There, I will come out and say it: “Therapists are human too”. We are not a special breed who have faced and vanquished our inner demons and emerged victorious with all our shit together, never to succumb to hubris, jealousy, neediness, anger, greed, getting in a strop and being generally unreasonable. Despite years of training and personal therapy we still have the 50/50 good days and not so good days the rest of the population have.
Most of us work hard at our craft, spend a good deal of time on self-reflection and all the other good things we encourage and support out clients to do. Our accredited training courses are long and rigorous and demand that we dig deep and address our experiences, challenge the stories we tell ourselves about this and become aware of unhelpful patterns and behaviors. This does not make us superhuman or give us the ability to read minds. It does build our compassion, teaches us the importance of suspending judgement and to respect the client’s ability to find their way and give them the space and grace to do this. At best this puts us a step ahead of our client’s so that we may reach back a hand to assist and support them as they take the next uncertain step forward in their own lives.
I was therefore saddened to read of Courtney James’ experience in the Guardian article " When Therapy Goes Wrong about the adverse impact of working with an unethical practitioner who had no business presenting himself as a therapist and working with vulnerable clients like James.
Glenys Parry, Emeritus Professor of Psychological Services Research at the University of Sheffield, provides balance in this article and moves it towards being a helpful resource for people looking for a therapist they can trust to work with safely and effectively. Including signposts to organizations such as the BACP who provide the assurance that their members have both attained a level of competence to practice effectively and agreed to follow a thorough set of ethical principles in their work. They also provide clients with a process for following up and managing complaints raised against its members.
I would like to build on this and perhaps do my part to breakdown the imaginary barriers between doctor and patient; therapist and client.
Too often we can see letters after a name, a white coat or a fancy title (particularly the unregulated ones) and project ideals onto them that we want our healers to have. To be an expert, to have the power to cure us, to have our best interest at heart, to truly care for and value us.
When we project in this way we give away our power in the relationship – our ability to question qualifications, to state our needs and ask how these will be met, to exercise discernment and walk away if it doesn’t feel right.
This is likely what happened to Courtney James, when she noticed and dismissed the “red flags”. Each time dismissing her own sense that something was wrong. Maybe she told herself she was ”imagining it” or that he was a “psychoanalyst” and therefore must have more knowledge and experience than her.
No lady, you are the expert on you. If it feels wrong to you then it probably is wrong for you. If you aren’t listening to the very small voice that is telling you something is off you are gaslighting yourself.
What’s challenging is that the most vulnerable clients are often coming to therapy to help them connect with and trust their instincts more and to help them speak up and advocate for themselves. It can be overwhelming to try and cut through the jargon, titles and overlapping disciplines to find out what and who you need. Many people are still uncomfortable sharing that they are seeing a therapist so relying on recommendations from friends and colleagues generally won’t give you a plentiful source of options either.
Accepting that just like every other profession you will find a range of therapists from very ethical and effective to very unethical and inadequately skilled you need to be as thorough as you can in selecting someone to work with and be as informed as possible. Many good therapists will offer you a free consultation to explore what you are looking for and share their philosophies and ways of working with you. This is a great way to see if you feel you can trust this person and you are comfortable with their approach. It can take several therapy sessions to really establish an effective therapeutic relationship and if you find anything about the relationship or the work makes you uncomfortable in any way share it with the therapist so that it can be addressed to your satisfaction. If at anytime you feel that you are not being heard, understood, taken seriously or that you and your experience are not the focus of the work find another therapist. Not every therapist will be a good fit for you.
Often feelings that come up about the therapist, the relationship or the work you do together are part of the therapy. We become who and how we are in relationship with others so it follows that it is within a supportive and non-judgmental relationship you can learn to be who and how you want to be. To practice this new version of you in a safe and forgiving space. For example, if you feel that your therapist is disappointed with you in some way and you are frequently apologizing. You may in fact be projecting your own disappointment onto the therapist and by raising the feeling you can explore together what this means for you and what you can do with that awareness – identifying where the same feelings may be affecting other relationships. If the work is uncomfortable its meant to be but you should also feel safe and supported.
Sometimes you will feel emotional and that can be painful. Learning to experience your emotions fully and to use these as helpful guides rather than something to be dismissed or squashed can also be part of the work you need to do. You are however in charge of the pace at which you work. You can tell the therapist at any point that you don’t want to discuss something and even if you feel the approach is not helpful. It is your session. I would add that learning happens at the edge of our capabilities and therefore if you want to progress you will have to accept there will be some discomfort for you. But you choose how much you can tolerate as you will not learn if you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
I believe the majority of therapists genuinely want to help their clients and endeavor to follow the first principle of healing to do no harm.
However, this in itself does not qualify them to do so. Anyone who genuinely holds the best interest of their clients at their core must, in my opinion, invest in their personal development and in building and tending to their craft. If they don’t feel they need this then they are most likely fooling themselves or deliberately setting out to fool vulnerable people. I therefore support the call for clearer standards and accreditations and more accessible information for clients. I also recognize the challenges this brings to those of us who work globally who would love to have a single global accrediting body that would ensure we can work safely and effectively to support our clients wherever they live. To reach back a hand and lift them up as we all move forward together.
If you are interested in exploring these ideas further and would like to talk about how coaching could help you, please follow this link to book a free discovery call.