Do Therapists Have Therapists?

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The issue of ‘therapy for therapists’ is a curiosity to the public and the subject of books, television shows, and movies.  People are naturally curious about the mental health of therapists (do they get depressed?), how they work on their own issues, and how that influences the therapy that they provide to others.

Before we share data in response to the question “do therapists have therapists?”, first pause and ask yourself why you want to know the answer to this question.  Perhaps you want to know if your psychotherapist is competent – ‘can they help me?’

Alternatively, perhaps this question is tied to a fantasy of imagining your treatment provider in your role.  What it would be like if they were a client?  What would they want or need to talk about?

But your answer to this ‘why’ question is most likely based upon your own biases, needs, and pros and cons of therapy.  Some people want to idealize their therapists, e.g. ‘see them as experts’.  The idea that their clinicians might need or want therapy could feel scary.  These clients may also prefer to view therapy as serving to ‘fix a problem’. If this sounds like you, then you may feel the  need to emphasize problematic symptoms and diagnoses that you’d like improved in your treatment.  You might also feel that there is no longer a reason to be in therapy once your problems improve or you ‘feel better.’

On the other hand, perhaps you view therapy as a pathway towards better understanding yourself and growing.  If the purpose of therapy is self-exploration,  then the process of therapy itself will be beneficial.  Therapy can help you be the best version of yourself, and you will probably also ‘fix’ those problems along the way – because you are changing your relationship with yourself.

We will return to the tension between these two ways of viewing therapy, because they may influence your perception of the statistics that follow.

What Percentage of Therapists are in Therapy?

Pope & Tabachnick (1994) conducted a large national survey about the issue of therapists as patients.  They found that in a sample of 800 psychotherapists, 84% had been in therapy – and only 2 of those respondents found it unhelpful.  That is a highly significant finding.  It shows that a large majority of therapists do have or have had their own psychotherapists at some point, and almost all of them find that it is helpful to go to therapy.

Yes, Therapists Have Their Own Issues

There are some interesting sub-findings in the Pope & Tabachnick study.  Based on this single study, there is strong affirmative support in response to the questions  “do therapists have their own issues” and “do therapists get depressed”.  61% of respondents reported discussing feelings of depression in therapy.  Similarly, another large survey of psychotherapists’ personal problems and treatment by Deutsch (1985) found that half of their respondents reported relationship difficulties or depression.

Yet it is also fair to ask how big of a deal it is that therapists get depressed at times, especially if they are facing these feelings and discussing them with another psychotherapist.  One could easily argue that most people feel sad or down at some point, and that therapists are more comfortable ‘admitting’ this and talking about it in their own therapy because they see the value of doing so.

Good Mental Health and Therapeutic Presence

Interestingly, most participants in the Pope & Tabachnick study believed that therapy should be required by graduate programs and licensing boards.  Despite this belief, only 13% of those respondents reported that their graduate programs had required trainees to get therapy.  In contrast, Geller, Norcross and Orlinsky (2001), editors of the book The Psychotherapist’s Own Psychotherapy found that most European countries required psychotherapists to have a certain amount of hours of personal therapy in order to be eligible for licensure.  Whether therapy for therapists should be encouraged or required, it’s not just survey findings which suggest that therapists who have therapists have good (enough) mental health.

In her writings and most recent book When Psychotherapy Feels Stuck, Mary Jo Peebles, a psychoanalyst and writer, describes a concept called ‘interiority.’  Peebles describes interiority as our knowledge of and curiosity about our own inner experiences (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations).  Peebles observes that therapy (especially reflective therapies, such as psychoanalytic, insight-oriented and attachment-focused therapy) involves two people consciously and unconsciously communicating their interior experiences.  Relatedly, Peter Fonagy, the founder of Mentalization-Based Treatment (MBT), describes mentalization as understanding our own and others’ internal mental states and experiences (‘holding mind in mind.’)

Good therapy often necessitates psychotherapists actively staying present with and ‘holding’ our clients’ inner experiences.  As human beings, it is inevitable that we as therapists can have our own complex internal reactions to these experiences.  Therefore, therapists have therapists to work through our own unprocessed issues in therapy so that we can be most helpful to our clients.  Otherwise, it is a bit like the Titanic – you won’t see the iceberg until it is too late, because the iceberg is too big to be seen in its entirety.  In therapy, as in all relationships, there are two icebergs communicating.

Therapists who have psychotherapists are going to be more in touch with their issues – both in general and in response to specific interactions – and therefore are going to be more able to understand the complexity of therapeutic interactions and help their clients.

So, in response to the question ‘do therapists have therapists’, the answer oftentimes is ‘yes’ (whether currently or in the past).  This is a beneficial finding, and indicates that therapists prioritize good mental health and being aware of how their treatment role as psychotherapist can interact with their own issues.

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Eric- Spiegel - Attune Philadelphia Therapy Group