Therapy offers a safe space where you can discuss many personal issues around your life and mental health with a therapist. But do therapists ever need their own therapy?
According to Tracy Kruger, a clinical psychologist and educator at the South African College of Applied Psychology (SACAP), therapists absolutely need therapy but the reason is twofold.
“Transcending into a wise, grounded and mindful psychologist is a fluid process,” she explains. “We continuously need to learn and grow, practise our skills and ensure our work is in line with evidence-based theory. Every day is different, every patient is unique and as much as a list of symptoms and a diagnosis create a frame, our work can be tricky.”
On a personal level, Kruger says therapists may also experience their own challenges. “We are humans, we are juggling many different parts. Thus, our own therapy and supervision is mandatory. In therapy we have the opportunity for someone to hold our human selves. I am reminded of what it is like to be sitting ‘in the other chair’ and how difficult it is to be vulnerable and how brave we need to be to face what is hurting us. Supervision is just as important. This is a space where I can think together with a more experienced psychologist about the most effective way to treat the patients in my care.”
For Chantal Fowler, a clinical psychologist and SACAP educator, therapy gives her the space to debrief “and care for ourselves as people”. It is a wonderfully rewarding job, she says, but psychologists need to take their own care very seriously in order to offer good quality care to others.
Learning to debrief
During her early days as a psychologist, Kruger says she had fantasies of rescuing her young patients from their abusive and dysfunctional family systems. “I wanted to take them home with me,” she says. “There were other times when metaphorically I did take my patients home with me as I thought about them and worried about them and sometimes cried for them.
“However, I learnt quickly that rescuing was not healthy, ethical or sustainable. I also learnt to believe in the inner strength and resilience of each one of the patients entrusted in my care. In each session I try to contain, guide, reflect and impart something from my learnings and experience. I have learnt that I am responsible to my patients and not for them.”
She has learnt that she is responsible to them as a psychologist who cares deeply and will do her best to create a safe place for them to heal. “But I am not responsible for them or their healing. This is their own journey to bravely experience, and in doing this they can own and celebrate their resilience and how they have overcome their challenges.”
It’s through this process of letting go and trusting that Kruger can cope between sessions. But it’s not always that simple she says, particularly when a process is particularly painful.
“I give myself time to let whatever I am feeling completely wash over me with no judgment. I allow the emotion I am experiencing from start to end, and after a few moments I may say a little prayer for them and then I let them go,” says Kruger.
The effect a patient has on the therapist
Working as a therapist is a challenging profession as you are privy to a patient’s distress, mental illness, suicidal thoughts and inner challenges. But Kruger says therapy affects her positively.
“I don’t feel overwhelmed or tired, I feel energised and hopeful. Being a psychologist is an honour and I take my responsibility seriously. It is also rewarding to be entrusted with someone’s story. I use the analogy of someone coming to me with a plaster on their arm, I gently ask if we can take the plaster off and see what is sore and then we work together to apply the right amount of time, healing ointment and care to see if there can be some relief and healing.
“There may be a scar, but it is my hope that it will be significantly less overwhelming and painful at the end of our process.”
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