Should a Therapist be an Authority Figure or A Human Being?
As a therapist I sometimes encounter patients who come to me seeking an authority figure. Now don’t misunderstand…I have worked for several decades as a therapist, hypnotherapist and life coach, helping adults and children face difficult behaviors, thoughts and uncomfortable emotions.
As a human being however, I too have thoughts, feelings, fears vulnerabilities, sensitivities and demands. So how am I different from my clients)?
Well, one way therapists like myself and others are different is that we have a set of tools and, with the passage of time, over 10,000 hours of experience and skill-building in the healing arts.
But what about the human behind all those techniques and theories?
If we’re being honest here, (and frankly, if I’m not, why write a blog in the first place?) sometimes, the human practicing psychotherapy can experience a feeling/thought of ‘spooky coincidence.’
The ‘spookiness’ feeling comes when clients walk through my door and discuss issues that are eerily reminiscent of issues I may have recently encountered myself. Is this ‘the universe’ sending me a message?
There’s Nobody Here But Us Chickens.
Is it so uncommon for clients to come in with issues that might be similar to those taking place in the therapists life?
For example: relationship problems. I’m a person. I have relationships. Ergo, I will have relationship problems.
I have clients who come in with concerns about their career and their income. I have a career, I have an income, ergo I may have problems in those domains.
Clients come in with problems with their children. Ditto.
Resolving Issues with Parents
I have clients who come in both grieving and ambivalent about their parents roles in their lives. I have gone through these thoughts and feelings as well.
The Wounded Healer
So what gives me the right and the privilege to help guide these people on their life path. And must a therapist have completely mastered all of the issues that clients present to them?
If I were a massage therapist, I might know better ways to use my body, better exercises to keep myself limber, and how to possibly avoid certain strenuous activities that might hurt my muscles. But that may not stop me from becoming injured or physically knotted up.
In days of yore, MD’s smoked like chimneys yet they also worked with people who had cancer. Did the MD’s bad habits–even consciously aware MDs who know they’re behaving badly–perform any worse for those patients with cancer? Was their medical knowledge any less valid? Or their prescriptions less appropriate?
Can an alcoholic parent still help their drug addicted son to get help?
Can a friend going through divorce advise you on how to stay married?
Can an aging parent whose done a lousy job give you a tip on how to parent your children better?
Of course they can.
Naturally, the source giving the wisdom is looked at with a jaundiced eye. But is the info less accurate?
I’m Only Human. Born to Make Mistakes.
A very similar manner, as a psychotherapist I have a fantastic bag of techniques, tips and methods that are proven to help another person out of their problems. Yet despite all of my knowledge I still can, at times, get caught in an emotional, psychological, thinking trap.
I can come home from a long hard day of work, just frustrated by my children’s behavior and do the very thing that I advise people not to do. Of course, I try to keep these missteps to a minimum. Often as I’m doing the poor behavior, or about to, I can bite my lip and take a breath and attempt to something different.
But it is this very same vulnerability to making thinking errors, making behavioral errors that allows me to understand and empathize with my clients.
No Guru, No Teacher
I do not sit like a guru on high and talk down to my patients. Rather I let them know when I have encountered similar circumstances, or made similar errors.
Expanding Your View
As an ethical psychotherapist and life coach, I don’t tell people what path to take. I give them an overview and a bird’s-eye perspective on their problems.
Been There and Done That
And I’m guessing, you, my dear reader, have acted similarly. Haven’t you ever helped a friend with their love life by reflecting their concerns in a non judgemental manner–while experiencing the same problem yourself?
Alas, it is SO much easier to see other’s from a neutral perspective than to look at ourselves. Shakespeare pointed out this fact when he had a character state “Physician, Heal Thyself!”
Authority or Human Being?
Now for some patients who are seeking an authority figure, this kind of self-revelation will not do. For these patients, the assurance that the person they are talking to has mastered the life situations that they are encountering, is mandatory.
Self-Revealing Has Limits
I try to be cautious about self-revealing information. Some patients can be easily sidetracked by the therapist’s life story. There is the risk that as they express more and more curiosity about my life they are distracted from their own.
Power can corrupt. And when patients enter therapy, when clients seek life coaching, they are investing emotional energy and trust. They are confiding secrets that they’ve carried for a long time, sometimes for a lifetime.
As a professional I must always watch for the temptation to play the role of all-knowing All-Seeing guru on the mountaintop. I do risk losing some patients who are seeking a a flawless, perfect and ultimate Authority.
Don’t get me wrong… I have extraordinary confidence in the theory of the Psychotherapy that I practice–Best Friend Therapy (based on REBT–Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy– a well searched and well-supported evidenced based practice).
Even the act of ‘getting real’ here on this blog is risky for a therapist. I risk the lost opportunity to help those patients who seek a master, a guru, a flawless mentor.
Now, I could easily play the role of the ‘wise older guide and mentor’ and at times I do embody that role authentically. However, it’s my own humanity and my willingness to be vulnerable, my willingness to reveal that I have walked a similar path taken by many of my patients, that is part of the gift of healing.
So, Where Do YOU Stand?
So how about you, dear Reader?
Do you prefer an Authority figure for a counselor/therapist/coach?
Are you more likely to seek out a ‘wounded healer’ someone who has been in your position, has nown your pain and can not only help you but can also empathize with what you have been through?
I’d like to hear from you about your experiences with therapists’ self-revealing and/or your own self-revealing when helping others.
Have you noticed your helper/healer revealing too much?
Let me know your thoughts!
Questions are welcomed!
©2019 Ross Grossman, MA, LMFT
Affinity Therapy Services