Applying Therapeutic Knowledge to Ourselves

sunset_1One of the benefits to being a psychotherapist is the opportunity to apply the knowledge we learn about human development, suffering, and relationships to ourselves and our lives.  Many people choose the field of psychotherapy after engaging in their own process of self-discovery through therapy and others, like me, choose it as a result of studying psychological concepts and theories in an academic setting.  In this blog post, I will explore the intersections between self-knowledge and therapeutic skill over the course of my career so far.

In the early years of my training, I focused a lot of my attention on developing basic therapeutic skills.  In many ways, it was also a way of exploring the nature of relationships that involved sharing and exposure of vulnerability.  My Midwestern family roots involved more emotional reserve than expression and more hiding than sharing of emotional pain.  As I began to work with clients, I felt honored that they were willing to talk with me about their struggles and to let me into their internal world so that I could understand their experience through their eyes.  I read Martin Buber’s book “I and Thou” which describes the deep respect inherent in an I/Thou relationship as contrasted with an I/It relationship.  His book described what I had begun to feel in my own therapy and what I hoped to foster in my relationships with clients.  In that same period, I began to deepen my friendships with graduate school colleagues.  As my fear and shame lessened, I found myself comfortable showing aspects of myself beyond the highly driven, achievement oriented, focused side of my personality which had constituted my primary way of relating to others.  This exploration of the feelings of connection that are possible in relationships reverberated through my life for a number of years.  It continues to surface from time to time when I meet a client for the first time, when I begin supervision with a new therapist in training, when I seek a new therapeutic experience for myself, and when I take the risk of being vulnerable with a friend.

Another intersection of knowledge applied to myself and my work has been in developing a more complex understanding of family dynamics, especially the parent-child relationship.  Like many new therapists, I found it easy in the early years of my practice to see what my clients had needed from their parents and how their parents had failed them.  Although I was usually able to refrain from overtly blaming the parents, I definitely saw the family situation from the perspective of my clients’ unmet needs.  This was the case in my own therapy for some time also and was probably a necessary stage since I had spent a long time not knowing or valuing my needs.  Over time, as my children grew into adolescents and young adults, I became more aware of the differences in our perspectives on situations of conflict.  I understood the inevitability of being a disappointment to my children and the ways in which we experienced and remembered things differently.  I developed more empathy for my clients’ parents and was more often able to imagine the situation from the parents’ point of view.  This didn’t lead me to overtly side with the parents when my clients were expressing their hurt and feelings of loss, but my responses became more even handed.  I was more likely to say something like “despite your parents’ love for you, it seems you felt let down by them” or “I can imagine your parents did what they felt was best for you, but it didn’t fit what you needed at that time.”  I found that my shift in perspective allowed my clients to acknowledge the importance of their attachment to their parents while also expressing their feelings of hurt, anger, and disappointment.  Their understanding became more nuanced as mine did, and I believe I was able to be a more effective therapist when I held my clients and their parents with an attitude of compassion rather than judgment.

In the last five to ten years as I have entered the final third of my life, I find myself sharing a life cycle perspective with my clients.  I can reflect on the changes in developmental priorities and challenges that accompany the different decades of adult life, and I often provide a framework that places the client’s individual concerns in a developmental context.  Some examples include supporting a client’s refocused attention on her creative interests as her children leave home to enter college, suggesting that a client’s feelings of regret about the past are consistent with the life stage review that often begins in the 60’s, and encouraging a client to become more familiar with parts of her/his personality that have been dormant or unexpressed in the first half of adult life.  These comments represent the integration of my personal experience with my knowledge of developmental stages and issues.  Despite differences between my life experience and that of my clients, I am able to hold a broader context now than I could when I was in mid life myself.

As always, I hope this blog post has sparked your thoughts about the ways you have experienced the intersection of self-knowledge and therapeutic skill and how you might like to carry that into the future.  I am interested in any responses you would like to share with me.