Many of us who have suffered significant trauma during our childhoods turn to psychotherapy as adults in an attempt to resolve our trauma-related psychological problems. Whilst there are many different kinds of therapy available for this purpose, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), whichever type of psychotherapy we opt for it is crucial that, if the therapy we choose is to be effective, we have a good relationship with our therapist – a relationship that includes rapport, trust, mutual respect and that evokes a feeling of being safe in the client.
Indeed, one study, undertaken by Stamoulos et al., 2016, identified the relationship between the client and the therapist to be the most important factor contributing to a successful outcome of therapy.
Rapport, Trust And Mutual Respect:
One quality in the therapist that helps to ensure a successful psychotherapeutic outcome is his/her ability to draw on his/her own past life experiences and mental health struggles in order to facilitate his/her ability to relate to, and understand, his/her client; this, in turn, can increase insight into his/her (i.e. the client’s) problems, and help in the development of a healthy rapport and alliance solidly and firmly rooted in trust and mutual respect.
Of course, it is nor necessary for the therapist to have experienced the same life experiences and psychological problems as the client, but understanding mental health problems from both the perspective of the therapist and the client enhances his/her credibility as well as his/her ability to relate to the challenging psychic journey upon which the client has bravely embarked.
To build rapport, some therapists may choose to share their own life experiences (though see below for when this may and may not be appropriate) and mental health difficulties in order to help develop the aforementioned trust with their client and to encourage the client to open up more in relation to what s/he verbally discloses about him/herself.
Furthermore, if the client is made aware that the therapist has had his/her own significant psychological difficulties in life and has gone on to overcome them, this may well inspire the client to continue with the challenge of achieving his/her own recovery and help him/her to feel less alone and isolated within the experience of his/her mental suffering.
Sharing Past Experiences With The Patient. When Is It Appropriate And When Is It Not Appropriate?
It is important that the therapist who chooses to use self-disclosure as a way of helping his/her client to get better has undergone appropriate training in the strategy. This is because it is a difficult skill to master and should be used extremely judiciously as there are times in the therapeutic process when it may be advantageous to self-disclose but also times when it may be disadvantageous. Knowing what to share with the client, when to share it, and the level of detail about past experiences to disclose (or not to disclose) to the client is also vital.
When To Share And When Not To Share:
As already mentioned, if the therapist shares his/her own past difficulties with the client it can encourage him/her (i.e. the client) to recognise that others have suffered mental health issues, too, including those whom one might not suspect have suffered such problems. In this way, if the client can be encouraged to grasp the fact that psychological difficulties are a fairly universal experience (despite whatever distorted images of success in life people may try to project of themselves, and hide behind, in public), it can help him/her to feel less of a pariah and social-outcast.
Generally speaking, though, the therapist should avoid sharing psychological difficulties and problematic life experiences that have occurred in the recent past because s/he is likely still to be too emotionally connected to them and therefore unable to analyse them objectively and rationally. Furthermore, talking about one’s own problems can obviously be therapeutic (a good thing if the client is doing the disclosing) so the therapist must be sure to steer clear of the error of disclosing information that is primarily motivated by self-interest.
It is also generally acknowledged that self-disclosure is less likely to be appropriate at the start of the therapeutic relationship and that it is important that the therapist discerningly restricts what s/he discloses to the client.
When we consider all of the above, it is clear that for many people considering a career as a psychotherapist, one’s own past mental health battles may well prove a substantial advantage, not a hindrance.
Stamoulos, Constantina & Trépanier, Lyane & Bourkas, Sophia & Bradley, Stacy & Stelmaszczyk, Kelly & Schwartzman, Deborah & Drapeau, Martin. (2016). Psychologists’ Perceptions of the Importance of Common Factors in Psychotherapy for Successful Treatment Outcomes.. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. 26. 10.1037/a0040426.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).