Therapist Experience…

Day 11 of my 40 Day Blog Challenge, over 1/4 way through!

Thank you to the 4 amazing contributions to the blog so far. It is so lovely to hear other’s stories of living through real challenge and that these stories really are encouraging others. I’ve got a number of other contributions lined up, but there’s still plenty of room for more! Do get in touch if you feel you’d like to share your story (doesn’t have to be a new topic, as each story and experience is unique).

Today I’m going to attempt to answer a question, (or at least give my personal opinion) which someone emailed to me recently. It’s actually a really common question in the counselling realm and it’s a very well debated one…

Q. Who is better at advising: a professional with years of training or a new professional who has overcome the issue in hand?

In my day job I manage an addictions and mental health service. I am often asked whether I have direct experience of addiction myself. When I enquire as to what the need for this information is, I often get the reply that how on earth could I help someone through addiction if I haven’t any experience myself?  It’s a fair question.

The answer is that they could both be amazing, and they could both be awful! Sounds like a cop-out but let me explain…

Firstly we need to look at the question. As a therapist my role is to hear the individual and display high levels of empathy. Perhaps a misconception of therapy is that it is somehow an advisory service. It isn’t. I would be wary of the therapist who was keen on giving too much advice.  The very best person to find a path through your current darkness is you. Hopefully, a good therapist will get themselves out of the way, and allow the individual the room they need to explore their issues.

The potential difficulty of the therapist identifying strongly with the individual they are supporting, is that the lines can become very blurred. Where does the therapist’s experience end and the individual’s start? There is a real danger that empathy is not experienced because the narrative in the room is not solely the individual’s, but the therapists’ too, and that can lead to the individual feeling they haven’t been heard. The therapist may also be too  connected with their own experience, to hear the uniqueness of the individual’s experience.

That’s certainly not to say that just because a therapist has experienced something similar to the individual that they shouldn’t work together. Many counselling services rely on members who have had direct experience of certain issues; this is particularly true for example, in the drug & alcohol field and in bereavement services such as Cruse. However, it is important to establish that it’s not the therapist’s experience of an issue that helps the other. It is the therapist’s skill of truly understanding the uniqueness of the individual’s experience and providing that person the right conditions to find their own answers and emotional resilience.

The therapist’s experience of an issue should remain in the background, guiding the therapist, helping them to identify certain clues or signs that may otherwise be missed. However, it should remain in the background. As soon as it becomes a tool for direct advice giving, the individual becomes disempowered, reliant on the therapist and will likely struggle to find the lasting change they seek. Lasting change needs to be that which comes from the individual, from within, and not (however well meaning) imposed onto the individual by the therapist.

So, whether a therapist has been qualified for years or is freshly out of college, whether they have direct experience of an issue or not, the most important factor is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If the individual’s story can be heard, and the therapist and individual can work collaboratively together, there is every chance of a successful outcome.

I’d love to hear people’s experience of counselling or therapy. What was helpful and what wasn’t? How much did your therapist share their own experience with you? Do you think it’s important for the person offering you support with a specific issue to have experienced it themselves?





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