Therapists are also human beings. No amount of degrees or experience will change that fact. Therapists have very human feelings about their clients. They will like working with some more than others, will have a preferred type and will have some types they will never work with. They will be triggered by hearing some client stories and will be badly affected from all the trauma they hear about. We are not supposed to allow this to affect the way we do our job but it sometimes does. The way it is handled by the therapist is crucial to the therapeutic process and we don’t always get it right. No-one is perfect.
All of the above are true for me while I try to do the best job I can. I have the added issue of a tendency for codependency towards my work and clients which can potentially complicate issues. I have to ensure that my attitude of ‘I can help everyone’ doesn’t cloud my judgement and reason and be seen as a source of self-esteem and self-worth. I try to keep boundaries and use self-disclosure only as an aid to the process. People generally only know details about me that are relevant to know. I have made mistakes in the past but it is always useful as a learning experience and especially when discussed with te client in a safe space.
I once read an article that stated that the average therapist is closer to the narcissist end of the spectrum than the codependent. It stated that a lot of therapists have a ’God-like’ complex concerning the power they have. Though I have heard some real horror stories in my time as a supervisor and in general conversation with other therapists, I dont believe it to be generally true. In every industry, there are bad apples and most of the dysfunction I have heard is about sleeping with clients, a complete ethical no-no. When boundaries are crossed, it is usually in a misguided attempt to help further than is possible and concerning the complexities of transference and countertransference, an essential process in the therapeutic relationship but one fraught with trouble if boundaries are not firmly kept in place.
This is the main point here. The boundaries in therapy should be established and maintained by the therapist and not the client. Many people come into therapy without knowledge of boundaries or how to set them and are probably used to having what few they have violated. Maintaining boundaries in therapy is a useful learning tool for such clients. Many troubled clients will try to get close to the therapist but examining this through the transference lens, tells us that it is rarely about the therapist but more likely about someone else and is projected.
Just where are the boundaries between therapist and client? What can you expect your therapist to divulge about himself and his view on the world? This is often one of the confusing aspects of therapy for many clients. It is sometimes confusing for therapists too. We are only human and as such will make human mistakes. The difference in a therapeutic relationship is that it could be very damaging.
Irvin Yalom has been an advocate for many years of having a less rigid approach to therapy in certain cases, though this is an exception to the rule. There has long been debate about how close a therapist should allow clients to become and how much of their life they are able to disclose. This is a difficult problem for both parties and if not handled correctly could lead to the premature end of therapy. Maybe we should take a look at the reasons why therapists generally don’t disclose much about themselves or at least should be very careful about doing so.
Research has repeatedly shown that the single most curative factor in therapy isn’t simply the technique employed, or the therapeutic approach (from psychoanalytic, to cognitive-behavioural, to humanistic), but the relationship between client and therapist that develops during the course of treatment. Whether, deep down, the therapist is providing a corrective parenting experience, an unprecedented emotional release and resolution, or (somewhat more narrowly) the knowledge or skills requisite to the change requested by the client, ultimately it’s the relationship that principally determines the success of this unique professional engagement. Leon Saltzer Phd.
Firstly and the most basic reason is that you or your insurance are not paying the therapist to talk about their own issues or private life. More is generally gained from listening than talking. This, of course does depend on the persuasion of the therapist concerned. Psychoanalysts tend not to divulge much at all and usually nothing about themselves, whereas CBT therapists will often use their own or other’s experiences as a realistic example of how they coped in certain situations, though care should even be taken here. It is often tempting as therapy advances to open the doors a little and allow clients in and I have done this occasionally when I thought it may help the process but generally boundaries need to be kept. Usually private life is only an issue when something happens that could affect the therapist’s ability to provide therapy to the client.The second reason and one that many will not have thought of is that being a therapist can be a dangerous job. Early on in my career, I was physically attacked by a client. This attack came completely out of the blue and I was unprepared for it. The lady concerned had severe issues and was frustrated with a point we were working on and exploded. This is why some therapists are reluctant to talk about their family and private life, purely to protect themselves and such cases are not unknown.
Should you really expect your therapist to have general opinions on current affairs, likes and dislikes, politics, etc? Some do but don’t really expect an in-depth discussion about any of these issues. A therapist won’t do this for one very good reason…the chance of disagreement. We all have our own views on things and sometimes on different ends of the spectrum. Your therapist will not want to alienate you or intimidate you with strong opinions on such things (or waste your time). Therapist non-disclosure sidesteps this by making the focus your background, beliefs and attitudes, and making the therapist responsible for keeping their bias in check.
As a therapist, I see the relationship with the client as a model for the client’s relationships with others outside of therapy. I work in an atmosphere of genuine respect, empathy and regard for the client’s feelings and situation. The fact that a client is able to talk about everything, receive and give feedback and realise they are not being judged is often the key to recovery. This is where the therapist bears a huge responsibility for the framework of the relationship. Often the therapist may be the first person who has ever listened to them and appeared to understand. This can lead to the inevitable outcome of seeing the therapist as more than just a service provider, at best a friend…to the extreme as a potential partner.
Therapists will promote this transference but must try to hold it in a place where it is useful for therapy and deal with any unrealistic client feelings as part of therapy. What’s the problem with transference? Rather than connecting with the person, the client (and sometimes the therapist) is often relating to a template, which may be quite different from the flesh and blood version. The bottom line is always that these feelings are mostly unrealistic and should be dealt with as such. However, as already stated, therapists expect transference on this deep level and are trained to deal with it. It is often the sign that the relationship is where it should be to instigate change. A client should never be afraid to reveal that they have romantic, sexual, loving or other feelings towards their therapist. The important thing is to talk about it.