• Training as a therapist or counsellor is a long journey that often involves significant change on a personal level

  • Therapist Pat Capel reflects on how his training changed his relationships and understanding of himself


Does anyone ever feel like they’ve lost friends because they’re a counsellor? I sense that some people are worried that I might ‘see-through’ them or psychoanalyse them! And I also feel as though some people are shocked if I show any weakness or difficulties in coping...as if I should be perfect? OR they assume I’m perfect (for want of a better word!) and then also pretend to be?

This was posted in a Facebook group of therapists and it really got me thinking.

My instant reaction to the opening question was a resounding “Yes!” But when I slowed down a little and started thinking a slightly different answer appeared.

As therapists and counsellors, we cannot help but go through a massive re-education while training. We end up learning so much about ourselves. We sometimes learn some very uncomfortable truths. I am not one of those who did a course where I had to undergo hours of therapy myself in order to qualify. But my training was such that each day I spent in the “classroom” was like therapy anyway. But good training means that the changes within us can be sudden and quite alarming.

I did not lose any friends. But I chose to walk away from a few. I never felt that people were worried that I was psychoanalysing them. Most of my friends voiced interest in what I was doing. Some were indifferent. But no-one made me think I was a threat to them. There were some who even made it clear that they were interested in my professional and not only my personal opinion. But I did start realising that there were some people around me who were a threat to my own wellbeing. And that they had been a rather negative and draining influence on me for quite some time. This does not mean they are bad people. But there comes a time when we have to say to ourselves: what am I getting out of this relationship? Is it reciprocal? Is it rewarding? Or am I being drained by someone else’s world and no matter what I say or do, I am not going to change their world?

But for those who worry that we might 'psychoanalyse' them, I really wish that they could realise that we will not. We will offer advice and guidance if asked. But we will not intrude. I also wonder: if they are worried, is it a sign that they realise they might need a bit of help but are too scared to show their own weakness or vulnerability? It is a shame that they do not feel that their friends who might have gained some insight into human behaviour, cannot help.

Family is a tricky one. We cannot choose our family. But we can choose how we react to our relatives and the dynamics within the family. The one thing that I learnt really quickly is: I am not my family’s therapist. I have to admit that I did not learn that on my own. My father is a very difficult and disturbed man who has had a profoundly negative impact on us. A few years ago we were all going through a really difficult patch with him and I had to seek guidance and help from a fellow therapist. The lessons I learnt from her were invaluable. In particular, she helped me realise that I am not a therapist to that one person in the family who is toxic and making everybody else’s life a little miserable. I am happy to offer guidance when asked and I have family members who do ask and are very grateful when I provide some insight. But I have had to minimise contact with my father as a means to protect myself. 

Therapists and counsellors are human too

And this answers the second question that my colleague asked. Yes, we as counsellors do struggle with what life throws at us. Like our clients, we are human. Just as we teach our clients that there are times when their emotions take over and they lose perspective, the same thing happens to us. We too have our weaknesses. Those buttons that others know to press or those triggers that remind us of difficult times. How could we possibly be effective therapists and counsellors if we are not aware of what weakness and vulnerability feels like? How could we possibly empathise if we have forgotten what it feels like or have become slaves to theory?

But where do we go from here? As counsellors, I do think we come out of the training rather different to how we went in. Most of us wanted to learn about ourselves and others and how to make life easier. And no doubt, most of us are continuing to learn and grow. We learn new things, we learn new ways of teaching others how to cope and we learn new ways to make our own lives better.

And along the way, we might lose friends or family. But we will also gain knowledge, wisdom and a greater understanding of human nature and human dynamics. 

But what we really have to learn is how to look after ourselves. Our wellbeing is important. We cannot help others if we do not learn how to help ourselves. It is partly why we have to have supervision and belong to a peer group that meets regularly. As therapists, there are occasions where we hear very distressing stories. We will be affected by the experiences of others. But our training does teach us how to maintain a distance that is designed to protect us, and ultimately, is in our clients’ interests. We need down time. We need to take holidays. We need to limit the hours we spend in our therapy rooms so that when we are there, we are as effective as possible.

Most importantly, when we feel overwhelmed, we have to acknowledge this and seek help and guidance from friends, colleagues and more experienced therapists. We are human, after all. 

Pat Capel is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Central London and online

Further reading

Why are therapists in therapy?

How are therapists portrayed on TV?

Should therapists let politics into their consulting room?

Why are therapists so fascinating to their clients?

Compassion fatigue in the caring professions