When a therapist’s wounds are too great to heal others

It is undeniable that many people who are drawn to working in the helping/caring professions do so because of their own personal  journey in overcoming certain challenges that might have been blocking them from their true potential – often  they have  first hand experience of how powerful and life changing counselling or psychotherapy can be.  Certainly in my own life, therapy helped me to find a more fulfilling and happy path and to accept myself and to grow as a person, so I know it can work.

Carl Jung , a Swiss psychotherapist, came up with the concept of the’ wounded healer’, and by this he meant that many therapists ( and members of other caring professions ) feel compelled to treat clients,  because of their own psychological wounds. British counsellor and psychotherapist Alison Barr’s  research, showing that 73.9% of counsellors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experience in their own life, supports Jung’s theory.

This is by no means a bad thing ; in fact someone who has suffered at some stage in their life and managed to look at what Jung called his or her ‘shadowy side’ head  on,  is likely to have empathy and compassion for those who need help with their own struggles in life. However it is when a therapist hasn’t properly faced up to or acknowledged their own demons, there is the danger of empathy slipping over into sympathy and the boundaries getting blurred.  In other words, therapists need to have real insight into their own wounds in order to heal others.

woman with therapist

Had bereavement therapy after my mother died…I had literally just had a baby too, and the lady was really argumentative and disagreed with everything I said, and basically said I should be grateful that I had children etc.  She later apologised and said she couldn’t see me anymore as she had her own problems and issues.”

 “My counsellor would spend at least twenty minutes of the session talking about himself, which I found really frustrating. I finally plucked up the courage to raise it with him, and he got really defensive and said that I was self obsessed and that he could see my eyes glaze over when he talked about himself”

“I felt really uncomfortable when my counsellor turned up on my doorstep with a candle to give me as a xmas present. It was a lovely gesture, but it just didn’t feel right”

A person who comes to therapy is often in a very vulnerable state when they pluck up the courage to come to their first appointment, and wants and needs to feel safe.  It is our responsibility as therapists and counsellors to practice rigorous self honesty, and also to be able to admit when we make a mistake

Most training courses expect trainees to undergo therapy but worryingly not all do. A quick google search reveals counselling and psychotherapy diploma courses which don’t expect trainees to undergo or have undergone any counselling themselves. How can someone be a counsellor if they have never sat the other side of the room, and experienced how it feels to be a client? Also therapy training by its very nature expect students to dig deep into their psyche, unearthing issues that really should be dealt with through therapy, rather than left untreated and unspoken. The Human Givens Institute, a UK wide psychotherapy training provider say “extensive research shows conclusively that therapists who have personal counselling are not more effective”  I am a fan of research, I have quoted some above,  however it also has its downsides  ; there are so many variables, it is an artificial environment and there is also a phenomenon called “experimenter expectancy” where an experimenter’s expectations can have a strong influence on the conduct of the participants. Anyway, all I can say is that I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing a therapist who hadn’t undergone some therapy themselves but interested to know what other people feel about this ?

Of course we can never be perfectly healed and if we start thinking that we are, then we are in dangerous territory.  Therapists who start believing they are gurus, who start to believe they know what’s best for their clients in all areas of their lives, are unlikely to be coming from a place of client centredness, which for me, is one of the most healing aspects of therapy. There is a very fine line between challenging and being overly directive, which can be extremely disempowering for clients.

And just as to my mind there is a continuous need for personal development as well as career personal development, having a really good supervisor is imperative, as there will inevitably be things a client brings that may trigger our own stuff, and that is clearly par for the course ; but  it is vital there is an experienced person who can pick up on our ‘blind spots’  and support us with anything we might struggle with around our client work.  This is as important for our own emotional self care as for our clients. If we are not able to get in touch with our own areas of vulnerability because we have never really properly looked at them, then that is potentially as harming to ourselves as it is to our clients.

IN MY NEXT BLOG I WILL BE TALKING ABOUT THINGS FOR CLIENTS TO LOOK OUT FOR THAT MAY INDICATE A THERAPIST HAS POOR BOUNDARIES AND ISN’T ADHERING TO A COUNSELLING AND PSYCHOTHERAPY’S ETHICAL FRAMEWORK. 

If you have any questions or would like to talk to me in a safe and confidential environment, please get in touch. 

3 Comments

  • Jill says:

    A very thought provoking article, which to my mind, “hits the nail right on the head”. When I first started therapy, over 20 years ago, I know I put my therapist up on a pedestal, as I thought she was amazing, and helped me tremendously. Then, her marriage broke down and she had to move away, which meant I had a 55 minute drive to see her. The second time I went to her new house I knocked loudly on the door at least four times, as there was no bell, but nobody came. I tried a couple of times more, without success, so went home again. She rang me later and asked if I’d forgotten my appointment. I told her what had happened and she just said “If you really wanted to make yourself heard, you would have made yourself heard”. I was very upset by this and didn’t make another appointment. She then sent me an invoice for the session I’d “missed”, but I wrote back saying I wasn’t going to pay it and never heard from her again. Luckily it didn’t put me off counselling completely, and I found another counsellor, but it has made me wary.

    • I am so sorry to hear that you had such an awful experience of therapy, and I an completely understand why that made you wary Jill. I hope that your next counsellor is able to restore your trust in the therapeutic process, but that does take time.

  • Laura Holden says:

    My therapist used to talk about themselves quite a bit which I intially found strange as my previous one never said a word about themselves but then not only did I come to see how unhealthily locked up in myself I’d become, I learnt that this was part of her model which encouraged her to be open and human. That worked for well me and I’m feeling so much happier and glad I went. I think its good when a therapist talk about themselves too.

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