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What does it take to be a good therapist?
Leaving apart professional qualifications – the long training, personal therapy, post qualifying experience – the crux of what makes a good psychotherapist lies in personal qualities.
Some are obvious: a genuine interest in other people – the human condition; the readiness to safely engage with a wide range of psychological disorders, human heartache, illness and trouble; good powers of concentration; a natural ability to relate and work intuitively; patience; calm; insightfulness. A respect for confidentiality and boundaries. It’s extremely important to have an awareness of your own neurotic aspects, and to have worked through your own psychological trouble spots through therapy, and learned in the process how to overcome or cope with them.
It may not sound very demanding, sitting and listening to someone talk about themselves, but of course that’s not all a therapist does in case work, neither during a session nor afterwards. Recently, I’ve found myself using the term ‘patient’ more often than ‘client’. This puts the emphasis on the fact that therapy is a treatment for conditions that require professional attention. In spite of a common and uninformed idea to the contrary, it is – or should be – a completely different experience to talking things over with a friend. Empathy is an important quality in a therapist, as it is in friendship, but without the professional therapist’s detachment and knowledge of psychological processes, it can easily lead to a muddle between one’s own feelings and those of the client/patient.
Above all, the therapist brings to the work of therapy the entire richness (or poverty) of their own life experience and personality – of their own being.
Jung said, of course you must learn the best, study the best. But then, when face to face with your client, you have to put all the theories aside. Because whatever you know from your studies and training, you don’t know this individual. You are going to have to start afresh with each client, and possibly in each session. This is very similar to the Zen concept of the ‘beginner’s mind’ – always coming to each encounter fresh, unaffected by assumptions, or pre-conceptions, or – yes – theories.
He also advised those interested in the work of therapy – and I love this, because it’s so profoundly true – that they would learn very little about the human psyche from experimental psychology. They would do better to put away the scholar’s gown, bid farewell to their study, and wander open-mindedly through the world. There – in the prisons, the psychiatric wards, the hospitals, the pubs and clubs, the brothels and gambling dens, the elegant drawing rooms, offices and boardrooms, the churches, through love and hate and the experience of passion in their own life – they would reap richer stores of understanding than they could from any learned textbook.
Only then could they hope to approach their clients authentically, and with real knowledge of the human heart and soul.