In my early thirties, I was going through a really tough time. I was suffering from chronic fatigue and lingering illnesses while trying to hold down a high-pressure career as a Consulting Engineer. I would wake up in a state of dread about the day ahead; deadlines, meetings, and seemingly endless demands on my time and energy that I couldn’t keep up with. I couldn’t understand why my health was suffering so terribly or why I was so emotionally messed up.
I was fed up with feeling sick, exhausted, and highly strung out. I needed answers.
A dear friend of mine recommended a therapist who had helped her navigate her way through her own huge challenges. I was willing to try anything and anyone. I just needed to find some relief from my pain – both physical and emotional.
I booked a session with the therapist. The first session seemed to go well. She seemed to understand my predicament with empathy and had some strategies to help me process things and move forward.
She wasn’t afraid to challenge me when I needed to be challenged. And I appreciated that because as hard as it is, I’ve always been willing to own my own role in my messed-up-ness.
The sessions were going well until one day, in about our fourth session together, I was telling my story about a situation that was playing out in a close relationship in my life (with someone who also happened to be going to this therapist – probably my first big mistake right there). I was explaining my perception and how I was feeling about it, albeit quite tearfully, when she interrupted me abruptly and said very forcefully:
“That’s not your spiritual truth!”
I was quite taken aback and didn’t quite understand what she meant. I didn’t know if it was my ‘spiritual truth’. But in that moment, the words I was speaking were my personal truth as I understood it. I was talking about how I was feeling and those feelings felt very real in that moment.
She continued to challenge me forcefully and I started to feel like a naughty school child. It seemed like she was angry with me and I spiraled into a cloud of shame and guilt. Why was I in trouble? What did I do wrong? Was I wrong to be feeling what I was feeling? Why was she so upset with me? How did I get myself into this situation?
Needless to say, I never went back.
I felt so hurt by that episode that I never booked an appointment with her again. The last thing I wanted was to feel more shame and pain about my situation. I left her office feeling much worse than I did when I entered. Why would I pay big dollars to feel even more crap about myself? As if I wasn’t feeling bad enough to seek therapy in the first place?
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that Coaches and Therapists have a duty of care to challenge their clients when they’re stuck in victimhood and blame. I’ve since done a lot of work on myself – and also completed my own Life Coaching Certification – and I can (kind of) understand what she might have been getting at back then. But I wasn’t ready to see it at that time. I was stuck in so much emotional pain and trauma that it was impossible to see things logically.
I needed her to be gentle with me. I needed her to validate my feelings. Maybe after that, I would have been more open to seeing things from her perspective.
I’ve since had the privilege of working with some wonderful therapists who have (thankfully) been able to guide me gently back to emotional sanity and a state of inner peace and harmony. But it was a process, and it took time. Now I’m able to see that my incident with the ‘bad therapist’ was part of my necessary journey of cultivating deep empathy and kindness for all of my coaching clients who I now work with.
Now, I don’t have a background in counseling or therapy, so I can’t speak to the professional requirements of therapists. I’m speaking below simply from my personal experience with different therapists, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (which of course is always open to interpretation and personal experience). Below are the qualities that I personally crave from a therapist. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below if you agree or disagree with me.
THE 5 QUALITIES I CRAVE IN A GOOD THERAPIST
1. Validate My Feelings.
So often, we don’t feel ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ by the people closest to us, and part of the reason we go to see a therapist is to have our feelings validated. After that validation, we can more easily move onto solutions and strategies, but not before our feelings have been lovingly witnessed. At the core of most emotional pain is a feeling of unworthiness. Having our feelings validated is the first step in being able to feel good about ourselves and hence moving towards healing.
2. Practice Deep Empathy.
It’s easy to tell when a therapist doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re feeling or going through. And it’s hurtful when they brush it off or tell you “It’s not as bad as you think.” Yes, it is as bad as I think, or I wouldn’t be in therapy. It’s your role as a therapist to find empathy for my feelings and try to understand how I might be feeling what I’m feeling. And then I’ll be much more willing to listen to your suggestions about how to move forward.
3. Listen Without Taking Sides.
We all have the tendency to go into blame and victimhood when we’re feeling wounded. And a therapist doesn’t do us any favours if they agree with everything we say and complain with us about how terrible the other person is. That just keeps us stuck in our ‘story’ and is not helpful. The good therapists I’ve worked with have always allowed me to speak my mind about situations. They listen, empathise, and validate my feelings, and maybe challenge me, but they never take sides. In this particular session with my therapist, it felt like she was taking sides with the other person in my relationship issue. She might not have been, but it certainly felt like it in the way she was challenging me. In order to heal and eventually move out of victimhood, we need our therapist to hold a gentle but completely neutral and unbiased stance. Otherwise, the trust is broken and there can be no healing.
4. Challenge Me When I’m Ready – And Not Before.
We all need to be challenged and learn to take responsibility for what we’ve created in our lives, when appropriate. Therapy wouldn’t work without a healthy dose of challenge. But nothing good comes from being told to “Stop playing the victim”, particularly when you’re still very much feeling victimised and you’re in need of empathy and validation. Don’t challenge me until you’ve worked through steps 1, 2 and 3 above. Or I’ll go into shame and guilt and never come back.
5. Be Gentle and Kind.
If I’ve come to see you, it’s because I’m suffering and I really want to do something about it. I don’t want to feel bad. I’m not willingly feeling crap just to get attention. I’ll be much more able to find my own healthy perspective when you treat me with respect, kindness, compassion, dignity, and appreciation.
What are your thoughts? Have you had any experiences with therapists, both good and bad, that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
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In service to helping you live your brightest life,