Why trainee therapists have therapy

Most training institutions require trainee therapists to have at least some personal therapy, albeit the required number of therapy hours varies.

But if you're a trainee, why do only the minimum number? Cost may be a factor. But I want to suggest that engaging in long-term therapy can benefit you personally and make you fitter for practice.

A trainee who is reluctant to be in therapy might want to consider whether they are resistant to looking inside themselves. While learning the theory and thinking about other people's issues might feel manageable, taking a deep look inside ourselves can be more challenging. This is not surprising: looking inside is one of the hardest things a human can do! As an experiment, try doing nothing for 30 minutes - sit on the sofa, eyes open, with no-one there, no TV or phone, no distractions, just do nothing - and see how it feels. For a trainee therapist, this is where the training starts: looking inside to see how you tick, how your mind works, seeing what feelings come up. If you can't sit with yourself in your rawness, how can you be expected to tolerate other people's rawness? Therapy is a way of sitting with ourselves and exploring what comes up.

Another potential red flag is quite subtle. Sometimes therapists try to fix their own problems by helping others: we try to mend in the client the things that trouble us. Let's have a closer look at this:

People tend to see themselves in others. For example, we judge others in the same way we judge ourselves: if I don't believe in lying or stealing, I'm hardly likely to condone this behaviour in others. Similarly, when I give advice, I am typically suggesting what I would do in the same situation; we imagine that what we want for ourselves is good for others. Now put this into a therapy situation. There is a risk that the therapist will end up harshly judging the client or steering the client towards what the therapist sees as the solution. In other words, it can end up a bit like speaking to yourself.

To guard against this, it is vital that the trainee therapist gets to know themselves inside-out. What pushes our buttons? What do we dislike? What are our prejudices? What are our morals? What are our fundamental beliefs? Getting to know ourselves - and trying to accept ourselves warts and all - means we will be less in the grip of our biases and more able to see the client for who they are, as a different person.

A key concept to consider is the ‘unconscious'. This is the idea that we are not who we think we are. We each have a ‘story of self', but this story tends to distinguish ‘what I am like' from ‘what I am not like'; we like to imagine that ‘someone like me' could never do, say or feel certain things - but our unconscious might have different ideas! Therapy is a chance to get to know what we are really like through uncovering our unconscious. Jung called the unconscious ‘the shadow': he said that when we can integrate our shadow - i.e. get to know what's in there and find safe ways to accommodate that material - then we become more whole. He's saying that if we don't investigate our shadow, we're missing out.

So, therapy is about getting to know ourselves and how we tick. The more aspects of ourselves we're familiar with, the less we will be taken by surprise when this topic comes up with the client. If I had been on the receiving end of abuse but never spoke about it, am I ready to hear a client speak about their experience of abuse?

If a trainee believes in the power of therapy, they will see it as a tool for personal growth that increases self-awareness and emotional resilience. It is professionally useful to be on the receiving end of therapy, to experience what the client goes through. It is personally helpful because it is a chance to explore our own issues, feelings and biases. Overall, therapy will make the trainee more fit for for practice.

By Mike Brooks, Counsellor & Psychotherapist