Should therapists have therapists?

Written by Nicole Caines, R Psych

Before I get to today’s topic, a warning for clients: this post contains some personal information about me. If you would prefer not to know anything personal about me, please skip this one. 

There are certain questions that I am asked frequently. And, for every person that asks, I suspect there are probably 10 more who want to ask but don’t. One of those frequent questions is: “Do therapists have therapists?” (often phrased as “Do you have a therapist?”). While I don’t think therapists should be forced to share their own experiences, it’s a topic I’m willing to discuss openly. 

Today, I’m going to set the record straight. Yes, I do. I have two actually: one for what I like to call “life stuff” and one for EMDR-specific work. I tend to utilize my therapists as most people do: I see them more frequently when I’m feeling particularly challenged or want to address something specific, and I take breaks when I’m feeling like things are well managed. It ebbs and flows as life does. And I think every therapist should have their own therapist. Here’s why:

Below are some points that explain my philosophy of counselling, which is informed by my philosophy of life:

  • There is no shame in struggle. It is a necessary part of life. None of us escapes unscathed. Admitting and attending to our struggles is not a sign of weakness. The vulnerability that is required is a profound type of strength and something that I deeply respect. 
  • We are not meant to figure things out alone. Struggle is what connects us because it is a universal experience. Many of our challenges arise in relationships so it makes sense to figure them out in relation to others. 

If I genuinely believe this, then it would follow that I would utilize counselling in the same way that I encourage others to. Nobody has it all together. If I believe I’m somehow healthier or better than my clients, that creates an unhelpful and toxic power dynamic. Sure, I need to make sure that I have dealt with my own past baggage to an extent that it doesn’t interfere with my work (which is, in itself, a reason to see a therapist). But being a therapist doesn’t exclude me from the same struggles that we all encounter. Recognizing this allows me to walk alongside my clients as an equal and keeps me out of judgment.

Additionally, from a purely practical standpoint, being a therapist creates some challenges that are best addressed by seeing my own therapist. I’m exposed to significant amounts of suffering in my work, and expecting to be exposed to significant suffering and not be impacted is, in my opinion, akin to expecting to walk through water and not get wet. Part of my own counselling work involves addressing the vicarious traumatization and triggering that can inevitably occur through my work with clients. By addressing this, I can continue to do my work in a fulfilling and sustainable way.  I also believe that I can only ask my clients to go as far as I am willing to go myself. So, if I’m asking them to be vulnerable, face fears, and have tough conversations, I had better be willing to do it myself. Additionally, I find the process of engaging in therapy as a client to be hugely beneficial in helping me to understand the client experience. Learning about it in textbooks is no substitute.

The idea that therapists are somehow immune to struggle and to mental health challenges is a dangerous belief that contributes to the stigma that surrounds mental health. So, I’m here to tell you that it’s not true. Struggle and suffering are not unique to any one group. I would argue that they are a core piece of the common human experience. 

Bottom line: Although personal therapy is not typically a training or licensing requirement in most places (though some argue that it should be), I believe every therapist should engage in their own therapy at some point. 

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Nicole Caines