Do you have a good therapist? Read on and find out.
It saddens me to say this but it’s true – there are a lot of sick therapists out there. Now, when I say ‘sick’, we’re not talking about physical ailments, anxiety, depression or about people who enjoy purposefully harming their clients (yes, they exist)…I’m talking about emotional health. I’ll never forget a conference I attended last year. As conferences go, this was much like the others and included down-times when we all had an opportunity to make connections. It was in once such moment when the other therapist mentioned how they believed that Therapists (themselves included) were in the field mainly because they felt broken somehow and thought that being a behavioral specialist would help them figure it out.
I believe they are partly right. Partly wrong as well. From what I’ve observed, there are some common reasons people become therapists. Let’s list them!
1. They are caregivers. The ‘health-field’ is full of these people and typically the behavior is a learned one (not a personality type – sorry!) growing from being raised in an environment of conditional acceptance. That, or they grew up in a home where caregiving behaviors were reinforced somehow; typically praise or acceptance or compliments…
To spot a caregiver turned Therapist – Listen for the phrase, “I’ve wanted to be a therapist for as long as I can remember.” That statement just screams, “I’ve found validation through taken care of unwell people for as long as I can remember!" If you don’t hear that, look for relentless coddling by the therapist. Side note: there are actually whole therapeutic models founded on not confronting, or JUST listening. In my opinion, this approach is great when the therapist needs to make his BMW payment. The last warning sign to look for is this - IF you start feeling like you ‘need’ the therapist to be ok: RUN. Not a good therapist. I remember hearing a co-worker once say, “the only reason I’m even here right now (meaning ‘alive’) is because of my therapist!”. Just not good. Another sentence I heard sounded something like this, “I can’t imagine NOT going to see my therapist. I’ve seen her for years.” Also, not good and a huge sign that your therapist is not as emotionally put together as you’d like to think.
2. They are traumatized. This professional has an intimate personal history in whatever specialty area they choose. And because of this deep scared knowledge of being raped, or living through the death of parents, or homosexuality, or an addiction, or (insert tragic past here) they gravitate towards the clientele struggling with the same thing. THIS PART IS NOT THE ISSUE and can be a great asset to connecting with others. But it’s HUGELY dangerous when they haven’t worked through their own stuff. If the therapist briefly discloses about themselves in order to connect with the client – that’s just fine. If a therapist uses his own life experience in order to explain a therapeutic concept – that’s also fine. But remember, this isn’t supposed to be about the therapist. It’s supposed to be about you, the client so the vulnerable info coming from the therapist needs to stay at a minimum.
To spot a trauma-based person turned Therapist – look for the conversation being more about themselves than you. “I remember when I was going through that, I’ll never forget when…..” Or if they go on AND ON about their own struggles or past trauma, it’s time for you to ABORT MISSION. Whenever a therapist starts talking more about themselves than you – you are now the one doing the therapy. And you should probably charge them. Not kidding.
There’s an epidemic of trauma-based therapists in the field of addiction. The issue being that people thing they NEED to be working in the field to maintain their sobriety. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for this place” or “that place saved my life and I owe them”. If a therapist says that – know that they haven’t worked through their own stuffs. If ANYONE says that, know that they haven’t worked through their own stuff. Whenever I have a client tell me that they want to work in a treatment center, I always say to them – “if you feel any different after entering the property than you do before you get there, you’re screwed.” Well that’s harsh! Why are they screwed Jed?! Let me tell you – because if that happens, they’re relying on something other than themselves to stay sober which never works for the long-term. Live on your own for a year and then work in the field and yes, I may be ranting a bit. Let’s get back on point.
3. They are in their second career. This happens for many of us and in my (probably) biased view – is the best category to be in. This type of therapist has an interest in people so they pursue a high level of education in order to be a licensed clinician. They aren’t working through trauma (otherwise known as charging money to other people while they through their own stuffs). They don’t have a ‘need’ to be caregiving in order to feel ok about themselves. They are just interested in people so they become a therapist. Believe me, if I could have made money playing video games or hiking around the mountains or looking for alligators with my best buddy, Jon – I would have. But there are just too MUCH BETTER gamers than myself and let’s face it, if treasure could be found wandering around the mountains or inside of alligators, everyone would be doing it. Miss you Jon. And I think it’s pretty lame of you to get on to the next adventure so ahead of me! Punk. Disregard the last 2 sentences - those were inside jokes meant for me.
Simmer down, readers – We’ll discuss how awesome it is when friends pass away in another post.
The gist of it comes down to this: I want you to be safe. I want to bring up your awareness. I want you to be independent. I want you to be aware. I want you to live and am hoping that if you know the red-flags of a bad therapist, you’ll have a better shot at working through whatever got you in therapy to begin with. The unexpected truth is that there are well meaning yet ignorant therapists out there who do more harm than good. They don’t know it but it’s the truth. Therapy is intended for you to grow. It’s meant to better your life. It's meant to help others.
A couple of last things: A therapist doesn’t have to HAVE a therapist in order to be a good therapist. Therapists are great but not intended to be a constant emotional crutch - even for another therapist. Also, if your therapist is your friend – they are not being effective. If a therapist is not confronting your shit – they are not being effective. If you aren’t uncomfortable with therapy – you are not in therapy. Being uncomfortable is when you grow the most and remember, your life isn’t getting any easier, you’re getting stronger. If you’re therapist is keeping you in therapy for years when your life is fine – you’re being used to fund the therapists car payment. A great way to keep that payment coming in - if you’re in the field of addiction - is by teaching your clients who are struggling with addiction that they have and will always have an incurable DISEASE - thus, they’ll always be in recovery.
Remember the story about the therapist at the conference? Well, She almost fell over when I didn’t agree with her statement about why people become therapists. Not all of us are troubled. In fact, I just had 3 come to mind so if you want a referral, I'm here to help.
Thanks for reading!
Jed Thorpe, CMHC.