Do Therapists Struggle to Counsel Clients on Trauma They’re Experiencing Themselves?

Published on: 28 Oct 2020
therapist looks traumatized during a session

When you’re working with a therapist, the time is yours. You shouldn’t be concerned or worried about how your therapist is feeling. In fact, if they are speaking about their own problems, this is likely a red flag that you need to find someone else. That being said, the global pandemic has been a collective trauma that likely impacts your therapist in one way or another. This can leave clients wondering, “How can my therapist help me when they’re also struggling?”

To find out how therapists continue to do their job while managing their own experience, we spoke with Talkspace’s team of expert therapists. They each agreed that COVID-19 has been a personal and professional challenge — but that it’s possible to manage their own feelings while holding space for clients. Therapists use tools like self-disclosure, self-care, and self-reflection to continue being effective, no matter what happens in the world.

Connecting Through Self-disclosure

Self-disclosure is a term for when a therapist says something personal about themselves. This is different than a therapist who is talking about their problems inappropriately to their client. Instead, it’s a specific statement that’s meant to establish a stronger bond, help their client feel normal, or encourage their client to speak more freely. Your therapist likely won’t start a session speaking about their own anger due to COVID-19, but if you’re feeling uncomfortable about your own anger, they might say something like, “I can relate to feeling moments of frustration during the pandemic.”

Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC, says, “I’ve been using a lot of transparency when I’m personally in a negative mode. I’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m totally right there with you in how hard this is. In fact, I’m going through extra hurdles right now and might not be in the best spot to help you, but I’m certainly going to give you everything I have left. How does that sound?’”

Bisma Anwar, LMHC, says that when she has self-disclosed, “clients usually feel a sense of relief at not being alone in dealing with this.” This connection can be exactly what you need. A therapist will sit with you in the pain and say, “I get it.”

“Therapy is most effective when there is a human connection and relationship between the client and therapist. This factor makes that connection stronger,” says Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT.

Self-care, Self-care, and More Self-care

When it comes to self-care, therapists practice what they preach. For people who take care of other people, self-care is not an indulgence, but a professional responsibility that protects clients from negative effects. You deserve to have a therapist who has attended to their emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health. Otherwise, therapists are at higher risk for compassion fatigue, which can become a major obstacle for effective therapy.

Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, says she was struggling at one point during the pandemic. After months of helping others, she noticed herself becoming more exhausted and not attending to her own feelings. “I needed to take a break and started implementing self-care techniques on a daily basis. Since then, I haven’t struggled because I am taking care of myself in the same way that I recommend my clients to take care of themselves. Meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, good food, and a good night sleep have helped me to keep going without any more issues.”

Liz Kelly, LICSW, adds, “Self-care is not a luxury. Things like adequate sleep, proper nutrition, taking breaks, limiting my intake of social media, getting physical activity, and mindful breathing are critical so that I can continue to serve my clients.”

Taking a Look in the Mirror

“There are certainly times where I need to take a step back and practice my own self-reflection around what I am experiencing, “ says Dr. Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D., LPCC-S. “While this has been true throughout my career as a therapist, I would say that it is certainly more relevant than ever in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Therapists aren’t robots — we are human and we are impacted the same way that others are impacted.”

If a therapist doesn’t know what they’re going through, they can’t properly attend to what they need. Journaling, body scans, and engaging in their own therapy with a trained professional can help highlight strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, reflecting on their intersectional identities can raise awareness for how the pandemic influences each person differently. As this viral tweet explained, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” A therapist might be treating everyone else like they’re on a super-yacht without realizing that they have privileges that others don’t. We create empathy through understanding ourselves, the differences between us, and the things that connect us.

Lastly, Dr. O’Neill says that some therapists might choose to work with supervision as a form of self-reflection. Supervision involves formally consulting a qualified individual or group to help gain recommendations or insights. Information shared in supervision is confidential and participants follow the same ethical code as your therapist. The identity of the client is also disguised and details only revealed if it’s relevant. Every so often therapists may have blindspots and working collaboratively with other mental health professionals can ensure that you get better care overall.

So, while your time with a therapist is solely your own, it is important to understand that you therapist is human and is dealing with their own set of challenges. Luckily, they have a set of tools to turn to — many of the same ones that they’re recommending to you — that can help them through difficult times. If you’re struggling and feel like you could use the extra support of a therapist, consider online therapy — it’s convenient and you can get started today.

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