If Therapists Have Problems, How Can They Help?

Ulysses00005

I’ve never met anyone without problems, in or out of therapy. Some are more serene, optimistic, or luckier, but no one escapes the downside of life: frustration, heartbreak, and aging. What then, despite those troubles, enables such a person — aka your therapist — to help?

Part of his capacity to relate to you is the very fact that he can’t escape either. The counselor and you are members of the same species, no matter how different in significant details. Basic experiences are common to each of you: learning, making a living, finding love, communicating in words, inhabiting a fragile body, losing people, and facing your own demise.

He is also damaged, if not necessarily as severely as you; and ideally, not suffering acutely in the moment he treats you. Yes, there is a point beyond which the one treating needs treatment before he can assist others. Perhaps his own demons are triggered by what you say or do, even how you look. Maybe he will be unreliable or poorly trained, using outmoded theories or failing to keep up with “what works.” A counselor can also be overwhelmed by his own life circumstances and lack the energy to help while he is trying to stay afloat himself.

These concerns excepted, you will still be dealing with a flawed person. Best if he is not also either too young or too old. A youthful counselor is inexperienced by definition. He brings enthusiasm, boundless effort, and (we hope) knowledge of the latest research, but hasn’t spent enough time in the trenches. Still, he must learn his craft somewhere.

Caution also applies to seasoned doctors who just go through the motions or have run out of gas. Too often they are tied to routine ways of thinking and are no longer “alive” to what it means to be in the springtime of life. They, too, should be avoided, perhaps even more than earnest young people who will, at least, invest themselves in you.

Part of my hesitation in recommending young therapists, however, has nothing to do with their limited patient contact. Rather, most have not been hurt enough. To be adequate to treat, life must have its way with us for a time. We need to find out who we are and what life is. Ideally, counselors also need a body beginning to show signs it won’t last forever — to be informed of their own mortality. A future therapist should be humbled by life and find a way to come back for more. His rebound approximates the journey you hope to make yourself, the one on which he will accompany you.

Consider the kinds of preliminary encounters the legendary conductor Bruno Walter thought necessary for making music. Imagine how his opinion applies to a therapist’s need for life experience. The language is fulsome, characteristic of the time he was born (1876), but the message transcends it:

“He who has not experienced the stormy sea with a feeling heart will fail to find the elemental force of expression essential for the Overture of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman … Beethoven’s Scene by the Brook (from the Pastoral Symphony) will sound empty unless the conductor’s own delight in a purling brook and a smiling landscape is joined to the musical soulfulness of (his) interpretation … (And) he who is a stranger to ecstasy cannot convincingly conduct Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.”

Simply put, should you visit a shrink who lacks the education acquired by passing through times both rough and wonderful? Read Homer’s Odyssey and ask yourself how the hero, Odysseus, might have been changed by a 10-year war at Troy, returning home by sea, fighting the Cyclops, and the additional 10-years required to find his way back? Few therapists experience anything close to this, but do learn a few things down a less remarkable path.ulises

A shrink should be like The Velveteen Rabbit, who only became “real” by being worn from use and transformed by love.

Therapists and non-therapists alike are survivors. Indeed, we are all the offspring of shipwrecked fellow men who endured. A shrink without personal acquaintance with travail and romance would be like a Martian trying to understand mankind. Yes, your doc has his own “stuff.” Would you prefer a virgin psychologist, untouched by life as well as sex?

Yet, he must also be different than his patients. A professional combines his training and experience to form an understanding of the “full catastrophe*” of existence. His daily practice allows refinement of the technique required to aid others. Thus, a seasoned counselor’s personal hardships and learning meld with the experience of helping patients (from whom he also learns, especially by making the mistakes novices usually do).

The practitioner ought to know more than you do about the healing art. Moreover, he is useful because he is NOT tied to you at the deepest level. A therapeutic perspective is essential: the dilemmas of your life are yours, not his, nor those of his loved ones. He can keep his head because of this, even though he does come to care about you as a particular person with increasing contact. Therapeutic distance permits him to remain calm and thoughtful in the presence of your pain.

Perhaps, too, the shrink has been luckier than you, without which he could not lend you his hope. He knows good things can happen and the darkness is followed by the dawn, at least much of the time. You are better off for his self-assurance and clarity of mind. They enable him to see the dimly lit road out of the woods. You would not wish him to be looking for the breadcrumbs left by Hansel and Gretel.

None of this is to suggest the counselor is some sort of god. Rather, he is the master of a limited situation — the small chamber in which he does his work. He is also an illusionist, of sorts. If you observed him unshaven, in his underwear, without the mirrors and smoke, arguing with his mate, worried about his kids, upset because the newspaper delivery service keeps leaving him the Tribune instead of the New York Times, then you might think less of him.

The illusion is a necessary one. You overgeneralize and come to believe that he is a wizard everywhere and all the time. He doesn’t stop you, as if he could. You need to believe.

So, dear reader, we therapists are quite mortal. We’ve got our own issues and the bruises sustained on our part-way-completed expedition through life. If we are any good, then we are observant and sensitive. We’ve seen the world’s unfairness. Judgment is set aside for the most part. We are each, as Seinfeld’s George Costanza used to say, “master of our domain,” although in a rather different context than George intended.

Some of our imperfections enable us to help. When we have too many? That’s another story.

*The facetious phrase, “full catastrophe,” comes from the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek. It has become associated with the book Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn.

The first image comes from the 1954 movie Ulysses (the Roman name for Odysseus). The ship is a model, not a full-sized boat. An illusion, yes? The movie poster is from the same film. The title role was played by Kirk Douglas. Anthony Quinn portrayed “Zorba” in the 1964 movie and took a supporting role in Ulysses.

20 thoughts on “If Therapists Have Problems, How Can They Help?

  1. Thank you Gerald for another great post. It sounds like finding the right therapist, is like the experience of Goldilocks, ‘ this one is to young, this one is to old, but this one is just right’. This has been part of my journey to with different therapists over the years and thankfully now I’ve found the one thats just right for me. Its hard dealing with the therapeutic distance but you explained the essential healing that comes from it and protection for both parties so well. Its very reassuring.

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    • I think the Goldilocks metaphor is appropriate, Claire. I’m glad I was able to supply a bit of reassurance.Your approval is appreciated.

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  2. I am glad I have had young therapists around my age, because it’s important to me that my therapist is invested in me, and that boundless enthusiasm they have offers me hope in a way, plus the similar age range means I feel the relationship is more like one of equals.

    Sometimes I do think my therapist hs too naive a view on life, I find it hard to believe that what I’ve experienced is bad enough to be considered child abuse when I’ve heard worse traumas from peers.

    But I am glad life has treated her relatively kindly, for then she can remind me that the world has good too.

    Yet she has experienced her own losses and can empathise.

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    • Well said. Be sure to note, however, that only some therapists of long tenure become jaded, or worse, burned out. Young therapists do tend to have energy to burn. They also can become too invested; not yet adept at developing the therapeutic distance required. Regarding child abuse, do remember that there are almost always people who have suffered more. Take care not to negate your own pain just because others had it worse. In any case, I’m glad your counselor has made a good connection with you and seems to be doing a proper job.

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  3. This is wonderful, thank you…..I have sent it to my therapist 🙂 I have another comment/question but am about to rush out the door, so I’ll come back later!

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  4. Thanks for another enlightening article, Dr. Stein. Your post brought to mind two neighbors I had in Brazil who were a great emotional support for me. They were both widows in their sixties helping to raise their grandchildren.

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    • Grandparent types are great. I thought that even before I became one! I’m glad there were people who provided you with support. Few of us can make it on our own. Thanks, Rosaliene.

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  5. It is a great post (including the picture – very interesting choice for the topic) and what you write is true for most “helping professions” in my opinion.
    There is a way that a certain amount of “suffering” and exposure to real life problems including heartbreak and sorrow can change the way the therapist, doctor, nurse etc relate to their patients/clients. It adds to authenticity and the idea that the other person ,who is supposed to guide you, is or was a “fellow sufferer”. It also adds a certain amount of compassion for what the other person is going through, which can be felt, unless the person is burned out.
    And I agree that the ones who got burned out and are just going through the motions are not that helpful despite and some people need to work on their own healing first before they can be truly useful to others.
    I realize that you are writing mainly about therapists but all you write in this article seems true for helping professions as well. A doctor who has never had a serious illness or at least a bad headache can be young and energetic but may lack some way of relating to what it means to ‘suffer’ – therefor be more hesitant to recommend a certain treatment, discount suffering, or often even worse appears cold. All of it not helpful to the patient.
    Interesting to me was that one of my high school age children stated a year ago that she liked the young school counselors right out of school better than the older ones she had before because according to her they can relate better to the misery of being in high school and still know how embarrassing parents are ….

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    • Your comment is much appreciated, Miriam. I want to address only the last point a bit. When I reflect on myself as a therapist who began in private practice in my 30s and quit in my 60s, I realize I wasn’t the same guy at the end as I was at the beginning. We change whether we like it or not. In order to “get over” the pain of youth, most of us lose some touch with the exquisite pain of growing up. Not that we don’t remember it, but it becomes something of an abstraction, not a vibrant thing made of agony and ecstasy. An older therapist, if he is self-aware, knows that while some call this wisdom — and there is wisdom in one’s new state of being — something has also been lost. The ability to “feel with” the teenager (in your example) becomes a “remembrance of things past,” increasingly outside of lived experience. Such is the dilemma of an older therapist with a younger patient. On the other hand, the danger for a young therapist is their lack of the very perspective one can only achieve by passing through the changing stages in any life. Doing therapy, for the counselor, will always be a balancing act between feeling too much and too little, achieving the right distance, etc. That makes it exciting and challenging, both. Thanks for prompting my thoughts on the subject.

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      • Dr.Stein, I think you are right in the balancing act and also that once we have gone through a stage of life it changes us, changes how we see and relate to it and ultimately can transform us. In my professional role, I am not the same person I was when I started working 20 years ago. No change would be negative in my opinion as a person moved from the novice stage to an expert there need to be some changes along the way and hopefully some wisdom. Moving through the stages of young adulthood, starting marriage, becoming a parent and so on and forth added to my life and perspective. Plus my work itself changed me as well.
        Perhaps most important in all of the changing is to stay comfortable with one’s self and to accept the change that is normal (and hopefully indicates positive growth). Thanks for the interesting thoughts.

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  6. Hello again! I think my comment/question has been mostly addressed by other comments in the meantime, which have really highlighted the need for a balance (feeling too much/too little, maintaining the right ‘distance’). I suppose I just wondered whether that distance changes either depending on the client or on the stage of work one is at with a client. Or perhaps, not so much the distance, but the amount of you feel -or perhaps not even, because there’s what you feel and there’s the extent to which you let that show. Does that change, depending on the situation? I think it must be so hard to achieve that balance – _how_ does a therapist manage to convey ‘really getting’ where a patient is coming from and what they are feeling, while also maintaining that distance? I guess your post struck me not just because it was excellent in itself, but also because in my previous session I had talked about how my therapist had seemed so calm when I was clearly very distressed (following an argument with my husband immediately prior to session). It felt as though there was a mismatch between how I was feeling, and how she was appearing, and there have been a couple of other times in the past when she hasn’t ‘mirrored’ my feelings in the way I might have been expecting. I think part of my confusion/puzzlement can be explained by precisely that – her reaction was not one I was used to, and therefore not one I was expecting. I am used to people going overboard at my distress and reacting themselves with anxiety and distress, and to be faced with calm and containment is baffling and unexpected. It’s not as though I want her to react in a hugely emotional way, so why should it be so disconcerting? I think in the face of calmness I just if difficult to comprehend that my distress is seen – but also I find it impossible to know what she might thinking or feeling. Is she, at least in some form, sharing my anger or distress? It’s not hers, but does she feel it, in some way? Should she even do so? Sorry, these are simply jumbled thoughts, and I guess my question, at its essence, is this: how do you (how _did_ you) convey togetherness and congruence, while at the same time maintaining that calmness and distance? I feel I should be able to answer that, as there have been plenty of times where that has happened to me in therapy – and yet I’m not sure I can put my finger on it! Thank you for another wonderful post….

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    • To the last question: I think you do it by virtue of intense concentration, eye contact, tone of voice, facial expression, etc. Most of it comes naturally once you are practiced. But I’d add one more thing. As a preface, do you listen to the daily stock market report on occasion? If you do, you’ll hear analysts tell you why the stock market went up or down. Actually, they are just guessing and no one knows for sure. If they knew with certainty, they’d be able to predict it, and they do a bad job of that, as lots of data shows. My point is this: there are numerous variables in your therapist’s response to you, just as there are unaccounted variables influencing the stock market. Some of them are: what did she eat, did she get a good night’s rest, did her stock portfolio take a hit, did her son fail algebra, is her sister getting married soon, has she figured out what to say when she toasts her sister, do her new shoes fit too tight — and then there is you and what you just said. Not in that order, of course. We are not infallible machines and we get distracted. So, while I expect she does a very good job being responsive to you and listening with great intensity, at any particular moment she might feel like burping and she could miss the nuances of what you said. Well, I’ve just given you more than you probably asked for, but I hope it has some value.

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  7. As always, I’m happy to see your Posts. You answer questions I have – you explain in simple terms what I want (or need) to hear relating to my therapists – the one who moved away and my present one. She said she needs to sign up for your Blog as I read her many excerpts. I hope she does. Your column clarifies and makes for many interesting sessions. Thank you as always. You’re the Best!

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  8. This is why I prefer therapists as friends, their veil drops and some amazing, heartfelt conversations happen at the core.

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    • I’m not sure whether I follow. Do you prefer friends who are also therapists (but not your counselor) or perhaps your therapist also being your friend? Thanks for commenting, Tammy.

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      • Oh sorry… yes, I have therapist friends, no I do not go to a therapist. I was responding to the line in the post about seeing him without the smoke and mirrors, getting upset over the newspaper being late… in other words, a person like everyone else with challenges, struggles, ups and downs, imperfections, and questions in everyday living.

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      • Thanks. I now understand precisely. We are, indeed, real people.

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