Sometimes psychologists and other kinds of therapists are portrayed as neutral and distant figures who see their clients in a detached, mechanical kind of way and whose humanity seems to be a mystery to the people they work with. There are some reasons for this.
Therapists are trained to draw ‘boundaries’ between themselves and their clients that are different than the relationships they have in their personal lives. In our personal relationships, there is an expectation of a give-and-take which balances the relationship between the two people. In therapy, it is different. I don’t expect you to help me or take my feelings into account. I work for you, and it’s my job to place the focus on what you want and need without judgment. It’s a unique situation in which you share your most personal thoughts and feelings, but the thoughts and feelings I share are done so sparingly and in an intentional way only when I think it is beneficial for you and advances us toward the goals you set when you started working with me. I work for you. You don’t work for me. In a sense I am your employee and you are in charge of your own life. Yet in another sense, I am in charge of the relationship we have and I have to use my judgment to decide what is going to get you closer to where you’d like to be.
Therapists differ in the degree to which they talk about themselves or share their personal thoughts and feelings. Some believe in being a completely blank slate and do not disclose anything about themselves or what they are really thinking about the person they are working with. This is not the way I approach therapy. Because our therapeutic relationship is central to the success of our work, there has to be some disclosure and sharing of feelings for it to be real. At the same time, I would never share myself in the kind of personal way I would with my spouse or very close friends. That would not be appropriate or helpful for you. However, in the course of my work with my clients, I will share some personal information, experiences, thoughts, and feelings if I judge it would be helpful and appropriate. To not do that would be too rigid and black-and-white, and I think those qualities are contrary to mental health.
Acceptance and what therapists call ‘unconditional positive regard’ are important to successful therapy. It’s important to me to exhibit those qualities, and I can say that when I am with my clients, that is what I genuinely feel. That does not mean I would personally make all the choices or hold all of the views that my clients do. We are different people and to expect that you and I line up exactly on all of our values would be impossible. But I want my clients to live the kind of life they want to have, and I work hard to help them get it.
What do I think about you? At the broadest level, I think you are an imperfect and striving human being just like me and because we have agreed to work together, I have a share in moving you toward where you want to go. Sometimes I may be frustrated by you. Sometimes I may admire you. Sometimes I may be anxious or sad for you. Sometimes I may be proud of you. Sometimes I may be thrilled and happy for you. Sometimes I may think that we could have been friends if we met in a different context. Sometimes I may disagree with decisions you make. Oftentimes I may think about you between sessions. The degree to which I share any of this with you is guided by one thing. Would it be helpful? If so, I have no problem sharing it and will use it to advance your goals. If not, I will keep it to myself. In a therapeutic relationship, I use my feelings as important pieces of information that I use to ask myself about what may be going on with you and to inform myself about how best I can help you. If you are very concerned about what I think about you, that might be something that is important for us to talk about in terms of how it may inform some of the difficulties you are having in your life.
In practice, I have never found any personal feeling about a client which interferes with our work. Therapists by nature are caring and non-judgmental people or they won’t survive long in this business. It’s natural for you to be curious about what I’m thinking or feeling. It’s okay for you to ask. I will tell you when it’s helpful and I’ll be honest about when it’s not. It takes experience for a therapist to be himself or herself but yet maintain a professional relationship that has both distance and deep closeness.
Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.