Do therapists need therapists too?
I posed this question to Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana, Dr Poloko Ntshwarang and this was her take: “The demands of a therapist’s job are unique and the nature of the work tends to be isolating. Working with a professional who fully understands the particular challenges of the job is a great opportunity for support and comfort. It can also be beneficial for many to seek help from a therapist with a similar background. Sometimes therapists spend so much time thinking about other people’s problems that they lack the mental energy or motivation to examine their own. Simply put, it feels too much like work. Having someone neutral can help therapists maintain good insight and self-care. “
Therapists have hard jobs. They hear about difficult, sometimes traumatic experiences each day, as their clients share their issues. They soak in your negative energy and personal problems. Besides our problems which poison their energy, they too occasionally have personal problems and things they would like to work through.
Therapists spend their working days in the company of people wrestling with significant life challenges and conditions such as intense anxiety, depression, loss, or trauma. Doesn’t that have an impact on therapists’ mental health? Therapists aren’t superhuman; they get overwhelmed, sick, or suffer burnout. They may have personal challenges in health or finances or a family member with mental illness, addiction, or developmental difficulties. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, therapists were swamped with new patients at a time when therapists themselves had to endure the pandemic crisis. Additionally, therapists are exposed to powerful feelings, such as hurt, rage, despair, or grief. Remember, strong emotions are often contagious; in other words, therapists risk absorbing or internalizing their patients’ emotions or may feel triggered by their patients’ histories. Such vivid reactions may make it difficult for therapists to work effectively. Perhaps the most common reason people decide to become therapists is that they had a positive experience in therapy themselves. They overcame hardships, resolved struggles with anxiety or depression, and celebrated growth in their own lives.
Relationship stress, problems with kids, and work burdens are all just as likely for therapists as for everyone else. Therapists are not immune to anger, grief, or worry, and they carry no special protection against tragedy. The stress of handling potential conflicts with clients (dual relationships or duty to report child abuse, for example) is a huge weight that therapists to carry. Therapy sometimes puts therapists in the position of having to choose between two unpleasant outcomes, or sometimes between their clients’ feelings and the law’s requirements. Since therapy is confidential, a therapist can’t share too many specifics to unload the stuff they hear in therapy. They can tell a partner they’ve had a rough day, give a vague comment, maybe state they are helping someone with a terrible trauma, but that is it. Clinical supervision can help, but not all therapists receive such supervision. Simply put, therapists can’t confide in spouses or friends the way people in many other jobs can, so the heaviness of the day lingers even after a therapist goes home.
Because of these confidentiality restrictions, therapists frequently keep work-related stress to themselves. They can feel increasingly isolated with troubling thoughts or worries. In addition, many therapists work alone in private practices, so they don’t even have the benefit of a brief water-cooler check-in with a coworker. Therapy can be a lonely job. Just as a therapist can’t share their clients’ confidential information, they also cannot share their own personal lives with clients. This means they can’t tell clients if they are having an off day, suffering a headache, or feeling grumpy. Most jobs require such professionalism, of course, but therapists have to be on guard constantly. They must remain neutral throughout their day. This neutrality is unnatural in most other relationships, and understandably leads to strain.
Clinical psychologist in Gaborone, Dr Sophie Moagi says, “Here’s a shocking reality; therapists are not required to participate in their therapy. They are required to be supervised and trained. Although psychoanalytic institutes require personal therapy, some school programs do not. It is possible to become a licensed therapist without ever being in therapy. The best therapists constantly participate in their therapy, not because it is required but because it is essential to building mastery. They know their treatment enriches their lives and empowers their work with patients. Ultimately, understanding yourself is the gateway to understanding others.”