I have begun researching literature for my master’s research into harm in therapy. I am reading reams and reams of accounts of harmful experiences as well as many cynical , even disparaging articles about the therapeutic process and the profession as a whole.
As I read all of this, I am reminded of a question I have been asked on more than one occasion – How can you claim to love the profession when you focus on the harm it could do?
This question can come from two angles –
Some might wonder how I can still love therapy, given that I have experienced harm as a client, conversed with many others who have experienced harm, and immersed myself in narratives of harm and sceptical viewpoints.
Others might wonder why, if I claim to love the profession so much, would I highlight its harmful elements, rather than focus on the great contribution it makes to healing and wellbeing in society. Do I wish to damage the profession in some way?
Well, of course I don’t wish to damage the profession. It would be counter-intuitive to spend years training, to laud the profession, to work with dedication with clients, and to endeavour to engage with all elements of theory and practice if that were my intent. It is my belief that, because harm undoubtedly exists in counselling and psychotherapy, engaging with it is our responsibility, as well as being important if we are to honour our integrity as individuals and as a united profession.
Like our individual shadows, if we ignore what lurks in the shadows of the profession, it is likely to pose a greater risk than if we seek to engage with it and address it.
So how about the trickier question of how I can still love this profession, given the energy that I put into exploring its harmful elements? Well, starting with my own experiences as a client, good therapy has had a transformative effect on my self-concept, my self-compassion, my relationships and my outlook on life. I am fully aware that this was made possible by being ‘in relationship’. By being fully accepted, to the point where I no longer needed to fear verbalising my internal experiences, and could hear them for the first time, without judgement or risk of being shamed. To me, that experience is magical. The healing and growth which I know can occur when those necessary and sufficient conditions are met tells me categorically that this is a worthwhile endeavour for me and that the therapeutic relationship is a very special thing indeed.
How do I begin to offset that sense against harm, and place value judgements on the benefits and the risks? I can’t. Not for anyone else but myself (it is for this reason that I believe a client’s autonomy is of paramount importance in the work.). For me, the journey so far has not only been worthwhile, but has been life-changing, and this has to be where my frame of reference grows from.
Of course, my frame of reference is ever-growing. As a therapist, my work with clients informs my view of psychotherapy as do my conversations with other therapists, with clients, many of whom are my friends, acquaintances or colleagues. The literature I read and my online engagement with therapists and clients alike all form part of this great tapestry that forms in my mind when I think of the role of psychotherapy, both for individuals and for wider society too.
Right now I am brimming with enthusiasm for the future of psychotherapy. I feel that the internet has provided a way for therapists at all levels of training and experience, as well as clients and interested members of the public to get involved with conversations around therapy, and I think that this growing dialogue can only help to improve transparency and credibility of the profession. After all, if we are to help clients to become their authentic selves, we must too demonstrate authenticity, and not shy away from the shadow.