Does a therapist “know how you feel?” No. How could he?
But he may still be able to help you even without such knowledge.
Why don’t I know how you feel? I am not you. I am not your age or perhaps your gender. We may not share the same faith. I wasn’t born in the same place under the same circumstances. My parents made more money or less than yours, lived with extravagance or pinched pennies. They survived the Great Depression well or badly or not at all; and so forth.
A counselor is not in your skin, so can’t know the sensations which comprise your life. Yet he can have some idea, perhaps even a good one. What might that idea be based on?
First of all, you are both human and have a certain set of shared, although not identical experiences. Speaking for myself, as a seasoned counselor I talked to thousands of people who told me what they thought, revealed how they reasoned, and explained how events influenced their mood. I therefore became familiar with the range of what is possible in reaction to an enormous number of circumstances. I also read text books, received instruction from teachers, and shared in the richness of emotion, perception, joy, and adversity found in stirring memoirs, novels, plays, and movies.
Despite all of this, I am open to surprise. An example: my father died abruptly in the year 2000 at the age of 88. I’d known he was mortal at least since the time of his heart attack when I was a boy. Prior to his death I counseled many people who were suffering from loss. Still, despite dad’s advanced age, his demise was shocking. Like the flick of a switch — the “here today, gone tomorrow” unreality was too true. Unexpected fatigue lasted for months, as though the life force taken from him had been emptied from me as well. Even now, years after this loss, I can’t say for sure “I know how you feel” if you tell me about the death of your father. Your relationship with him and the circumstances of each of your lives might cause me to rely more on imagination than something closer to your lived experience.
I would argue we cannot even recall how our own pain felt once the distress recedes into the moderate or distant past. Big events do not remain unaltered in the museum of the brain. Rather, they are like a photo faded by the sun. We need painful memories to diminish, which would otherwise leave us in a perpetual state of agony. Even splendid, heavenly recollections, if remembered with their original impact, would compromise our ability to attend to the most crucial elements of each new day. To some degree we must unconsciously forget or transform our life history.
You might ask me: “How then can you help me grieve my loss if you can neither ‘know how I feel’ nor retain an unaltered remembrance of your own loss?” In several ways. I can listen to you and bear witness to your pain. I can be sympathetic. I can accept the emotions and stories you share: the varied combination of sadness, anger, exhaustion, and sense of separation from the world accompanying the death of a loved one. I can abide with you, acknowledge your suffering, and “be there” until it passes. If you will accept the comfort, our relationship will help to reattach you to life, even while you are grieving something that rends the same cord of attachment.
You will never be what you were before your loss, of course. But, you are more likely to heal if you share your grief. Holding it in or trying to “move on” too quickly — or shedding your tears only in private — can cause your sadness to pass by inches or not at all. Human contact in the aftermath of loss is crucial. A supportive spouse, friend or therapist can help. Time does the rest.
My sympathy for you doesn’t require I first possess knowledge of your internal life any more than enjoying milk requires a prior existence as a cow. Best not to say you know how another experiences his suffering. It is enough to tell him you care. Indeed, were you to fathom every detail of the emotions passing through another without caring, absolute understanding of his pain would count for nothing. Genuine concern — not some magical power to read another’s heart — is what counts. A patient will often forgive a therapist’s momentary failure to grasp his upset, but ought not to accept his indifference even if his knowledge of the patient’s emotional state is exact in every aspect.
The counselor carries an imperfect bag of tricks. Like the wounded soul who comes to treatment, he risks failing at the task he shares with his client, even if the courage demanded of the patient is greater. The therapist also assumes the frightful responsibility of caring for another with no certainty his effort will avoid tragedy, even if his burden and terror are less than the patient’s own.
The practitioner is always practicing. He must work to learn more and attempt to heal you no matter how much knowledge and experience he has. His therapeutic arsenal is never complete. Psychotherapy research is forever making new discoveries. Fortunately, if the therapist has the knowledge, dedication, and experience along with the courage to allow your heart to touch his, what he has tends to be enough.
In accepting you as a client, he risks injury to both you and himself. Why? In short, because you do matter to him. In treatment with the best healers, that is the one thing of which you can be certain, however much your relationship history causes doubt.
The top photo is Misty Morning by flagstaffotos.com.au/ The second image is Cirrus Clouds with 3-D Look by Simon A. Eugster. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.