Jessie and me, we had a very happy pairing during our work together as client and therapist. It is important to feel you have a good fit with your therapist - and that doesn’t always mean you love what they say - because part of their job is to give you new ways of thinking about things that may not always land comfortably. A good fit means that you respect each other; the client feels the therapist’s genuineness and care; and the client feels heard. Jessie and I were well-aligned. As it happens in our work, there are times when we personally identify with what our clients are experiencing. Some feel this is a positive thing and while I agree, I also caution that it can create an obstacle. If the therapist has had a similar experience as her client, it may be easy to assume an understanding of her client’s experience. As a therapist, I may “get it” better on some level than someone who has not had the same experience, but I want to emphasize the use of “same”: it’s a similar experience, not the same. Why? Because we are all unique individuals who have different capacities, strengths, limitations, and coping skills. Therefore, not everyone experiences the “same” situation similarly. I often get asked by substance abusing clients if I am in recovery. They want to feel I can “get them”. But I am not. And even if I were in recovery, I don't want to assume that how I came to heal will work the same for my client. Maybe we have different skills, different resources, different supports, different processing abilities.
Here’s another example: when someone dies, people often ask “were you close?” as though the answer to that question determines the amount of empathy or sympathy they should receive. Relationships are complicated. Sometimes not being “close” warrants more grief. Having conflicted or ambivalent relations and then losing that person can create unresolved grief; a lot of regrets, etc. So, we need to learn from that person how they experience the loss. To my previous point: even if the therapist has not experienced loss through death, we ALL have experienced loss: through changes, transitions, relationship endings.
I want to learn from my clients. That’s how I can best serve them: to learn how they have experienced their lives. There are times where I may verbalize a similar experience (with carefulness) towards normalizing their feelings. This requires having a sense of how the client will experience this information, and so it’s usually after a relationship is formed, and it’s not a frequent practice of mine. When done, it’s important to listen for how it has landed. Most clients feel heard through empathy. It’s showing you get it, not necessarily saying “I get it” but through other skills. So here’s a stance you can take or be reminded:
Our clients are happy to help us get to know them.
Err on the side of caution.
Be willing to explore with them.
Be willing to “not know”.
You don’t have to have all of the answers.
Your client is your teacher.
The interesting part of my work with Jessie, is that she wasn’t aware of my identification. And maybe it’s not surprising, because as I said generally I don’t self-disclose unless I have a compelling rationale for how it can serve the client. And maybe my identification didn’t intrude on the treatment as much as I had thought. Her and I were experiencing similar feelings about our relationships. It started to get in the way of my objectivity. So while I thought I understood how she felt, I was also projecting some of my feelings about the relationship onto her and I found myself empathizing with her boyfriend rather than her. Although I didn’t assume how she was feeling, this was an instance where my experience was getting in the way of her. I knew I needed to look within because I was aware of what was happening, but at that point in my career I wasn’t yet skilled at navigating my emotions so that I could be more aligned and attuned to Jessie.
The idea here is that there are various ways that our own stuff intersects with our clients’ stuff. And although I said that it was early in my career, I am still faced with this as a seasoned professional. Working with other triggers feelings and reactions, it comes with the territory. So whether seasoned or beginner status, therapists must constantly strive to understand why we are reacting as we are; why we are responding as we are, and making sure through the process of self-awareness and self-reflection that we use our identifications of “similar” experiences to tune into, but not assume our clients’ emotional and lived experiences.
Just as a side note, I worked with Jessie for several more years. It turns out my momentary empathic failure didn’t ruin our work. In fact, we continued to work on her relationships (as I simultaneously worked on mine).
Want to hear more? Check out Episode 2 of "What Would Dr. Meyers Do".