Think back to the idea and connotations of therapy in previous generations. Does Freudian psychoanalysis come to mind? Suppression of emotions and a sense of grit-and-bear it? Maybe you think of broken familial structures and questions about the id and the ego, or how it all comes back to childhood and our desires?
Therapy has changed very much over the years. Between the strictly behavioral school of thought and Freudian schools of thoughts, there have been a lot of changes, but one of the most significant changes, in my opinion, is the relationship between clients and therapists. Back in the day, as the old phrase goes, therapists were often viewed as elusive, unknown individuals. It seemed to be unusual to know very much about one’s therapist’s life. Therapists were discouraged from sharing personal narratives as the focus was not on connection, but rather on resolving the client’s issues. This reflected a society in which therapy was stigmatized as something for “broken people” who needed fixing and solutions.
I believe the rise of research on vulnerability and human connection (largely conducted by PhD social worker and researcher, Brené Brown) and the bravery of recovered clinicians working in their fields has changed the face of therapy. We have learned that we are wired for connection and belonging through vulnerability, and this is a central aspect of the therapeutic relationship, in my opinion. Shame is that feeling of being exposed and wanting to hide ourselves as a result. This is one of the root issues that perpetuates the stigmatization of therapy.
The therapeutic space is a safe one, where the client is able to explore parts of themselves that have been wounded or that need more attention. The role of the therapist is to aid the client in understanding and living in alignment with their values. Therapy has become a space that is for everyone: for those who want to delve into their past and how it informs their current relationships, for those who have experienced abuse, big or little t trauma (which is determined by the impact and severity of the traumatic experience), for those who simply want to understand themselves more deeply or work through how to set boundaries in their relationships. Therapy is for those who feel broken and for those who feel like they have it together because it is about you and your needs in the moment, and we often see better from an outside perspective what we cannot see for ourselves.
In some ways, therapy does come back to our childhood; the way that we were raised informs how we function in relationships and how we view others and ourselves in the world. This can change with the forming of new relationships, however, and in community as we work through processing old narratives and reframing our stories in a new light. The ability to engage in new, healthy relationships is part of the trauma healing process; in order to unlearn the narratives that we shaped from past harmful relationships, we must experience good and lasting ones that show our bodies and minds that we are worthy, resilient beings and can receive affection, attention, and love (referring to an intimate, non-sexual sense of belonging we are able to share with others and are invited to be a part of ourselves) from others.
Recently, I have been reading the book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, and have really resonated with it. The author, Lori Gottlieb, is a therapist herself exploring her clients’ lives, as well as her own relationship with her therapist after an abrupt breakup. She talks about her own clients’ experiences ranging from a terminally ill patient who has cancer and is trying to make the most of her life to a man who works in media and is frustrated that everyone around him is an idiot. She writes about personal insights and discoveries in therapy as a therapist herself.
Gottlieb writes that “we grow in connection with others.” This rings very true; and how can we build relationships with others that we do not know at all? Self-disclosure is, to me, a very valuable tool in the therapeutic relationship, when used appropriately. Knowing that our therapists are not these far off, superhuman individuals reminds us of our shared humanity and helps destigmatize the idea that only “broken” or “really messed up people” need therapy. Even therapists often have their own therapists.
So, what does appropriate self-disclosure look like? It looks like thoughtful, considerate sharing of that which helps the client. This requires reflection and discernment, to navigate when to share an example or experience, and when to focus on the client’s experiences. Therapists must be careful in navigating vulnerability because while authenticity and trust are essential for this work, so too are boundaries and protection of the client from the therapist’s biases and needs. Ultimately, therapy is for the client, and often, the client is seeking deeper connection and help in rewriting new narratives of stories they are grappling with; and this work highlights our humanity and need for relationship.
Therapy sure has changed over the years, and it has a long way to go. Research has confirmed the importance of vulnerability, connection, and belonging, and therapists are making strides in the field to show up as their authentic selves and become more aware of how their own biases and narratives can inform their practices. However, there is still work to do in terms of de-stigmatization of recovered clinicians and the therapeutic space in general, therapists having appropriate spaces to be vulnerable and learning how to practice self-disclosure that helps the client, and using our humanity as a tool in the therapeutic space on the part of the client and the therapist to facilitate a sense of connection and a pathway for further healing.
This blog, LPC-to-be is for the therapist wanting to think from the perspective of a client and someone who has not yet been through the training process. It is for people who see therapists and want to listen to some musings on the therapeutic world from an LPC-to-be. This blog is for all of you curious about the therapeutic space; I’m happy you are here.