Doing Your Own Inner Work: The Value of Engaging in Your Own Therapy for Counselors and Ministers

By Sean Harrell on January 30, 2017

I have learned a great many things about helping others from books. I have learned many more from therapy. The helping professions are, to my mind, among the most sacred vocations one may be a part of. We are allowed to witness those experiences that are often kept from the world; to hear what for many has been unsayable, unutterable. We are invited into the most sensitive areas of others' lives, and entrusted with the task of helping and not harming. We are invited to "be with" people and their stories in ways rarely experienced in other areas of human life, and therefore who we are, more than simply what we know, matters.

In our present climate of managed care, and mental health research and training driven in large part by specific techniques and manualized treatments, an emphasis on developing the person of the therapist may be quickly overlooked. Ministers often face similar difficulties, being expected to function as preacher, pastor, marketing strategist and CEO. As such I would like to talk briefly, in this post and a couple to follow, about several benefits of doing one's own inner work—that is, developing oneself through engaging in the process of personal therapy.

Your Own Therapy Provides a Model

I am grateful that the helping tradition that I come from and identify with, that of psychoanalysis, has always emphasized the necessary maturational process involved in becoming a helper. This process has long included, as a cornerstone for those in training, participation in personal analysis with a more senior clinician. However important it is to study theory and technique, I have yet to meet a therapist who would rank such learning higher than the personal exploration and growth involved in his own therapy. Among many other benefits, such therapy is a process wherein you begin to internalize the presence of your own therapist, while at the same time developing a voice and style of your own. Such initial internalization and identification is, to my mind, a necessary first step in learning how to be with others. That is, at the most basic level, participating in your own therapy provides a model that you as a helper can identify with, internalize, and eventually modify with experience. It provides a flesh and bone, embodied example of the theories and techniques that are otherwise limited to the pages of books.

One's own therapist is often the first demonstration of how you may really translate the jargon of psychology, counseling or even pastoral care into fleshed-out speech. Hour by hour you experience the art of helping, moving between silence and speech, exploring and directing, empathy and insight, confrontation and humor. Participation in therapy as patient shows how the notes on the page become the music in the room.

While this may sound like a given, I believe it is of tremendous importance. In the absence of a lived experience of being helped in a therapeutic way, we are much more likely to resort to those experiences, conscious or unconscious, that we have known in years past. Were our parents emotionally distant or absent? Overly punitive? Focused on behavioral conformity? Overly permissive? Such experiences with our own caregivers will inevitably become our default in moments of anxiety and distress with those we are helping if we do not have a new experiential base to work from. In moments of tension, we resort to what we know, and it is certain that we know our past far more deeply (and therefore automatically) than we know our theories and theologies. We need to become aware of our past models as well as internalize new ones.

In addition to modeling the role of the therapist, becoming a patient also allows you to understand the experience of being helped. As a patient, you will likely realize early on the striking ambivalence that comes with being open and vulnerable in the presence of another person. You will experience the surprising realization of the myriad feelings awakened in you toward your therapist: feelings as far ranging as idealization, devaluation, competitiveness, hope, dependence, anxiety, mistrust, love, anger, as well as conflicting wishes to say everything at once and to filter far more than you ever thought you would experience.

To this day, I remember with startling clarity the anxiety that came the first time my therapist sat down with no questions and no notepad, silently inviting me to fill the space with my own words. Although I understood well the theoretical rationale for why she did this, the relief I had felt in answering her structured questions for the first two sessions vanished when faced with the task of saying "whatever comes to mind." This was the first of many valuable experiences that would come to shape who I am now as a therapist; the first of many models that I have taken in, worked with, adapted, digested and have now become an integral part of who I am as a helper.

Categories: Counseling, Vocation