In a recent article several amazing mental health professionals offered advice for new clients to therapy. One of the main themes was the importance of the therapist-client relationship. In my view, that relationship is often misunderstood. Clients may wonder why the therapy relationship is important. Isn’t psychotherapy just a service one receives? Do therapists really care about their patients? In this article, I’d like to delve a bit more into the therapeutic relationship, incorporating both my experiences as a therapist and a client in therapy.
In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth? Carl Rogers
I think us therapists, and clients too, can get a bit too caught up in theories and treatment orientations. Is it better to lay on the couch for years of psychodynamic therapy? Is a cognitive therapist best? Or is EMDR the cure for lingering traumas? It can be tempting to focus on therapeutic approach and the credentials after a therapist’s name, yet study after study points to the therapeutic relationship as one of the primary curative factors in therapy. Clearly therapist education, expertise, and experience is important. Yet what is more important is how the therapist and client connect, collaborate, and experience one another in the process of therapy.
Here are a few reasons I view the therapeutic relationship as important:
Feeling safe and understood
Typically, people do not go to therapy to have the kind of conversations they can have with friends in a coffeeshop. Clients engage in treatment to have a space to bring up topics they don’t feel safe raising elsewhere: anxiety, shame, past abuse, ambivalence about their marriage, sexuality, aggressive impulses, and the list goes on. In order to broach these very sensitive topics clients must feel a degree of safety with their therapists. If you don’t feel safe with your therapist, don’t force yourself to self-disclose. Instead, you might comment on your desire to share something important as well as the hesitation you feel. A thoughtful and caring therapist will help you process both sides of your dilemma.
Engaging in the therapy process
Engaging in therapy includes everything from attending your sessions regularly and on time, to completing homework if your therapist assigns it. Regardless of the type of psychotherapy your therapist practices, you are much more likely to commit to therapy and accept their help if you have a good relationship with him/her. A good relationship includes feeling safe, understood, and appropriately guided. You should also feel like there is room to give your therapist feedback. Therapists are human and will say the wrong thing or make a recommendation that doesn’t fit for you. Having a good relationship means you’ll feel free to speak up, resolve the issue with your therapist, and continue your treatment.
The relationship as a microcosm of your world
It certainly depends on what brought you into therapy in the first place. Sometimes clients engage in time-limited therapy to deal solely with life transitions or very specific symptoms, such as phobias. Yet, many times the challenges you experience in your life will also show up in therapy. Say you tend to take care of others’ needs while frequently neglecting your own. Over time this dynamic will show up in therapy and you will feel pulled to caretake your therapist. Or you might find yourself repeating a familiar pattern in relationships – perhaps you idealize people first, then find flaws in them and reject them. You will repeat the same process by initially seeing your therapist as infallible then feeling angry and disappointed when they make a mistake (which is inevitable). The difference in psychotherapy, is that your therapist can help you see this pattern and explore it.
The relationship as a reparative experience
To follow on the previous point, once you’re aware of a pattern you’re repeating you can experience a different outcome with your therapist – hopefully a healthier one. Perhaps, as a result of processing your experiences, you’re able to start expressing your feelings to your therapist rather than escaping the relationship. This signals an important shift you can apply directly to your other interactions. Now you’re able to feel empowered to give feedback to important people in your life which improves the quality and longevity of your relationships.
On an even more important level, the reparative experience in therapy could be an opportunity to receive what you’ve never had in your life. Many clients are in treatment because they never felt loved as children or accepted for who they are. This lack of caring leads to prolonged experiences of shame and worthlessness and may in fact be the root of many psychological disorders. Therefore, receiving genuine care from your therapist can begin to heal past traumas and rewire your brain. On a personal note, I’ve written about my experiences of a caring therapeutic relationship.
So in parting, psychotherapy is more than just a service – it is an important and healing relationship. And good therapists care deeply about their clients. It was Carl Rogers who developed his necessary conditions for therapy. And I agree. In my view, it is impossible to do the work of therapy effectively without genuinely caring for our clients. If you’re looking for a therapist, choose one who values the relationship. If you’re not sure how to assess this, ask them these questions.
Katrina Taylor, LMFT-Associate. 512-270-9002
Disclaimer: The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. Reading articles and content on this website does not constitute a therapeutic relationship.