I don’t know how you do it. I could never do your job – sitting listening, week in, week out, to people’s problems. How do you remember it all? Don’t you get bored, irritated, or want to tell people exactly what you think of them, and what you think they should do? Don’t you want to scream in frustration sometimes?’
I’m sure, like me, you’ve had people – even clients – say versions of the above to you. How honest have you been with your response – when the true answer might be something like: ‘I often don’t remember it all, and yes, yes, yes, yes and yes’?
And how often too have you, like me, had supervisees say to you: ‘We must be mad to do this work’? My answer to that question is invariably ‘yes’ too. Not mad in the clinical sense, but rather in the way that each and every one of us has ‘pockets’ of madness within us – therapists and non-therapists alike. Parts of our psyches – probably more unconscious than conscious – that are unruly, irrational, illogical and, dare I say it, disturbed.
And, arguably, therapists might be thought of as being ‘madder’, or more precisely more in touch (hopefully!) with their madness than most, as it’s generally accepted that it is our own wounding – our own disturbance – that first brought us into the therapist’s chair (or couch) and that led us to decide to train.
And this is why, of course, the requirement for personal therapy to be a mandatory part of any decent therapy training is so essential. For, if we have not undergone a sustained enquiry into our own psyches – including, most importantly, the deepest, darkest recesses of our own madness – then we are at risk of doing harm to prospective clients because we’re likely to project our own disavowed, unexcavated disturbance onto them – so they become the unwell ones, and we can luxuriate in the grandiose delusion that we are well.
One of my roles is as a counselling and psychotherapy trainer, and my ears always prick up with alarm when, upon qualification, students announce they intend to end their personal therapy, because they’re no longer required to be in it. I always say, ‘It is only after qualification that your true personal therapy begins; when you’re attending because you’re choosing to, and understand that you are still very far from being the finished “product” (whatever that might be).’
In my view, ongoing personal therapy is as important as regular supervision for the maintenance of safe, ethical practice. When newly qualified therapists excitedly announce their intention to stop therapy (as if it had somehow been a tick box exercise or an unwanted chore all along), I also wonder how they expect their clients to commit to a deep, sometimes lengthy process, that they have themselves struggled to enter into fully?
Despite the prevalence these days of short-term, cognitive, manualised, ‘evidence-based’ protocols, the craft of therapy is fundamentally a slow, mysterious, non-linear, relational one, in which periods of resistance – longueurs in which nothing much appears to be happening – are a meaningful, important part of the process. We forget this at our own, and more importantly, our clients’ peril.
And, another maddening thing about what we do is that all this is so hard to describe clearly, succinctly and in a way that doesn’t sound like gobbledygook to prospective clients. I like what Tove Jansson – the wise and mystical creator of the Moomins – has to say: ‘All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.’1
John Daniel, Editor