When Vani began her counseling sessions, she was nervous. She kept wondering if her counselor would’ve heard anything similar to what she was going to share. She was also concerned about her therapist’s ability to receive what she wanted to share: “I wonder how it affects the counselor to listen to people’s problems every day. I hope my counselor is a strong person and can help me.”
Sometimes clients have also asked me with curiosity, “Don’t you feel burdened by all that is shared with you?”
These can be perplexing thoughts for someone who is in therapy or is considering it.
A therapist is involved in an intense relationship with their client, and they are affected both personally and professionally by their work. Thus, the therapist’s physical and psychological health becomes important. As the therapist is in a helping profession, they need to pay attention to their own self-care on an ongoing basis.
Many therapists have their own personal journey of why they chose to be in the counseling profession. A therapist receives intensive training in theoretical approaches and skills before they can practice as a professional. They are also required to be in personal therapy, which may involve exploring their own past and current issues, becoming aware of personal conflicts and working with them, accepting themselves, and building their own resilience. Many professional counseling training programs mandate a certain number of hours of personal therapy for trainee counsellors as a requisite for competency development.
Why does a counselor need therapy?
Being in therapy can help a trainee counselor understand what it is to be a client and be vulnerable. It also helps them understand what it takes to work towards emotional wellbeing; something that they, as a therapist, will expect their client to work towards. It helps the therapist to have awareness of their own beliefs, values and worldviews, recognize blind spots and identify areas of personal growth.
A therapist is required to continually reflect on their experiences and build on their own self-awareness. This helps them gain a deep understanding of emotions, thought processes and bodily awareness. The therapist's ability to be aware of themselves is crucial in them being able to enter the world of their clients with authenticity and genuineness.
For example, when a therapist examined and explored their own personal experiences of anger and vulnerability in personal therapy, their awareness became an important tool in the counseling process with their clients. When Vikram came in for counseling, he was struggling with how his rage was affecting his life and relationships. It helped the therapist to connect with Vikram’s experience, empathize with him and tune in to his struggles. It further enabled the therapist to help Vikram deal with his anger issues.
Many psychotherapists have talked about the usefulness of therapists being in therapy themselves. Internationally, a number of regulatory bodies for counseling practice specify personal therapy as a requirement for licensing or accreditation of the therapist. The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) Framework of Good Practice recommends therapist self-care as a responsibility under the ethical framework of practice.
Asha was in therapy as she had been facing some parenting issues. As she began to understand her emotional experiences, she began to feel a deep sense of loss about her mother’s death during her childhood. The therapist was deeply moved by Asha’s grief, and was able to experience her pain - yet, they were emotionally available and able to provide the support Asha needed. In order to do this, and possibly for many other clients, the therapist’s self-care is very crucial.
Therapists are human too, and, like everyone else, they go through the inevitable struggles of life. A counselor may need to deal with personal emergencies and crises, significant life changing events, loss, grief, ill-health, failures and challenges. While life may throw different challenges at the therapist, they also have the responsibility to ensure that their work is not compromised in any way.
When therapists are in therapy, they get the support and care they need for their resources to be replenished, their resilience strengthened, and their fatigue and burnout managed. Above all, it often enhances the therapist’s wellbeing and vitality, so they can work with clients meaningfully.
A therapist is not impervious to pain or struggles. In fact, it is the very quality of being affected by it that helps establish authentic emotional contact with themselves and their clients. A therapist’s own therapy goes a long way in making that happen. A client can be assured that a practising therapist who is in personal therapy has developed their support mechanisms so that they can then be emotionally and mentally available for the client during their counseling sessions.
**The vignettes presented here describing people are used for the purpose of illustration and do not represent actual clients.
**The following terms are used interchangeably – counselor and therapist, counseling and psychotherapist.
Archana Ramanathan is counselor and trainer with Parivarthan Counseling Training and Research Centre.
References: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) – Guidelines for ethical framework - https://www.bacp.co.uk/ethical_framework/