The One Question Most People Do Not Ask a Therapist
If you Google “Questions to ask a prospective therapist” you will get a lot of good advice. The various sites, including popular magazine Psychology Today run down the list of reasonable and expectable questions to ask, especially regarding training and experience. People routinely, and understandably, ask “Have you treated people with problems like mine before? And, do you think you can help me?” Other frequently mentioned questions pertain to scheduling, fees, insurance, and cancellation policies. All of this is important, of course. But to my mind, the most important question after qualifications and credentials is, “Have you been in therapy yourself?”
Over the last 10 years I have been truly taken aback to discover how many therapists, even at the doctoral level, had not had their own in-depth treatment. Even many psychodynamic clinicians, knowing that Freud considered it mandatory to have your own psychoanalysis, have not been in any type of therapy themselves. Why? The most frequent answers are “money and time.” Younger therapists, in particular, feel burdened by large student debt payments that older therapists did not incur. Paying down this debt in the face of continuing rate reductions by insurance companies (see my previous blog) and the likelihood that they will have to pay for their own treatment out of pocket, make it less likely that they will do so.
In the heyday of psychoanalysis virtually every therapist went into some type of treatment. Not to do so was considered negligent. Having your own treatment was considered essential to understanding how the patient feels being on the other end and, more importantly, the only way to adequately explore the therapist’s own issues and history.
Therapists who have not been in treatment themselves may believe they are sufficiently self-aware, but it is only a matter of time before one or many clients start pushing hot button issues, and strong emotional reactions, that the therapist was not expecting. Flooded with emotion, the common therapist defense is to pull back and work at containing themselves. While this may work at times, and all of us have done it, it can lead to a stifling withdrawal from the therapy relationship for the purposes of maintaining the therapist’s equilibrium—not the client’s.
So by all means, ask any prospective therapist about the aforementioned issues regarding credentials, experience, payment and scheduling. But do not be afraid to also ask if he or she has ever had their own therapy, and for what duration. A therapist who is not afraid to look at him or herself is more likely to be able to see who you really are, and also better able to manage the feelings that inevitably surface in the therapeutic relationship.