Obviously, it takes more than desire or a talent for listening to successfully help others heal and grow. It requires formal schooling in the science of counseling, i.e., theory and practice. But what is often missed is that it also requires purposeful work in mastering the “art part” (some would call it the “heart” part) of this work.
Science and art: One without the other simply doesn’t work. Someone can be a straight A student in academics but not be able to connect with those in pain. Someone can have enormous intuition and empathy but not know where to go with it. As you ponder whether to become a therapist, take into account your willingness to commit to developing both skill sets.
The Science Part
The “science part” requires the study of human development, human nature and ethics, theory and interventions, research and studies. It doesn’t really matter which theory you embrace – as long as you have one.
Knowing a specific theory well provides the scaffolding for all that we hear and intuit from a client so we can make a kind of sense of it. Knowing the interventions that go with that theory moves therapy along in a way that has consistency and flow. Whenever we are “stuck” (and, believe me, being “stuck” happens regularly when working with complicated human beings), having a solid background in a particular theoretical point of view provides a systematic way to analyze the situation and to move forward.
There are many well-documented ways to think about and do therapeutic work. Choose the therapeutic theory and method that best resonates with you and that matches the needs of the population you wish to serve. As you develop your career, you will layer additional information and skills onto that base. Becoming eclectic is fine when it is done purposefully. See the related articles listed below.
The Heart Part
The “heart part” requires the development of the instincts and skills to be unafraid and supportive as you go on a healing journey with someone in pain. The curriculum of the heart part includes confronting our innermost self with integrity and developing our talents for making positive connections with other human beings. Why? Because research shows that it is the connection between the therapist and the client, not the therapeutic orientation of the therapist, that is the most important determiner of a successful outcome. When the chips are down in treatment, when we have done everything we know how to do within our theoretical framework, what we have left is what’s within our own hearts to connect, to delve ever more deeply into the client’s pain and to determine what might be most helpful.
In my experience, developing the “heart part” requires systematically turning these personal qualities into professional skills:
Self-knowledge: In order to draw on yourself, it’s crucial to know as much about your “self” as you can. That means embracing our own strengths and confronting our own imperfections, wounds and fears. Listening to other people’s pain hour after hour, day after day can be exhausting, even traumatizing. Self-awareness provides both tools and protections as we venture into another person’s experience and distress.
Compassion: In Latin, compassion means “co-suffering.” Successful therapists are not afraid to touch the suffering of a client. Doing this work well doesn’t mean maintaining a professional distance at all times. Sometimes, it means truly feeling the client’s pain in order to understand its depth and its outlines. To do that safely means developing skills to then pull back from the suffering in order to re-enter the conversation in a way that is helpful.
Curiosity: Curiosity is your very best friend. We are often confronted with the unusual, the different and sometimes the outright bizarre but our job is to do our best to understand it. When we partner with a client in being curious instead of distressed, we open the path to understanding.
Patience: A plant’s growth can’t be hurried by tugging at it. It requires nurturing and the willingness to wait for results – even when we wish it would hurry up already. People are no different. We can only facilitate. We can’t force growth. Sometimes that means we are frustrated, bored or even annoyed by the client’s persistent pain. Our job is to contain our own impatience and continue working, having faith in the client, ourselves and the process.
Pacing: Each client has their own pace. Go too fast with suggestions, interpretations or responses and we will lose them. Go too slow and they will get impatient and quit. Our job is to steadily match the client’s pace with just enough push or restraint to gently keep therapy therapeutic.
Non-judgmentalism: Clients often fear they will be judged if they disclose beliefs or behaviors that are unpopular, illegal or politically incorrect. Lynn Hoffman, one of the founding mothers of family therapy, once told me that there is an important difference between therapy and politics. People don’t come to therapy for an education about racism, feminism, religion or any political point of view. They come to alleviate their pain. Yes, that may mean eventually considering the impact of gender, race, sexuality, class or political or religious beliefs but the starting point for healing is working within the client’s vocabulary and values – even if they are far afield from our own. If the client’s values are a part of what is creating their suffering, it is then our job to carefully challenge them without imposing our point of view.
Tact: Exquisite tact is the key to successfully challenging ideas and behaviors that are causing distress or dysfunction for the client or those around them. That means knowing how to say difficult things without causing the client to recoil in defensiveness, dislike or disgust.
Courage: Being a therapist is not for the faint-hearted. What if we mess up? What if our efforts increase rather than decrease a person’s pain? But unless we have the courage to take some educated chances, we are in danger of enabling the very issues the client has looked to us to help remedy. Part of our job is to model the courage to be imperfect, even to fail, without feeling like a failure. Having the courage to apologize and try again shows our clients how to move forward in spite of the misunderstandings, criticisms (by self and others) or missteps that are inherent in being human.
Science and Heart: Good therapy weaves a web of safety and clarity for therapist and client alike through the strategic use of both. Developing the two skill sets to the best of our ability is a lifelong commitment – to ourselves and to our clients.
On Becoming Eclectic Part I: Assessment
On Becoming Eclectic Part 2: Interventions
On Becoming Eclectic: Adding Skills in Child Therapy