Why Are Therapists in Therapy?
When I embarked on my first psychotherapy training in London, back in 1999, I thought I knew myself pretty well. I was in my early thirties, I'd had a successful writing career, I'd always been reflective, emotionally intelligent, and philosophical, and I'd started reading Jung when I was a teenager. Surely I'd make a great therapist. Wouldn't I?
After a lot of research into courses, I chose a reputable training with university accreditation, which required me to undertake my own psychotherapy on a weekly basis throughout the four-year duration, so I arranged to see a Jungian analyst, approaching it as something of an adventurous obligation. From the outset, I understood the need for trainee therapists to undertake their own therapy, but until I embarked on the process, I had no real idea of the full significance it would hold for me, both personally and professionally.
Within weeks of meeting my analyst, I became immersed in something that was far deeper, and far more difficult than I could have ever envisaged. As I encountered the less conscious aspects of myself, sometimes with amazement, and often with pain, I began to understand why psychoanalytic trainings won't even accept applications from candidates unless they've undergone something like 150 hours of personal analysis. The lived experience of a therapeutic process was a million miles away from both theoretical study and the comparatively superficial, and often inadequately facilitated, experiential group learning on my course.
Confronting myself at this level enabled me to realise I wasn't ready to see clients, so I left my training and went to study Jung at university, continuing with therapy throughout. Life took many twists and turns and eventually I qualified as a psychotherapist in Australia, only giving myself this title because I'd spent six years studying, and five years in analysis. Unlike my London course, the Melbourne programme didn't require students to be in therapy, and the repercussions of this were serious, and sometimes devastating. Without the holding of a therapeutic relationship and with little or no understanding of their own unconscious material, many trainees became activated by the emotionally charged course material and were unable to manage the complexities of interpersonal dynamics in the classroom. Nevertheless, most of them went onto work with clients.
After qualifying, I moved to Tasmania and established my psychotherapy practice in Hobart where, over the years, a large proportion of my client base has consisted of practicing and qualified counsellors who've come to me for their first therapeutic experience. Some of them have graduated from the course I did myself, several years before, in Melbourne. While I'm always honoured to accompany and facilitate a client through their process, no matter who they are, my counsellor clients have left me wondering why so many therapy courses continue to neglect this central aspect of training.
I've heard the arguments about cost, and having struggled to pay for my own therapy in London, I appreciate the challenge that can bring. But therapy fees need to be seen as integral to the price of training, just as personal therapy needs to be seen as an integral aspect of learning to be a therapist. As a senior Jungian analyst once said to me, it's a bit like taking out a mortgage on yourself. Ultimately, it's an investment.
Many therapists dip in and out of a personal process throughout their working lives, but an initial training therapy sets the foundation for all future client work. Before a therapist can facilitate a therapeutic relationship, they need to work through their own unconscious issues, to experience themselves through the witnessing of another, to develop awareness of their own relationship patterns, and interpersonal dynamics, to gain an understanding of themselves in the context of a wide range of past and present situations, and, if working with dreams or a creative modality, to become familiar with their own unconscious material. They also need to understand themselves within the context of an intimate relationship, and to work through what psychodynamic practitioners call the transference, so they can deal with the pressures and challenges of client work, to establish and adhere to boundaries, and to learn how to attune to a client with body, mind and emotions.
Working therapeutically is a hugely demanding endeavor, and unless a therapist has come to know themselves through their own therapy, the job will entail a risk of emotional and psychological contamination. It can also leave clients open to some level of psychological or emotional abuse, especially if a therapist has trace borderline or narcissistic tendencies, because of the power dynamics at stake. But when a therapist has worked with their own pathology (and by this I mean the spectrum of pathology, on which we are all located) within a training therapy, any such issues will enhance the work, and imbue the practitioner with potentially deep levels of empathy, understanding, and insight.
So what can happen when a therapist attempts to practice without having had their own therapy? Well, for a start, their effectiveness will be limited, and this will be evident for clients. The work might be formulaic, relying more on technique and theory than experience and process, the client may find themselves being directed, labeled, foreclosed and overly interpreted. The practitioner may find themselves becoming physically unwell, depressed, agitated, acting out, or even mentally unstable, as they absorb aspects of the client's psyche through unconscious transference, and they may find their own relationships begin to suffer. In short, the real cost of not doing therapy is far higher than the financial cost of paying for it during a training. And the practitioner will keep on paying, at some level, until they attend to the issues that inevitably come up though their work.
Jung once famously said that practitioners get the clients they need, and that an effective therapist will be just as transformed by a therapeutic journey as the client. And it's true. We therapists are all wounded healers to an extent, and we continue to affect, as well as to be affected by those with whom we work. So we need to be conscious of our wounds, and how they affect others before we attempt to treat anyone else's. Therapy for therapists is a matter of good ethical practice, and duty of care, but, most importantly, a question of psychological safety.