Many graduate programs in counseling and psychology at least recommend, if not provide, personal therapy for their students. Even when the program doesn’t promote it, many students voluntarily get involved with at least some personal therapeutic work. In 1994, a survey of psychologists by Kenneth Pope and Barbara Tabachnick (published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice) found that 84% had participated in therapy for their own healing and/or growth even though only 13% had graduated from programs that required it. 86% of their participants reported that they found the therapy to be helpful. More recent studies confirm their conclusions. Participants in a 2013 dissertation study by Eric Everson, M.A. (Marquette University), for example, reported that therapy while in graduate training had a beneficial influence on their functioning personally, academically and clinically.
Why do your own therapy? Here are some of the important reasons to include personal therapy in your training:
Self-knowledge is crucial to the art of therapy: Academic theory and mastery of interventions can only go so far. Often enough, gaining the trust necessary for helping a client requires connecting in a deeply personal way. That means drawing on ourself to use the sensitivities and instincts that have come from our own experiences to relate, to empathize and to move the therapy forward. In order to do that, it’s crucial to know as much about our “self” as we can. That means embracing our own strengths and confronting our own imperfections, wounds and fears.
It increases our empathy for clients: It’s important to understand what it feels like, up close and personal, to be a client. When we have done our own work seriously and thoughtfully, we better understand from the inside what it feels like to strip away defenses, to disclose the both the admirable and less than admirable parts of ourself and to be known in the way a therapist can know us. By participating in treatment, we can develop more empathy for our clients’ anxieties about it. We may also be more sensitive to client non-verbal cues as they talk about their distress and consider our responses to it.
It sensitizes us to counter-transference: It’s important to identify and work on resolving our own pain so it is less likely to get in the way when treating clients who have similar issues. Psychoanalytic therapists are trained to recognize and manage what they call “counter-transference”, i.e., a therapist’s vulnerability to getting emotionally tangled up with the client’s story and reactions.
Other trainings aren’t as specific but, whatever it is called, the issue is still a real one. Our client’s problems and experiences can be so similar to ours that it can be difficult to differentiate the client’s responses and conclusions from our own. Every therapist needs to have strategies for maintaining objectivity even while recognizing the similarities. A 2001 study by Andrew Grimmer & Rachel Tribe published in the Counselling Psychology Quarterly found that students who did their own therapy improved their ability to sort their own issues out from those of the clients and felt more validated as professionals.
It legitimizes therapy as a tool for personal growth: Therapy can be an invaluable medium for personal growth as well as for healing. Students who haven’t been challenged by serious life obstacles may not have had the opportunity to develop sufficient coping skills or confidence in their own strengths. Therapy can encourage such students to take some emotional risks and to work on their own skills of resilience. Even students who feel emotionally centered and strong can benefit from further personal growth.
It may reduce vulnerability to depression: About 20% of the participants in the Pope/Tabachnick study reported that unhappiness or depression had been the focus on their therapy. Further, 61% reported that even when it wasn’t the main focus of treatment, they had experienced at least one episode of clinical depression. It may be that the very sensitivities that lead people to become therapists make them vulnerable to becoming burdened, saddened or even depressed by the distress of our clients and the general state of the world. Therapy may therefore have a protective function. It can help us develop the coping tools we need to journey with so many others who are in pain.
It provides personal application to theory: Doing our own therapeutic work provides another route to expertise. Even if a student has had years of therapy prior to graduate study it’s helpful to do another round with a therapist who both offers some new insights for personal issues and then is willing to discuss the therapeutic decisions and process. Such discussions enhance theoretical learning by making it deeply personal.
It’s a matter of integrity: Therapists believe that therapy is a route to self-understanding and healing. Our integrity requires that we have successful experience with being a client if we are to do the work with the confidence that it is a valuable way for people to manage the challenges of life.
Related Article of Interest
While working on this, I came across this article by Maria Malikiosi-Loizos: The Position of Different Theoretical Approaches on the Issue of Personal Therapy During Training. She discusses why various schools of psychology (Psychoanalytic, Humanistic, Cognitive-Behavioral, etc.) support the inclusion of personal therapy in their students’ training. (http://ejcop.psychopen.eu/article/view/4/html)