Who Is Your Therapist?

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If you’ve ever come to a first therapy session, either because you have never experienced therapy before, or because you are seeing a therapist who is brand new to you, you likely have wondered before your arrival, “Who am I going to see?” “Who is this person?” “What will they be like?” “Are they going to understand me?”

These questions are entirely normal, and when you think about it, those wonderings are generated from a core part of ourselves that understands the importance of relationship. Depending o the particular style of therapeutic treatment that you are seeking, there may be a wide variance in the experience and expectation that one may have as a client. For example, I once had a client enter the therapy room and express her confusion that there wasn’t a desk separating us, which would make sense if she had only previously met with mental health professionals who structured their therapeutic style (and their office) in such a way.

Furthermore, even clients who see therapists that offer similar services and approach the work from a similar methodology, will likely have very different experiences in the counselling room. Why? Because the therapist themselves are innately different and unique as people. They offer themselves in the work of therapy, and therefore therapy as a practice is not “one size fits all”.

The largest factor here is the therapeutic relationship between client and therapist, and it is in this unique relationship, which is fostered via the typical 50 minute session, that is the greatest influencer and predictor of positive therapeutic outcome. This relationship, known as “therapeutic alliance” in the literature, speaks to our very nature as relational beings who are created for authentic connection.

Brené Brown, the internationally renowned researcher, speaker, and author on matters of vulnerability, shame, and empathy says this; “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” In essence, we feel connected one to the other when we can see and be seen for who we are in a space of non-judgement, and in this way vulnerability begets vulnerability.

There is nothing more freeing and validating than hearing another person say “me too”. This sweet reassurance releases the bated breath of anticipatory judgement or rejection in an embodied sigh of relief that acknowledges we are not alone. In a safe, therapeutic relationship this mutual vulnerability may look a little bit different than a personal relationship in order to maintain professional boundaries, and yet the feel of the connection can be quite similar. When a therapist is operating out of their own sense of authentic self, they are able to connect with their client in a way that transcends the dynamic of “client and therapist” and enters a space in which human meets human.

Something that allows me as a clinician to not only normalize the experiences and emotions of my clients, but allows me to feel with them in the present reality of their circumstance, is what I know as “common humanity”. This principle of commonality and likeness on a human level allows me to empathize, bear compassion, see resilience, and experience being moved by not only seeing what my clients are going through, but who they are. This experience of “withness” is in itself vulnerable, for it requires an intense authenticity which precludes the therapist from simply being a blank slate. As Diana Fosha (2000), the founder of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy once noted, “Without the therapist’s emotional participation, the transformational potential of experiences of intimacy and empathy cannot be fully realized” – The Transforming Power of Affect.

What is more representative of true connection than “experiences of intimacy and empathy”, and what is more in line with therapeutic change than transformation?

Take a moment to recall a time of change or shift in your own life. What happened? Likely when you pan out from the detailed specifics of circumstance you will discover that before the change could take place, there was a season (however long or short) that felt a bit like chaos. This stirring, or discontent, or tension, like pulling on a wish-bone right before it snaps, is usually the state of being we experience right before something gives way in our lives and a new way of being can emerge.

The reason I mention this is because as in life, chaos is a necessary ingredient for change in the therapeutic process, and to take this deeper still, chaos can often feel like vulnerability. It is ironic that the very thing required for both change, and intimate connection, is often feared, avoided, and denied as if it were our exposing enemy. In a culture which praises, prizes, and promotes a constant state of “okay-ness” it is no wonder that showing our inevitable humanness can feel not only risky, but dangerous.

Therefore, it is the incredible privilege that I have, as a therapist and a fellow human, to observe the courage it takes, session after session, as clients open themselves up to looking at their own humanness, and furthermore, having that be witnessed by another. I write this now, as both a clinician, and a person on my own journey of vulnerability, self-acceptance, and growth to share my own resounding “me too!”

Those words in our recent history as a culture have meant something particular as the wave of the “#me too” movement swept over North American consciousness. And yet, in this moment, those words are meant to span a bit of a broader space than purely referring to abuse and inequality. Here, I speak the “me too” as it refers to any experience that we might dare to share in vulnerability. Any thought, feeling, happening, or awareness that we think might belong to us alone and we take the risk of sharing with another. My “me too” is as an acknowledgement of how hard it can be to “be okay with not being okay”, or rather, being okay with the futility, fragility, and fallibility of being human. It is my own growing edge, and yet when we enter the authentic space of connection we together dispel the aloneness, fear, and shame that we can often associate with our very nature as people.

It is a risk, a beautiful risk, to allow ourselves to be seen, known, and loved in the reality of who we are, but is it not also our deepest yearning and most tender hope?

If you have ever entered a new therapeutic experience wondering “Who is this person sitting across from me?” you, in a way, have already begun to answer that question. They are a person, just like you. Yes, we as clinicians are trained, and hold professional boundaries, and are committed to your journey through the therapeutic process, but we also are in it with you. I am consistently reminded of my own areas of growth, the journey that I too am on, and how my clients teach me all the time through the beauty of their courage and resilience.

Because of this you might see my eyes water as you share your grief, and I might smile as you share a victory, and I will likely lean in a little closer as you share a new and vulnerable part of yourself; and this is because I’m human too. As I finish this blog, which in itself is an act of some vulnerability, I want to send a sincere Thank You to all of the clients that I have had the privilege of joining thus far in my career. Many of you have witnessed my own journey through internship, to graduation, to becoming a working therapist, and I appreciate your willingness to join me in my own learning and growth.

We all need one another, whether it’s in a therapy setting, or over a coffee with a friend, or in an office at work, or a living room at home. We need to be seen, and known, and loved, and from this place of connection find a deeper sense of our truest selves in this world.

- Kara Phelan

Counseling, TherapyreposeComment