Therapist’s Hypocrisy: Should Therapists Practice What They Preach?


May 23, 2023

Note: if you are someone who attends therapy and tends to worry about your therapist’s needs and this makes it hard for you to take up the space you deserve in the room, maybe this post isn’t for you right now. This is also not advice or speaking on behalf of all therapists, nor is it meant to tell anyone how to practice. Rather, I hope to offer some thinking points.

I used to like the idea of only asking clients to do things therapists were “willing” to for ourselves, of joining with them, (to an extent) of only being able to go as deep with clients as the work we’ve done ourselves… but how privileged I think now!

Is that hypocritical I ask myself? Well, if hypocritical at its core — without the negative connotations — means asking someone to do something I wouldn’t… then yes?

For example, I might ask someone to do an exposure of wearing a swimsuit. I don’t like wearing swimsuits for a variety of reasons — I don’t like my body to feel exposed in that way, there’s sensory elements of tightness, it doesn’t always feel safe if I’m in a group of people with various other non-shared identities or that I don’t know.

What’s different, I think, than the typical conceptualization of “that’s hypocritical (and therefore bad, and I “shouldn’t”) is:

a) choice — I really strive not to tell clients what they have to do and instead offer perspective and choice; I may offer something as an option, and try to remind that no is allowed and an equally good answer, too

b) we are not the same person and therapy is not my time to process

Therapists have trauma and experience pain and humanity as well

Therapy and healing aren’t equally beneficial for every person; there’s various experiences of trauma and marginalization and access and privilege that impact both clients and therapists healing journeys.

We often talk about being culturally competent providers and the power dynamic of providers with clients (which exists both in the dynamic of therapist and all that is assumed about their knowledge, and also in relation to identity differences).

What isn’t always mentioned is the grief and experiences of working with clients with more racial, socioeconomic, etc privilege than the provider; when there’s a power dynamic of the client who can say anything about you that impacts your livelihood, who might be able to access therapy with you when you can’t afford your own rate, who might experience relief while you continue to have to do your own work and also experience trauma and suffering at the same time.

Yes, there is something beautiful and very important about therapy being centered on the client. And, there’s an important distinction between “clients don’t need to take care of their therapist’s needs” and the reality of being decent and empathetic towards the also human therapist.

Mixed messages

e.g., many don’t expect it to be okay for someone to say, smash the therapist’s computer, but the individual boundaries of the therapist around being yelled at, are often unclear and depend on the individual; a blanket message about transference without nuance for how each person’s identities and experiences shape their own capacities means some grit and bear their own pain because they think it’s necessary and sometimes we forget that suspending humanity can implicate that healing only happens when in relationship with someone who has no needs or complexities).

There’s a confusing mixed message at times of “you don’t have to worry about my feelings” and also “if you violate my boundaries as a human, then I can’t work with you anymore” or “it’s okay to treat someone poorly if its their job to hold space for you”, or the expectations that therapists should put aside their own feelings about things (i.e. discomfort with personal boundary violations) as opposed to understanding that some things like the impact of racism, homophobia, transphobia, deserve space to be honored for the humanity of the therapist. I’m thinking of the belief that therapists shouldn’t insert themselves; if someone is speaking hate about a marginalized identity of the provider, the expectation that both a provider impacted and one not shouldn’t express any hint of hurt furthers the trauma of marginalized individuals, leading to more burnout and reduced representation in the field.

I am not saying that therapists should start processing their own stuff in sessions with clients. Again, there’s a beautifully sacred part about therapy where it gets to be centered on the client. There’s something altering and healing about a space where you can test the boundaries in terms of getting to explore new emotions and not being afraid you’ll be rejected. There’s good work in understanding transference, putting aside our own stuff for our own work and therapy, checking in with our wellness and needs.

And also, I feel there’s such a need to explore privilege dynamics that some therapists have the ability to “suspend parts of their humanity” vs those who are deeply, systemically impacted. Sometimes this means we can relate more deeply to clients and also, there is such a need for extensive rest in recognizing the additional ways in which BIPOC, queer, disabled, neurodivergent bodies are asked to show up and suspend parts of self and naming, creating space for these conversations.

  1. Nina says:

    This is an interesting argument, I am curious about the “line” between what is considered treating a therapist poorly vs. transference reaction or even trauma response of clients.

    • Mimi Cole says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I don’t think there’s a firm line at all and I think it shifts depending on the capacity of the clinician, the specific experience, etc but what I think is important is communication and space! Because you’re so right, trauma responses, transference reactions — these need consistent space to show up in order to heal, and it is tough within the limitations of capitalism and care being limited by finances and time often. So I think we ask more questions and get curious. It’s nuanced because trauma isn’t an excuse for harming people and also dysregulating, activation, fear etc may show up in yelling, mean words, etc. I think giving a solution does a disservice to the complexity and individuality, so not really an answer 🥴😌 many more thoughts!

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