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Wisdom from “On Being a Therapist”

“Yet it is hard to tread water with someone on our back without drowning.”
Jeffrey Kottler

Jeffrey Kottler throughout his book “On Being a Therapist” sprinkles seeds of wisdom that will not only benefit the inexperienced therapist but the experienced therapist as well.

Kottler states that many in today’s therapeutic community regard therapy as little more than simple accountability and measured outcomes that are all held together in some limited time frame described as brief therapy.

Kottler believes that therapy is more than brief interchanges between a client and a therapist but an opportunity no matter how slight for the therapist to role model a positive influence on the client’s life.

Along with the relationship between client and therapist, Kottler shares in his book other challenges that confront today’s therapists such as:

  • increased diversification of client base
  • advances and changes in theory and technique
  • increased bureaucracy in health care
  • living in a stressed filled world.

These variables, along with the personal inner struggles professionally and personally that therapists are dealing with, makes the task of being productive in therapy in today’s world a daunting task.

Kottler believes that theories, prescribed rules, regulations and other therapeutic practices have their time and place and are in many ways helpful for the therapist, but he emphasizes that importance must  still be placed on the client/therapist relationship.

Learned Along the Way

Another key point Kottler emphasizes is how the client and therapist change each other during therapy.

Kottler warns counselors to be wary of the destructive energy emanating from a patient that it can pollute the spirit of the healer (Kottler, 2003).

Kottler wonders whether Freud’s habit in counseling sessions to remain detached had more to do with preserving his own emotional safety than transference issues.

It is important not to fall into the same emotional trap that the client is experiencing but rather encourage the client to risk take and act more than reflect on their issues.

Key for the therapist is timing when the client is ready for the next step in the process of dealing with painful issues. Kottler felt that an error in judgment by the counselor could result in tragic consequences or at the least regressive backlash.

To Kottler, clients become our greatest teachers, who let us know what is working and what is not, that is, if we are paying close attention (Kottler, 2003).

Another interesting aspect of counseling shared by Kottler is learning to love someone unconditionally, non-possessively, non-sexually, with warmth, empathy and genuineness. He states that this experience can be exhausting.

Patients can test the patience of any therapist and that can affect how the therapist relates to the client.. In doing so, we tend to feel more comfortable working with people who are most like us.

But, Kottler states feeling too comfortable with a client can be dangerous. We tend at this point to limit our therapy to:

  • what worked well in previous cases
  • deal with issues that are not personally threatening
  • limit the challenges that the particular case can teach us.

Real learning and growth comes from learning to be flexible, when we are forced to use new therapy styles and realize, that in some cases, it is not the client’s antisocial or annoying behavior that is the problem but our own listless, lack of caring attitude being expressed to the client that is the center of the problem.

Helpful Hints

Kottler shares other important suggestions for a therapist in the midst of analyzing a client/therapist relationship:

  •  determine whether the problem is with the client or with you
  •  respect the purpose and function of resistance and client defenses
  •  when feeling trapped, follow the principles of the “reflective practitioner”
  •  do not try to cure the incurable
  •  acknowledge that the client is operating under different rules from what you would prefer
  •  remain as flexible as possible
  •  educate yourself about clients who come from backgrounds that are beyond your experiences or comfort level; and
  • when all else fails, allow the clients to keep their dysfunctional behavior. Do what you can do no more and no less (Kottler, 2003).

When a therapist experiences a loss of motivation, energy, control and direction, Kottler said, these are conditions that could be as simple as boredom but left untreated, can turn into chronic, incurable and causation for a larger problem named burnout.

Kottler felt the single most common personal consequence of practicing therapy is not who will experience burnout but how long the next episode will last.

Kottler cautions that when a therapist can no longer deal with stress and/or symptoms of burnout he/she is more likely to engage in unethical conduct or to make decisions that will harm the client rather than help (Kottler, 2003).

He reminds the reader (therapists) that it is important to take care of yourself (burnout protector). He suggests the therapist needs to:

  •  adjust expectations to realistic levels
  •  break away as needed
  •  not be afraid to use the concept of talking to oneself as you do to your clients
  •  demonstrate that you take your own growth as seriously as you do that of your clients

Integrate

The last chapters of “On Being a Therapist” consist of lies we, as therapists tell, alternative therapies we can use and ideas for furthering growth and creativity within. Kottler states that many of the negative personal consequences of being a therapist derive less from the pressures of clients, supervisors and work schedules but from not being true to oneself.

At times, Kottler believes that therapists have to put on a façade of confidence to instill confidence and motivation in the client.

Kottler shares what Milton Erickson was fond of saying that if you can pretend very convincingly, then clients will pretend to make changes in their lives. And when things go well, after a period of time, they will forget they are pretending (Kottler, 2003).

Not only does Kottler share the importance of being honest in one’s therapy, he also relates the idea of  the importance of not becoming married to a particular theory. A therapist must be flexible not idealistic toward his/her client. If the therapist does not genuinely believe that the therapeutic tools for our profession can work for the client, then we have no business practicing them on anyone else (Kottler, 2003).

Lastly, Kottler shares that in the process of doing therapy we must regard ourselves as explorers. We teach others to discover uncharted territory, to learn survival skills and apply them in conditions of maximum stress.

We teach people about their limits and their capabilities. We help people take controlled risks, where much danger can be anticipated. But, we must never forget that we change as much as we change each client we see.

Tired therapist photo available from Shutterstock

Wisdom from “On Being a Therapist”