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.
Warriors of the Heart, by Danaan Parry
Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children