Why a Therapist Must Know Himself

Knowing yourself is valuable so that the self can be removed from the process.

So said Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist painter. The artist referred to his desire to reach people with his work by conveying something “outside of myself.”

He could have talked about a psychotherapist’s proper role instead. The latter removes his ego to better meet the needs of his patient.

His training encourages this.


Everyone is limited by their understanding of the world. Think of all the things that influence us and help to create such knowledge and restrictions as we possess:

  • a god-given intellectual capacity
  • the historical epoch we have passed through
  • the parenting we received
  • the place or places we lived
  • religious belief or its absence
  • the physical appearance we inherited
  • gender
  • race
  • socio-economic status
  • our inborn human nature

I could go on.

Counselors come to the treatment project with inevitable prejudices, strengths, weaknesses, fluency with language, humor, and areas of insight and experience. We must therefore try to set aside our godly conviction or doubt, political orientation, personal version of morality, and other prejudgments.

The alternative is to leave most of humanity to someone else’s attention.

The latter choice, however, demands awareness that rejecting those who seek our help might add to the injury for which they seek assistance. At the extreme, this raises the question of whether we are fit to engage in our chosen vocation.

Freud tried to solve the problem of interfering with the analysis. He sat unseen by the individual resting on his couch so as not to inhibit or influence the unfolding self-expression. The psychiatrist also was careful about offering too much interpretation — delivering less than many who were to follow in his footsteps.

Our efforts, Freudian or not, must strive to remove our egos as much as possible — the work of a lifetime since life experiences change us, and we adapt as we age.

Some of those who enter the psychotherapy field are self-reflective by nature. Nonetheless, an advanced degree depends on ego strength in the competition always present in college and graduate school. The future clinician must overcome too much vulnerability and susceptibility to intimidation.

A professional cannot easily claim himself as an expert without the self-confidence and expertise his craft demands.

Is it wise or even possible to “unmake” the qualities needed to achieve a position permitting him to do his work?

Fortunately, he should have learned to take steps in this direction.

The psychologist must question himself, not to undermine personal strengths, but to step back and recognize who he is now. The counselor also needs to be eager to learn. Both of these combine in his approach to career and life.

Nor is either a one-time effort.

The questioning ought not to end.

As Plato tells us, Socrates believed “the unexamined life is not worth living.

Let’s suppose the therapist is strong and wise enough. If so, he will be enlightened by his self-examination, recognizing it improves his capacity to treat and enhance his humanity. He will become accepting of criticism and appreciate its potential to help him grow.

This self-confident learner also realizes who is worth listening to and whose opinions are not. This soul understands a lifetime of self-questioning will contribute to his ability to know which questions are essential for him to ask his patients.

In contrast, hubris, arrogance, and self-importance make the doctor’s enlightenment impossible. A person with these characteristics already believes he possesses adequate self-knowledge. In effect, he has blocked the path to looking into his soul.

A gifted counselor comes to acknowledge the function of silence in doing his work. Within a soundless moment exists the recognition he cannot heal everyone and that, on occasion, a different practitioner might better serve someone seeking his help.

In response to a patient’s spontaneous offering of memories, thoughts, and feelings, the self-aware clinician knows when to allow his client to lead. The patient assumes a self-healing obligation, unafraid the therapist will be threatened by losing his position on a pedestal.

The practitioner also understands presence and bearing are, by themselves, sometimes enough. He is then required only as a listener, supporter, and non-religious type of confessor.

The doctor thereby becomes one who hears and accepts the untold secrets, aware they will quiet themselves when a compassionate authority figure does not flee their revelation.

These helping professionals develop a quality of giving something of value to those around them by their state of being — the way they exist in the world.

Striking a pose isn’t required. Rather, one’s natural composure and unaffected engagement with clients will advance the healing potential.

The person comfortable in this role thus grows in the process of practicing his vocation.

Ultimately, the best clinicians present a model for living. They also free the patient to enlarge whatever is most admirable within himself.

Models such as this are always in short supply.


The top photo is A Session with a Psychotherapist by Mike Relund. Below it is an Untitled, 1969 work of Mark Rothko, and then A Question Mark. Georgio de Chirico’sThe Two Masks of 1926 follows. Finally comes Please Touch Gently by Marcus Quigmire. Wikimedia Commons is the source of the first of these. The Art Institute of Chicago claims the Rothko, while Wikiart.org accounts for The Two Masks.

6 thoughts on “Why a Therapist Must Know Himself

  1. This is such an interesting reflection, Dr. Stein. The whole idea of unlearning the attributes of what made it possible to become a therapist is fascinating. And cultivating self-examination and a desire to learn – seems like a good idea for all of us.

    As I was reading, I found myself thinking that this sounded like a great recipe for becoming a good friend too. So you’d already walked me to the delightful conclusion
    and I was nodding at the end when you said that “the best clinicians present a model for living.” It reminds me of the Carl Jung quote, “Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know.”

    Thank you for this beautiful post that reminds us what we want to be and how we can best be present for others.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tamara Kulish from https://tamarakulish.com/

    *sigh* if only all therapists and doctors had this viewpoint! Unfortunately, both my daughter and I experienced biases and prejudices from both and were strongly affected by our experiences. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t doubt it, Tamara. Such things are not easy to put right, but I hope you and your daughter have found a way to get past them. Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr. Stein, I missed your post as it did not show up in my WP Reader; one of the many quirks with the platform 😦 My congratulations to the psychotherapist who succeeds in removing their ego to better meet the needs of their patients. What a better world this would be if we could all achieve such selflessness in our relationships with others!


  5. Thank you, Rosaliene. I didn’t get your blog past today, either. I will let you know if I have success at my end. I also am having some other problems with this issue, too, however.


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