Saturday, January 30, 2010

Therapists Are People, Too: Idealizing Your Counselor Will Not Help You

Picture it: you are thirteen years old. You and your friends are hanging out in the mall, sucking down chili dogs and Cokes, standing around trying to look cool (and trying to look like you’re not trying to look cool). You laugh, you play with your hair, you admire your shoes. And then you catch sight of someone out of the corner of your eye and the scene screeches to pause: it’s your teacher. You all giggle, strangely uncomfortable, almost fascinated. Seeing your teacher outside of school – where she’s wearing jeans and holding hands with her husband and answering to her first name – is awkward. After all, don’t teachers just climb into their glass cases at four o’clock and turn into lifeless wax figures until the bell rings the next morning? They don’t have their own lives – do they?

Now fast-forward twenty years or so and imagine a similar scenario. You’re shopping in the mall, still secretly trying to look cool, in your very adult, pseudo mature way, of course. You’re hunting through a stack of sweaters on a table when you hear a familiar voice – a voice you hear often, say, once a week for about fifty minutes at a time. You look up as the voice registers in your brain as that of your therapist. She’s talking into her cell phone as she shops, and you realize she is engaged in an argument with someone. You blush. You want to escape before she sees you – to save you both the embarrassment. It doesn’t seem right, hearing your therapist duking out her own relationship strife. She shouldn’t have any relationship strife – should she?

Does your therapist having an argument with her husband or mother or child equate to the plumber with the leaky faucet, the mechanic who’s overdue for his oil change, or the out-of-shape gym teacher? Or . . . does it simply make her human?

Having spent some time “on the couch” in my thirty-three years, sorting through relationship issues, an eating disorder, and just life in general, I have been guilty of idealizing my therapists in the past. My guess is it’s a somewhat common tendency. We want to know that someone’s life actually works for them, that someone has it all together, because if they don’t, how can we hope to?

I shared this recently with my friend Allen, a clinical psychologist. “It always seemed to me that the coffee table between a therapist and me was the defining border between functional and dysfunctional, between normal and flawed.” Allen’s response was, “Well, I don’t have a coffee table in my office. “ I laughed. He went on to say, “All the good therapists start their training while dealing with their brokenness. We don't hire anyone who hasn't.”

Can that be true? If it is, the implication is profound: therapists are people, too. People with problems. People with heartaches. Flawed, imperfect, blemished people who hurt and bleed and make messes just like the rest of us.

I remember sitting in a movie theater a few years ago, seeing the romantic comedy Prime, in which Meryl Streep plays a psychotherapist who discovers that her 37-year-old client is dating her 23-year-old son. It was a charming film, and Streep did a wonderful job of portraying a professional caught in the ultimate web of conflicted interests. Around the middle plot point of the movie, Streep’s character is shown visiting her own therapist. At this scene, the audience erupted in laughter. It seemed that most people at the movie that night thought it ironic and funny for a therapist to be seeking therapy for herself. But is it?

“I am perplexed by the number of therapists who have never experienced the counseling process for themselves,” says James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., an author and cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Fortunately, many educational institutions that educate therapists mandate counseling as an aspect of their training program. In my opinion, no therapist should be licensed without having experienced the counseling process as a patient. How can a therapist identify with his clients if he has never sat in the other chair?”

In other words, a counselor who seeks counseling is wise. But can we handle that? Are we ready to let go of the impossible ideal of a perfect person on the opposite side of the Great Coffee Table? We have to be. Idealizing one’s therapist is counterproductive.

Look, life is messy. If we are engaged in the process of life – with ebbs and flows and ups and downs – there are going to be problems. There are going to be arguments. And strife. And discouragement. And maybe even depression. The flipside of these realities is that there will also be joy. And celebration. And laughter. If we are human, we will experience all of these things, both desirable and undesirable. Every one of us. Clients and therapists alike.

It is not your therapist’s job to represent some unattainable state of grace to which you should aspire. It is his or her job to come alongside of you and help you achieve the closest thing to a state of grace that we as humans can hope for: inner peace in a turbulent world full of imperfect people.

The state of human brokenness is universal. We’re all in this together.


  1. Jena, this is great! Love the introspection and the great coffee table divide! As a school counselor (cross between a teacher and a therapist!), I'm greatly relieved to be - well, relieved - of the responsibility of perfection!!

  2. Another winner! Thanks for the heads up on the glass cases. They didn't cover that in class yet.

  3. Yes, Mr. Keith, but even if you teachers DID get stored in glass cases at night, I'm sure there would be some tablet that would make you all come to life from midnight until dawn . . . oh, wait, that only happens in museums, not schools. ;-)

    Lisa . . . yes, my dear, you are off the hook! :-)

  4. Jena,

    Excellent article on the therapeutic process and a counselor's role in seeking his/her own assistance. Thanks for referencing me. Have you read, "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!" by Sheldon B. Kopp. His thesis is that as patients we "recover" once we discover that there are no gurus in life including our own therapist. Be well and keep writing! James P. Krehbiel, author of Troubled Childhood, Triumphant Life: Healing from the Battle Scars of Youth.

  5. I appreciate this article. The damaging delusion of idealization has been discussed at
    Bad Therapy? A Disgruntled Ex-Psychotherapy Client Speaks Her Piece blog.

  6. Dear Jena, I loved reading this. I recently had lunch with my therapist from 20 years ago (who was visiting my town) and I was just like the 13 year old you describe; it was uncanny. I didn't want her to use the bathroom or complain about her food or tell me about her life. I wanted her to stay an Oracle of Delphi forever--what a shattering of illusions. Your post brings up one's need to idealize not just therapists but friends, family, PARENTS, lovers....