes. You still maintain eye contact, you’re still a good listener, your body language stays open, but your face turns absolutely stark white…and I get the clear message from you that it is not okay for me to talk about my sexuality.”

This feedback enabled the therapist to explore more deeply his own issues around sex and he realised that an incident when he was shamed by his mother as a child over a sexual incident had made that area of his life very uncomfortable. But he had not realised how he was communicating that discomfort to clients.

This story shows the importance of therapists having done their own work in therapy but also continuing to be curious about where their blind spots might be because it is never possible to become completely free of them. This ongoing work can be done by the therapist in their own therapy or in clinical supervision.

I was reminded of the importance of this area recently when reading a book by child expert Margot Sunderland about using stories to work therapeutically with troubled children. She says it can be tempting for some adults to make the story have a happy ending, even though the child has left the ending unresolved.

“For example, the listening adult may say, ‘No, don’t leave the little peanut in the gutter – let’s find it a nice home to go to.’ This is an example of the adult’s need to make everything all right, when maybe by leaving the peanut in the gutter the child is trying to communicate his feelings of hopelessness.

“This is a common problem when the…listener (usually out of conscious awareness) is running away from her own hopelessness, despair, grief and so on.”

So, seeing a therapist who has not done enough of their own psychological work can make the therapy less rich and less effective.

Instead of unconsciously giving permission for the client to bring whatever they need to, the therapist can turn into an advice dispenser or a rescuer who needs the client to behave a certain way.

Further reading

Warriors of the Heart, by Danaan Parry

Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children

By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

24 replies on “Why no therapist can take you further than they themselves have travelled”

Reblogged this on Beyond Meds and commented:
What is talked about in this post is also why therapists and all mental health professionals can also be dangerous. See: Healer Heal Thyself: “Most mental health professionals not only know next to nothing about the deepest part of the psyche, they are terrified of it, adding another layer of obfuscation to the problem. When people in mental distress are terrified the last thing they need is to be met by a “healer” who is equally terrified of the clients thoughts and behavior.”

Hi Monica, I agree completely that anyone who wants to work psychotherapeutically with others needs to have touched, and become aware of, their own woundedness. The danger otherwise is, as you say, that they will be terrified of someone else’s psychic pain. This can lead to judgment and a lack of authentic connection, as well as a tendency to try and ‘fix’ the client in some way. thanks, Patrick

I do a lot of work with interns, practicum students, and graduates earning hours for licensure, and it is not very long before it becomes apparent which of them have the potential to be damaging rather than helpful. Therapists who have not, will not, or who are ignorant of, the need to do their own work are almost always (and I’m generalising here, I know) “wounded healers,” and they are, in fact, >>dangerous<< as Monica Cassani so rightly pointed out.
Those newbies whom I supervise that disdain the idea of needing to experience therapy for themselves have one or two opportunities to get with the program, and if they don't, my recommendation regarding their future in counselling psychology is not positive.
Excellent, balanced perspective on a topic that needs to be discussed much more often.

Hi Dr Susannah. Thank you for your comments. It sounds like you appreciate the value of would-be counsellors/therapists who are understand the importance of experiencing what they are planning to deliver! I think all counsellors and therapists are, in one way or another, ‘wounded healers’ – what is important is to recognise that and work with it rather than projecting all the woundedness onto the client. Patrick

Agreed. As human beings, we really can’t be anything but wounded in some way by the experience of life in the global community. That said, when professionals look to the process of therapy – “helping others” – as the antidote to their own woundedness, damage ensues. When we don’t do our own work, we get in the way of the client’s process – which helps no one.

I am reminded of the paradox of medical doctors advising their patients to quit smoking… and then going out the back door for a cigarette!

The other circumstance in our profession which I also find troubling is the poor, and even lack of, structured debriefing supervision to prevent burn out and/or compassion fatigue. Clinical supervision happens where it’s mandated, but there’s very little provision, guidelines, or accountability for supporting people helpers to deal with the emotional and psychological cost of helping others; creates its own sort of woundedness …aaaaaaaannd we’re back to your excellent post. 🙂

Your follow-up comment on this was incredibly astute, re wounded people trying to help wounded people. It was precisely these feelings that made me feel like the biggest fraud during the last few months of my (now abandoned) career as a psychiatric nurse. Feeling helpless in trying to help people. My inability to believe that I was of any help to anyone has, in turn, put up a block in my own attempts at finding help when I realised how unwell I was. I cannot see how any practitioner could offer any help to me.

Thank you, Jen.
I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been unable to find someone you can work with. I am often amazed at the courage some people manifest in persisting to find a safe, private, and nurturing therapeutic relationship. I also know that when they find it, incredibly positive things can happen.
Don’t let discouragement keep you from finding the help you’re looking for. While there are “wounded healers” out there, there are also many genuine, authentic therapists who have done, and continue to do their own work. One of them could be just what you need.

Very well said! I couldn’t agree more. As a clinical social worker myself who has been in the field for some 17 years, I truly believe we need to do a much better job at teaching this concept (healers staying on a healing path themselves) in schools that prepare people to be in this amazing field.

One thing that’s so good about psychoanalysts is that analysts are required to undergo their own lengthy and difficult analysis before getting certified. While not a guarantee, it’s still rather likely that such professionals will have less fear, fewer blind spots, in their treatment of others. Which is not to say they are the only ones qualified, by any means. Not does it mean that they are all without shortcomings or even problems. But at least they have all likely been exposed to their shadows prior to attempting you to deal with your own. Of course there are brilliant healers out there in all levels of training, as well as awful imposters.

This really resonates with me. When I was just beginning to face my childhood sexual abuse, I found a Mental Health program at the local college–a 9 month program–to become a social worker of sorts. And I was accepted. The program was almost all people in recovery (and NOT recovered). Before the program was to begin for me, a counselor talked me out of it and said, NO NO NO! Under no uncertain terms should you do this before you have truly recovered. That was 8 years ago and I’m only beginning to “get there.” So far therapists haven’t worked for me because I very soon recognize that they have their own things they should be working on…Thank you for this important post!

There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us to talk about the rest of us. Stop judging who or what is better and best for us ……
…..I have a psychiatrist who has boundaries and no personal experience but a will work tirelessly for his patients to find the answer together to the issues.
I have a psychologist that has personal experience and crosses boundaries to tell his story ….he his good at his stuff …. But not because of his experience, that gets in the way …..I don’t really care for his story …..I will seek a peer worker for that …. I seek his expertise in psychology ….but Because he keeps up with education and training and interest in his patients …. He gets outcomes …. And that’s what we need interested people knowledgable in their professions with care, concern and compassion for their patients …. Not a lived experience…..

Thank you for your thoughts. I’m glad to hear your psychiatrist and psychologist are working effectively, though coming from different perspectives. On the boundaries issue, I did not mean to imply that a therapist who has explored his or her own issues necessarily discloses that to clients. This is not really about disclosure, but rather that the therapist can recognise within themselves some of the troubles and symptoms that their clients bring.

Great link! Miller is a very powerful writer. I really liked the comment about finding a therapist who is capable of deep feeling rather than using intellectual analysis as a defence to keep them feeling safe.

“Excellent, balanced perspective on a topic that needs to be discussed much more often. ”

what the dr. said

It is true that you cannot take anyone to places you have not been. It is not until one learns to be with all the personal pains and challenges and see the gift in it all, that one can create the space for others to explore and heal their inner landscapes. Furthermore,”Know thyself” certainly prevents burnout.

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