Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Can a therapist with problems still be a good therapist?

I sometimes wonder why, in my personal life, I am not more competent interpersonally than I am.  In fact, for someone who spends a significant amount of time helping people learn to interact with one another I often find my own lack of skill in such matters embarassing.  I wonder if it is possible to be a good psychotherapist when I sometimes struggle with issues similar to those facing my patients.  Can I really help people learn to overcome problems I myself have not successfully mastered?  Can I teach others to do things I myself am not able to do?  And if not, does that mean I am not a good psychotherapist?  Am I doing my patients a disservice?  Do my personal limitations prevent me from providing adequate care?

Then again, I know I am not the only psychotherapist facing this problem.  I thinks about other therapists I know, colleagues both former and current.  Many of them have struggled in their personal lives.  Ironically, one of the best marriage therapists I've ever encountered has been married and divorced at least twice.  And yet, I refer my patients to him again and again, confidently touting his skill and expertise.  When I talk to patients who have seen him with their spouse for ocunseling, they always give positive feedback about the experience.  As good as he is at marriage therapy, however, he is apparently not that good at marriage. 

If a skilled marriage therapist can be terrible at marriage, it stands to reason that a competent psychotherapist can have unresolved personal problems.

Of course I decided to do some research.  In doing so, I stumbled upon an article written by an historic icon in the field of psychotherapy, Carl Rogers.  There was something in particular he said in the article that brought me peace of mind.  In the article, he proposes a theory in which he identifies the conditions necessarry for positive therapeutic change to occur.  One of six identified conditions is that the therapist be "a congruent, genuine, integrated person" within the context of his relationship with the patient.  He goes on to say that it is neither necessarry nor possible for the therapist to be "a paragon who exhibits this degree of integration, of wholeness, in every aspect of his life.  It is sufficient that he is accurately himself in this hour of this relationship..."

What a relief.  I don't have to have it all together all the time to be a good therapist.  I just need to bring my healthiest self each time I interact with a patient.


  1. Having problems in our lives is humanizing and a great tool for increasing empathy with our clients. To separate us from the human experience of struggling with our issues would separate us too much from our clients. To say we should not have problems would imply that we are better than our clients. So it is important in my practice to have the mindset that we are struggling in this world together. I would also like to add we have a responsibility to our clients to attempt to practice what we preach.

    1. I definitely agree about practicing what we preach. I also find that I can "sell" a technique to my patients a lot better if it's something I've used myself.


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