The Paradox of Becoming a Therapist

As the year draws to a close, as always, I find myself reflecting on the most important things I came to understand and learn over its course. While there are many insights and areas of exploration (always!), the one I keep returning to is the experience and the life of the therapist/analyst. So, here I want to share my thoughts about what I’ve come to see as the paradox of becoming a therapist. I believe that these insights can apply to those in other healing professions, as well.

One of the crucial elements of one’s education in becoming a therapist is the deep personal exploration of why she or he has chosen this profession. Helping people has so many different aspects to it and so many possible areas that can be addressed, even within the field of psychotherapy itself, let alone other fields (healing professions, teaching, and so on). But the work of someone who does long-term, deep work with clients to help them discover their patterns of relating to others and to themselves, requires a deep examination of what drives one to keep returning to the consulting room.

As I’ve worked with clients for a number of years now, I’ve been more and more aware of the fact that people who are drawn to the healing professions are, in part, driven by childhood experiences. (Alice Miller, in The Drama of the Gifted Child writes extensively on this.) Very often, while growing up, the child has had to learn to be immensely vigilant and aware of her or his parents’ feelings, expectations, and needs on a daily – or hourly! – basis. Knowing when their mother is angry, or when their father needs his coffee (or bottle, as the case may be), comes to be a matter of emotional survival, and the child develops a great skill for reading the family’s emotional states – even though he or she is not usually consciously aware that that’s happening. It simply becomes the fabric of one’s experience in the family. Finding opportunities to feel close and receive love and adoration can also take a fine-tuned skill that the child develops overtime when the situation requires it.

It is with this set of skills that later, the adult, arrives at the decision to become a therapist or healer of some sort. These skills are immensely useful in therapeutic work – and the person very readily reads her or his clients’ faces and body language in a very similar way to when this skill was being honed in on during childhood, intuitively. And as a result, clients often feel deeply seen and known by such a therapist for this reason – very rarely in their lives have they been paid such close attention to. (Sometimes they even struggle to really receive this much attention and might not trust it, experiencing it as someone looking for things to judge them for. But that’s a separate blog post!)

So where is the paradox? From the above it would seem that becoming a therapist after growing up in a tense, challenging, or neglectful environment is simply a positive development and allows one to use those skills in a constructive way. But given my own years of analysis and experience, I’ve discovered that there is indeed a major challenge that lies hidden within this – a challenge that might later become a life-long journey of working through for the therapist.

The key here lies in the fact that the skills of exquisite attunement and awareness of the other’s feelings and needs were formed because it was a matter of emotional (and sometimes literal) survival. The child learned not only how to read her or his parent(s) for what they feel, but they also learn what to do and say to elicit only positive reactions, and avoid triggering or upsetting them at all costs. Eliciting any “negative” feelings often comes to be feared at the very core as the child repeatedly learns that this causes their parents to retaliate and even punish them in response. Pointing to a parent’s weak spots, to their hypocritical statements, is rarely met with openness and reflection – more often than not, the child learns that doing so is wrong and gets one punished and rejected.

So, one’s childhood often teaches the child to observe, match the other’s experience closely, and avoid rocking the boat at all costs. Yet, one of the major jobs of a therapist is indeed eliciting challenging feelings, and pointing to those very issues that would have upset their parents. Even if consciously, the adult-therapist knows that this is necessary and potentially deeply therapeutic, some child part of them is likely to fear it nonetheless. Therefore, the now-adult is faced with the important task of undoing what was learned in childhood if one is to be an effective therapist. This can stir up inner conflict and possibly cause the therapist to merge with their clients, avoid important areas of exploration, be overly “social”, and even blur boundaries.

All these are important signals for deeper personal work – and can lead one to truly profound growth. In many ways, I see the choice of becoming a therapist as (in part) an unconscious desire to change this ingrained dynamic, to be able to talk about anything, to learn to freely express feelings and thoughts that in childhood would have been met with rejection or punishment. In this way, while helping others, the therapist can also experience deeply transformative growth as part of their work. I know I do.

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