In graduate school I was taught to be as neutral as possible as a therapist.
I was trained to identify my own biases and opinions, and put them aside.
My textbooks talked about being a “blank slate” or a “mirror” during therapy sessions, with the purpose of reflecting the client back to themselves.
The therapist as a unique human is invisible.
This never felt right to me or made much sense. Even if I worked to leave myself out of the room, I knew parts of myself would unintentionally seep through.
Furthermore, didn’t I also need parts of my personality, beliefs, and values to be an effective therapist?
The invisible therapist myth runs counter to what we know is the number one predictor of therapeutic success: the client-therapist relationship.
If I am to strip myself of the things that make me uniquely me, how can I create a genuine relationship?
During graduate school, I read “Letters to a Young Therapist” by Irvin Yalom. I lapped the book up and couldn’t believe how much of himself he brought into the therapeutic relationship.
Still, I didn’t really know how to do that. I was scared - scared of doing something “wrong,” of making an unintentional mistake, of violating some obscure ethics code. I was living a fault-proof therapist mentality - doing everything I could to not make a single mistake.
And thus, I didn’t risk figuring out how to be myself in session.
As I moved through my internship, I was assigned clients. There were times that clients were wildly inappropriate or rude to me. In supervision, my supervisors acknowledged the difficulty of experiencing such things, and then quickly jumped back to how to help the client.
It began to feel like my career as a therapist was simply repeating the experience of my childhood: do anything and everything you can to keep the unpredictable person happy. It’s all about them. Your own emotions and thoughts don’t matter.
I was horrified to think I may have subconsciously picked therapy as a career because it mirrored the unhealthy environment I was raised in (similar to repeating unhealthy patterns in romantic relationships).
I started looking at these concerns during therapy sessions with my own therapist.
We explored different ways of stepping into my professional identity.
When I started an art therapy private practice, I took advantage of the freedom and made more decisions from my core.
I selected a supervisor who truly had my back and helped me to explore how to be myself in session (shout out to Nicole Randick). We had many discussions about how to discern when to share about myself and when not to.
I began addressing behaviors that impacted me in therapy sessions with clients. For example, after a male client said flirtatious comments to me in session, I had a discussion with my supervisor about it. She helped me figure out how to address it with the client, while also using it to his therapeutic benefit.
In the beginning, I was seldom able to both catch and address things in session. I needed time to process what happened and decide how I wanted to respond. For example, a client made a derogatory remark about me during a therapy session. I didn’t know how to handle it during the session, and so I did nothing.
The invisible therapist myth would say I did a good job. That my feelings don’t matter.
But they do. I teach my clients that feelings are valuable information about underlying needs.
The same holds true for me as a therapist.
My feelings are valuable information (I write more about this in my essay about off-sensing). A strong feeling or response means there is something deeper to explore with the client - either a deeper truth within the client or a pattern to be uncovered.
If we return to the example of my client who made a flirtatious comment, I was deeply uncomfortable when he said flirtatious things. That deep discomfort was key information. When I addressed it with my client later, we discovered that he uses flirtation when he wants to be liked by a woman. He had no understanding that this could be uncomfortable for a woman.
How are we to bring true change to individuals, our communities, and our systems if we remain invisible therapists? If we stay silent, we miss valuable opportunities to address actions that clients may not know are harmful to others.
These are not easy conversations, but they are the conversations I want to be having. I want to gently explore and get to the root of behaviors and beliefs, in a way that feels safe and enlightening for the client.
For my male client, he was able to learn insightful information about himself (that he uses flirtation to be liked), which motivated him to learn new ways to interact with women.
In addition to being more visible in therapy sessions, I also began making changes in my practice to honor my needs.
The invisible therapist myth would say that our practices need to be tailored to the needs of the client.
However, we cannot meet everyone else’s needs. We cannot serve everyone (a point I echo in my post about not setting therapy fees on the market average).
We can center ourselves in our practice. We can honor what we need to do the work we do well.
For me, that meant a series of changes.
I changed my work schedule to fit my lifestyle (I see clients in the afternoons so I can write in the mornings; I only see clients Monday-Thursday).
I limited the number of clients I saw each day (3 max) to honor my energetic needs.
I created a no-cancellation policy, so that I could have consistent meetings with clients and reliable income.
I declined working with potential clients who made me uncomfortable (You can read more about my changes here).
As I honored myself more - became more VISIBLE - I became bolder as a therapist. I felt more comfortable helping clients examine all aspects of their lives.
Instead of pretending to be a blank, neutral, invisible “ear” (the word itself further dehumanizes us as therapists), I now own that my values and beliefs inform and impact the therapy I provide. I now state them plainly for clients to read (you can check them out here).
I chose to write on this topic because I recently reviewed a journal entry I wrote a year ago (when I had a caseload of 40+ clients and was seeing about 25 hrs of clients every week). I wrote that I was “feeling exhausted” from so strongly “regulating myself” as a therapist, and that I had “lost touch with my power.”
That’s what happens when we buy into being invisible. It cuts us off from our power.
From all of our insights, feelings, values, and beliefs.
The invisible therapist myth traps us, “You’re either a blank slate therapist or a wildy oversharing, unethical therapist.”
I am neither. You are neither. And we can use who we are to navigate the middle.
Creating a thriving practice that honors your needs can be challenging. If you need more support, I provide consultation for therapists creating their ideal private practices.