As a professor of counseling, I am often asked by my students, “What is the most important thing that I need to learn if I am going to be an effective counselor?” I reply, “Simply to be yourself!” To some, this might sound like an easy task but to others it might actually be quite daunting. Allowing one’s true self to emerge from behind the “therapist’s mask” while stripping away the persona, if done effectively, can bring with it a great deal of vulnerability. And yes, vulnerability can be scary, but it does not have to be. In actuality, it can be a strength – a therapist’s greatest strength (if he or she allows it to be).
You see, for a therapist to really be effective, he or she must know how to sit with another person and be truly present with that individual. A therapist must be able to sit with a person in the midst of their pain and not shy away from their suffering. To try to move quickly beyond those moments of frustration, anger, deep despair and client confusion would be detrimental to the entire therapeutic process. A therapist must be like a well-trained Sherpa; someone who can walk alongside you and guide you safely through the peaks and valleys of the uncharted landscape of your emotional topography.
I tell all my students training to be therapists that they must never forget who they are – that they are humans first and therapists second. They must learn to use their own life experiences to better their craft. They must learn to use their own life tragedies, their own pain and their own suffering to sharpen their personal empathy and compassion. Without a true understanding of what it means to be hurting, to be lost and to be stuck, an individual never truly has what it takes to help another person heal at the core of their being. For it is in our own suffering and confusion that we learn compassion for the suffering of others. Sure, counseling skills, techniques and theories are a fundamental part of the counselor training process, but these are merely tools and tools are only effective in the hands of individuals who know when and how to use them appropriately. A therapist’s most important skill (empathy) cannot be learned from a textbook, it cannot be bought in a store, and it certainly cannot be borrowed from another. Empathy must come from within and it must come from a place of true vulnerability. It is only when a therapist is truly present and genuinely empathetic that he or she can view the world from a client’s perspective. It is in those moments of deep empathy that real understanding and true validation can occur.
At the most fundamental level, we, as therapists. are service providers. Not only is it our responsibility to meet our clients exactly where they are in their own evolutionary process, it is our ethical duty to do so without judgement. We understand that it can be scary to start new chapters of our lives and we understand the pain that comes along with feeling stuck and wanting to move on beyond certain moments of hopelessness and despair. We, as therapists, may not always be able to relate to one’s particular set of circumstances, nor should we pretend to, but if we truly know what we are doing, we can almost always relate to the underlying emotions that a client might be experiencing. It is in that empathetic connection that we (the therapists) and you (the clients) share one of the most precious connections there is – the human connection.
It is in the human connection that we come to recognize our shared humanity. It is here that we come to realize that we do not have to face our trials and tribulations alone. It is here that we recognize that we truly are social creatures with an innate need to be heard, to be accepted, to be appreciated and to be loved. It is in the human connection that we learn to love and respect one another as human beings. We do this not “in spite” of our differences, but because of our differences. It is in the human connection that we learn to grow, it is here that we learn to trust, not only others, but our own inner voices. Too often, we learn at a very young age that we cannot trust others or even our own inner guidance; the good news is however, that it is never too late to make those changes in our own lives. So, if you find yourself wanting a change, searching for answers, looking for peace or just wanting to have a greater awareness about yourself and your own higher purpose, do yourself a favor! Take a chance, step out of your comfort zone and reach out because therapists are here to help.
Remember, no matter who you are, where you come from and what your life experiences are, YOU are worthy of peace, love and happiness!
MA, MHS, Ph.D., LPC-S