“Do my needs matter as a therapist?” It seems like a question with an obvious answer.
But it isn’t always.
I had an individual therapy session with a client following a therapy group. She was upset because she found the group difficult (please know I have changed all identifying details to protect privacy).
I owned the components I could have done better. I apologized and explained what I would do differently next time. She started to calm down, but then her mind rushed back to specific painful moments in the group and she hurled accusations at me, “I looked like an idiot in there because of you.”
The group had clearly brought up wounded parts of herself and was activating painful beliefs and patterns. She was so upset that it was not in her best interest for me to point out how her emotional response to the group was due to her painful past. The best I could do in that moment was to help ground her as she continued to sling accusations at me (likely a form of protecting herself and a coping mechanism she developed over the years).
Although I knew her remarks actually had nothing to do with me, they still stung. As I reflected on our session that night, I thought about how I took full ownership of my actions. I also tried to address her needs. I thought about how my needs (understanding, listening, emotional safety, etc.) were not met in that session. As most therapists would argue, it also wasn’t the place for those needs to be met.
It’s part of what makes life as a therapist so emotionally demanding.
There is a power differential in a therapeutic relationship. It is a paid relationship where one person comes to another seeking something. Part of the therapeutic agreement is that I agree to use therapy time for the benefit of the client. This is true of most business transactions, like when I pay my accountant to do my taxes. The time we spend together in our meeting is about my finances.
So, a therapy session is not a place where all of my needs will be met, but they still matter. Both can be true at the same time.
I am aware that not all of my needs are met in a therapy session, but I can intentionally attend to those needs in other ways after. I am not an invisible therapist. Even in the moments where a client hurls insults, I pull on my skills and experience to discern how I want to respond for the best interest of the client and myself.
When my needs are not met in a session, I have multiple options. Sometimes I address the issue in the moment. Sometimes I go home and reflect on the matter. I seek counsel and journal my thoughts. Sometimes I choose to circle back at a future session when the client is calm. Sometimes I choose not to address it and meet my needs myself or with my community. Sometimes I decide that I will need to refer the client to a therapist who might be a better fit.
There is not a clear answer for every situation. Therapy and mental health does not work like that. I have to navigate the grey area of helping my client, while also ensuring my own needs are met.
I provide consultation to therapists who want to honor their
emotional, mental, and financial needs.