The Human Side of a Therapist, Personally and Historically

By Barbara Dewar

I wish to share with you my thoughts on being a therapist from the perspective of my clinical experience with my clients. These thoughts were seeded early on in my practice and have grown steadily over the course of my work as a therapist for twenty years.

I have found a kinship with the views held by the intersubjective movement in the psychoanalytic literature. I believe that any theory in the field of psychology comes from a deeply held private place and is based on subjective experiences that are put into words (belly first, theory later), rather than objective fact. However, we often learn the net results of theorists’ work and not the private process they experienced to arrive at their conclusions. Similarly, in our practice we often rely on these conclusions and teachings without exposing our own personal emotional processes. I believe our clients need to know that their therapist has also taken a therapeutic pathway for them to feel understood, secure, and connected. How this disclosure is made is a delicate art.

I hope to describe to you the work of a therapist from a human point of view to dispel the fears, myths and stigmas that have historically become attached to a psychological worker. I dream that anyone wanting improved emotional health would consider it a normal everyday option to comfortably make a call to his or her local healer and begin the process of continued self-discovery.

As healers we have learned to use theories as objective facts in an effort to keep ourselves separate from our clients. This distance we cultivate can establish and maintain an unequal relationship between the therapist and the client. When we subscribe deeply to a theory, we don’t have to feel the vulnerability of the learning process in the room. How did this come about? We give answers that are based on theories because it is embedded in us to do so. We are following the traditional scientific paradigm. Around the time of the Cartesian model, the scientific tradition of observation, hypothesis and conclusion began to spread like wildfire. I believe that it became entrenched in our thinking, as it offered us a way to distance ourselves from human suffering, which was often unbearable in earlier time periods; for example, during the Black Plague and the resulting massive loss of life. What became ingrained in our collective unconscious was the illusion that we have objective answers , from the outside, truths derived from scientific evidence, and that it is right for us to keep a neutral distance from our clients’ pain and ultimately our own pain. This approach represents, in itself, a subjective way of coping, or a survival mechanism, and as such is a symptomatic way to hide our internal suffering which then becomes a block to our infinite inner life that contains all. So when we ask a therapist for answers to our problems and are given answers, we emerge still feeling a distance from our inner life. We are appeased though because we have taken the traditional, familiar and safe route, that is, we have accepted looking outside of ourselves for answers, not searching for them in our deep intuitive selves. In this model, the need to follow tradition fuels the client’s inner feeling that he or she is ‘defective’ and powerless when problems come up and this subsequently ensures the client’s dependency on the professional for answers. This often promotes authoritative, patriarchal and hierarchical abuses. We are much more hesitant to go for help when we are embarrassed that we are a wrong that needs to be corrected. This is a disease model, rather than a pathway to continued health.

If I do not believe in theory as a source of absolute knowledge, how then do I work with my clients? What techniques are effective and what end results can be achieved? How do I conduct an ethical practice that involves honesty and integrity? The best way that I can explore this with you is to offer to attempt to put into words my own personal process.

When I sought therapy in my early twenties, without knowing it consciously, I was looking for relationships where I sensed genuine warmth and caring. I had to sequester many of my deep emotions due to growing up in a family culture that had learned over generations to fear visible vulnerabilities. The technique used in therapy didn’t matter so much as the kindness, humanity and empathy of my therapist and later, trainers and supervisors. I was perceptive and already knew much about the nature of human beings. I came to realise that what I needed in order to heal my fragmented centre was to build my sense of self in the matrix of relationships. I did not want answers, but a loving validation of what I already knew to be truths inside me. I needed my feelings accepted, both joys and pains, so that I could better live with them in my everyday consciousness.

The process of the birth of my inner self became my knowledge and backdrop for being a therapist. I observed that I never lost my individuality by following the theories of my mentors. I was left intact by my mentors’ struggles to attune to who I was. For them to be able to do this, to have the necessary empathy to attune to my inner world, they needed to hold an awareness of their own fallibility and vulnerable nature while in the room with me. This is easier said than done. This involves the healer’s introspection and carefully chosen self-disclosures, which can personally be difficult. Introspection involves holding the pain of one’s childhood, and the suffering of many historical time periods. If as therapists we view this process as humiliating or wrong in some way, we will try to avoid it by becoming experts and give answers that sound like objective facts to our clients. If as therapists, we can embrace this suffering, then we will have room to tap into our deep intuitive centre and find the right words for the unique individual in front of us. The client sees our struggles for attunement (which may result in a display of our fallibility that then needs to be talked about and owned), and when understanding is reached the client feels acknowledgement for their individuality.

With this model our clients learn how to find answers from within themselves. The therapist is no longer an expert but becomes, along with his or her clients, an equal therapeutic partner on the path of self-discovery.