As originally posted on Examiner.com
Since I am a relatively young clinician, new patients are sometimes concerned that I might not be able to understand their problems. After all, younger people don’t have as much life experience. But while the issue seems to be about age and experience, it is usually really about feeling safe. In this post, I hope to address this common concern, and explain why therapy can be effective even when the clinician has not experienced the same life events as a new therapy patient.
Obviously, we can’t expect therapists to have personally suffered from every issue they treat. If that were the case, the only competent therapists for some issues would be practicing from the psychiatric facilities in which they, themselves, were confined. I think most people would agree that therapists can competently treat psychological disorders if they have a solid theoretical grounding, understand the relevant etiologies and treatment approaches, and have had some clinical experience working in that area.
While it may be true that a therapist doesn’t need to have suffered from a particular disorder in order to treat it, what about life events and experiences? How could a young therapist possibly understand what it’s like to be facing retirement or to go through a divorce with messy child custody issues?
Well, the paradox of trying to find a retired therapist to treat retirement-related concerns is pretty obvious, and furthers the point that therapists can and often do treat issues that they haven’t personally experienced. The same goes for working with victims of violent crime or helping someone who is facing a terminal illness.
People seek therapy to address all sorts of issues and concerns. No therapist can be specifically trained to deal with each individual possibility. Even relatively common experiences such as graduation, marriage, divorce, the death of a loved one, or childbirth are touched with individual differences too numerous to count. When we consider the many ways that a person’s history might intersect with events in his or her life, it becomes apparent that people can experience even very common life events in incredibly different ways.
At the same time, we are all human, and our similarities are simple and profound. We don’t need to have lived another person’s life in order to gain an empathic understanding of how that person might feel. We have all experienced fear, love, joy, anger, and sadness. While none of us can ever completely understand the inner world of another person, learning to find connection in the midst of our differences is part of what healing, growth, and emotional intimacy are all about.
A well-trained therapist will be able to step outside his or her own experiences to appreciate what it might be like to be in another person’s shoes. Even if I, as a clinician, have been through similar life events as another person, it doesn’t mean that I automatically understand that person’s perspective. I don’t automatically know how he or she feels about those events or how they have influenced that person’s life. In fact, I intentionally assume that I know almost nothing about any experience that a patient shares in therapy. Therapy is as much about discovery as it is resolution. We all like to think that we know how we feel about things, or how past events have affected us. But often we are very good at hiding uncomfortable truths even from ourselves. Therapy is often about uncovering those truths and learning to work with them in the context of a relationship with another person.
Concerns about a therapist’s age or experience are often really about feeling safe: safe to explore, to trust, and to enter into a new endeavor that will likely cause a person to feel vulnerable before they are able to feel strong again. For many, this is the first time that they are seeking therapy and they don’t know what to expect. They might not have any idea how therapy could be helpful, or they might be afraid that nobody – much less someone younger than them – will be able to understand their problems and concerns. Such anxieties are perfectly normal, and usually pass once the person has felt – perhaps for the first time in a very long while – that he or she has been understood by another person. When it comes to that, any therapist who is willing to listen, to stretch beyond his or her comfort zone, and to go with his or her patient to the difficult places will be up to the job.
When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air.”
– Stephen R. Covey