Have you ever wondered if your therapist has found themselves sitting on a couch across from another therapist having the same hard and beautiful experience that you are as a client? If you have, then good news, you are not alone in asking that question. And the answer is, yes. Most therapists probably have or will find themselves as clients of another therapist at some point in their career.
Why is this?
Much like there are many good reasons for anyone to engage a therapist, there are also several specific to those who work in mental health.
One reason that therapists often seek out their own therapy is very similar to why anyone might. Some aspect of their story, be it in their childhood, their marriage, or any other part where they experience trauma, loss, or emotional wounding may need to be worked through with a trained professional. It would be great if therapists could just look in the mirror and “heal thyself.” But it doesn’t work that way, and they may need the help of an outside uninvolved compassionate professional to help them walk through whatever that situation is.
Another reason is often focused around issues of transference and counter transference. Essentially, this is the reality that when working with a client, therapists are aware that they and their clients are constantly, either consciously or unconsciously, projecting beliefs or ideas about who this person is or assuming how they are being perceived by that person. This type of interchange happens whenever two or more people are communicating, whether in a fifty-year marriage, or in a casual interchange at the grocery store between a teller and a customer. It goes both ways between therapists and their clients. It is a constant reality of the therapeutic relationship that therapists are often quietly assessing.
Often, this process in the therapy room will illuminate certain aspects of the therapist that they were either unaware or under aware of. Sometimes, these issues can be processed by consulting with other therapists, and sometimes it might require doing their own personal work in therapy.
One final reason a therapist may seek therapy is surrounding concerns of compassion fatigue. This is the idea that sometimes the work of caring for others can become overwhelming and begin to burn someone out. An oft used metaphor that illustrates this point involves the instructions given at the beginning of every modern airplane flight. In an emergency where the pressure in the cabin drops, an oxygen mask will lower from the compartment above your head. We are instructed by flight attendants to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before assisting those around us. You ever wonder why? It’s simple. It’s hard to help someone else breath if you are struggling to do so yourself. This simple truth applies to therapists as well. At some point the heaviness of the work they do can weigh on them and often begin to contribute to a feeling of burnout. Burnout is dangerous for a therapist. They can lose focus and perspective of why they do what they do as well as often struggle to continue to work well for those under their care. Sometimes, much like anyone else, selfcare, working fewer hours, or taking breaks can help. But often working with someone to help assess where that sense of overwhelm is coming from and how to better care for themselves can help them become healthier people as well as better therapists.
So why share this peek behind the curtain that is that well put together therapist you meet with every week? I share this for two reasons: One, they probably never will. Part of their training is to create a safe space for you to do the work you need to do. Their stories and their own work in therapy can be a useful tool on occasion in helping you in your work, but often they will not share this with you. The hour you have in therapy is a sacred time, and they would not want to shift the focus from you to them to the detriment of that time and the work you need to do. And two: I share this information in that it can be scary and hard to reach out for help. I wanted to encourage whoever may be reading this, that it’s okay. No person is meant to be an island, and even those people who make it their profession to care for others have needed that care at some point in their life. If we can do it, I think you can too!