Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Has Your Therapist Ever Been In Therapy?

therapist in therapyIf you have even wondered if your therapist has been in therapy you may be surprised to find that the majority of mental health practitioners actually practice what they preach.

  • A national survey of psychologists found that 400 of 476 or 84% of those responding reported having been in therapy.
  • A national survey of mental health professionals including 219 psychologists, 191 counselors and 192 social workers reported that 85% had sought therapy with no difference across gender or professions.
  • Most dramatically, a questionnaire filled out by 5,000 therapists across 14 countries reveals that despite cultural differences an overwhelming majority of therapists everywhere report having at least one course of personal therapy.

Have You Driven Your Therapist Into Therapy?

Probably not. 

The majority of therapists enter therapy for personal reasons. In a national survey, 60% of mental health professionals indicated personal reasons, 35% personal and professional reasons and 5% professional reasons for entering therapy.

What is interesting is that the personal reasons that therapists give for choosing therapy are much like the reasons given by the general population when seeking help – depression, marital/couple conflicts and anxiety.

Why Do More Therapists Seek Therapy than other Adults?

A study of 8,000 participants revealed that 75% of therapists compared with 27% of American adults actually seek and use therapy.  The reasons for this are likely based on the following:

  • It is possible that the nature of the work itself raises the therapist’s consciousness about the importance of attachment, emotional pain, conflict, the dangers of stagnation and the possibiity of change.
  • Therapists report positive personal outcomes from therapy in terms of improved self-awareness, self-esteem, acceptance of feelings, and enhanced personal relationships.
  • A study of 500 psychotherapists reported significant improvements in behavioral symptoms, cognitive insight and emotional relief. In the same study 95% of the sample indicated no harmful effects.
  • Although personal issues are the predominant reasons for seeking help, therapists consistently and significantly report that being in therapy brings positive professional gains.

What are the Professional Benefits of the Therapist’s Personal Therapy?

In their study of the career development of psychotherapists, Orlinsky and Ronnestad underscore client experience, supervision and personal therapy as the major triad of positive influence on a therapist.

Renowned psychologist Irvin Yalom notes “To my mind, personal psychotherapy is by far, the most important part of psychotherapy training.”

MF Donovan writing from the UK tells us that therapists are not driven to therapy but rather “To work intimately and openly alongside another human being requires courageous and sustained self honesty, something that not many of us can aspire to without the support of therapy and supervision.”

Therapists themselves report that the professional benefits from personal therapy include:

  • Awareness of the importance of a therapist’s reliability and commitment
  • Competence and skill
  • Warmth and empathy
  • Patience and tolerance
  • The experience of being a patient
  • The opportunity to see that therapy can work

In trauma and disaster work, to bear witness and contain the images and pain of those who have faced the unspeakable, a therapist by necessity puts himself/ herself in harm’s way.

The work of Pearlman and Saakvitne underscores that professional support, collaboration, balance and personal therapy greatly reduce compassion fatigue, secondary post-traumatic stress and vicarious traumatization.

Is Personal Therapy a Guarantee of a Therapist’s Effectiveness?

While personal therapy does not guarantee a therapist’s effectiveness and to date we have no comparative study of patients working with therapists who have been in personal therapy, we do have consistent findings that the effectiveness of treatment across orientations is much more than a function of technique. In fact, it reflects “the person of the therapist.”

Why Has Your Therapist Been in Therapy?

Perhaps because he/she understands that as a therapist one’s primary tool is one’s own sense of self in terms of  personality, history, openness to feelings, interpersonal connections, humility, empathy and capacity to hold on to hope.

Perhaps because he/she understands that what a therapist carries personally bears on how he/she practices professionally.

Perhaps because he/she understands that a therapist’s personal therapy is a gift that is passed forward to you….

Additional Reading

Klein, R., Bernard, H., Schermer, V. (2011) On Becoming a Psychotherapist: The Personal and Professional Journey. New York: Oxford University Press.

Photo by psy-com, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.