Like many clinical psychologists, I’ve been fortunate to help a lot of people through psychotherapy. I’ve written before about the significant benefits of therapy, and I do firmly believe that psychotherapy is a highly effective approach to help manage many different types of mental health challenges.
I also recognize that there are many different types of competent therapists who treat mental health issues in addition to psychologists. These include social workers, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, psychiatrists and addiction counselors, to name a few.
While I can’t speak for all therapists, I do know that most take their work very seriously and have your welfare as their primary interest. Here I’ve compiled 10 things you may or may not know about your therapist, which I will describe so you can better understand them, their work, and how therapy unfolds. I can’t say for sure if all therapists fully endorse these points, but the competent and compassionate ones I know sure do.
1) They are highly trained scientists
Psychotherapy is based on scientific findings. Therapists go through years of extensive supervised training to learn how to use therapy techniques that have been proven to be effective through rigorous research. You wouldn’t want to take a medicine that doesn’t work, and you don’t want to spend your time and money on therapy if the approach hasn’t been shown to work well. Feel free to ask your therapist to tell you about the evidence for the effectiveness of the type of therapy that has been recommended for you.
2) They have their limitations
Even though they are highly trained in providing effective therapies, it’s important to understand that not all therapists are trained to treat every kind of mental health issue. Some therapists focus solely on working with adults; others work primarily with children and adolescents. Similarly, not all therapists have been trained in all of the available approaches to therapy, since there are now so many different treatments to address various issues. It’s important to find out if your therapist has been trained in treating your specific issues. If they haven’t, they should be able to help you find another therapist who has more appropriate training for your needs.
3) They guard your privacy
Therapists are bound by many laws and regulations to keep your personal information strictly confidential. These policies should be explained carefully to you at the beginning of therapy and you should have an opportunity to ask questions about them. The few exceptions to confidentiality should also be clearly outlined for you. These typically involve emergency situations in which your safety or that of another person is at risk as a direct result of your statements or actions. Outside of these exceptions, you should feel comfortable knowing that therapists will keep your personal information secure.
4) They can’t be your ‘friend’
There are numerous ethical guidelines and boundaries therapists are required to observe related to the provision of therapy. While they can support you, encourage you and cheer for you, they can’t enter into a personal friendship with you, and in most cases, won’t be able to see you outside of the therapy room. This is not only to keep the therapy relationship healthy and appropriate, but it also protects your privacy. It’s a definite red flag if your therapist begins to cross these boundaries. If this happens, speak up and say you’re uncomfortable. It can also be very helpful to get another professional opinion or consult with the therapist’s licensing board to get support and keep yourself safe.
5) They need you to be honest
Your therapist can’t fully help you if you don’t tell them about all of your main concerns and issues. Sometimes it’s hard to fully trust a therapist at the beginning of therapy, but do your best to get all of your issues on the table so your therapist can begin to understand them and recommend appropriate treatment. They also need you to be honest about them and how they are doing. If things are going well in therapy, say so. If you’re not improving or feeling worse, tell them about that too. Only with your honest feedback can the therapist make adjustments to serve you better.
6) They need you to be invested
Therapy is a big commitment for you, both in time and money. It’s also a significant emotional investment and it can be draining to open up and explore your most private concerns. It’s also often hard to find the time and energy to complete therapy homework assignments, such as forms, exercises, and readings. But keep in mind that your therapist is typically only with you one hour a week. It’s what you do the other 167 hours each week to practice and apply the lessons learned in therapy that begins to make the real difference in how you feel. Do your best to fully engage in therapy and complete any related homework. If you are struggling with completing these tasks, let your therapist know. They can then modify assignments to make them more doable for you.
7) They worry about you
Yes, your therapist does think about you from time to time between therapy sessions and they sometimes worry a lot about how you’re doing, particularly when things are difficult or if you’re in a crisis. It’s a scary thought for them to know that you’re hurting and to not know if you have access to help and support during that difficult time. Most therapists will have a mechanism for getting in touch with them between sessions. If that’s available and you really need it, use it. Your therapist would rather know if you’re in crisis and be able to offer options for help than for you to suffer in silence and potentially have the crisis worsen. Also remember to contact emergency services for help if you are in a life-threatening situation.
8) They can make mistakes
Just like everyone else, therapists are not perfect. They can make mistakes, sometimes even significant ones, such as making the wrong diagnosis or by recommending a treatment approach that ultimately may not work well for you. This is another reason why your therapist needs your honest feedback, so they can know if things aren’t improving. If that occurs, your therapist will be flexible and can make adjustments to try other approaches as needed.
9) They can get overwhelmed
Although being a therapist is an enjoyable and rewarding profession, it’s also pretty stressful at times. Therapists hear about many horrific events that have happened to people, and this can lead to the therapist experiencing conditions such as secondary traumatization, caregiver fatigue, or burnout. Therapists are vigilant for signs and symptoms of these problems and sometimes may have to reduce their exposure to highly traumatic accounts in order to take care of themselves. Remember they can’t take care of you very well if they aren’t also taking care of themselves.
10) They want you to flourish
The bottom line is your therapist wants you to feel better and happier and to thrive and flourish in your life. They like nothing better than celebrating your personal growth, achievements and successes. Therapists often say their ultimate goal is to train you to be your own therapist. This means you can develop the skills and abilities to manage challenges and stresses on your own, even after you are no longer in therapy.
I hope these ideas have given you some insights into how therapists think, feel and act. Perhaps you can discuss some of these points with your own therapist and see if they share similar viewpoints. I’ll close by saying that I hope you benefit from your experience in therapy and that you find an awesome therapist who is just right for you.
Here’s a question: What has been your experience with psychotherapy? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend!