By: Lisa Kift, MFT
I'm a Marriage and Family Therapist
who's written a number of articles about various mental health and
relationship topics as well as maintain several blogs. As much as I
might think I "know," a recent comment I received on one of my blogs
challenged me in a very positive way. The following is an anonymous
comment I received on one of my blog posts titled,
What Therapist Qualities or Experiences Have Been Helpful? It's
a powerful and beautifully written statement about the client's
needs - as stated by a client his/herself - and is a therapist
must-read. I hope other mental health and relationship professionals
benefit from it as well.
I was given written permission by the "anonymous" poster to share
his/her following thoughts in this article.
Here are some crucial qualities of a therapist from a client's
point of view.
1) That the therapist pays attention to the client's plan for
therapy, as opposed to what the therapist decides the plan should
be. Most people come into private practice therapy already
motivated. They have at least an unconscious idea, and usually a
conscious one, of what they want to work on with us. I certainly did
when I was in therapy! I wanted the therapist to stay focused on my
2) Know the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy
is feeling the client's world. Sympathy is expressing your feelings
about it. I think clients in general want big doses of empathy and
small doses of sympathy.
3) Understanding is much more important than "caring." Many
merely neurotic (as opposed to e.g. pathological) people coming into
therapy -- I was one of these, too -- have a social world of people
who care. What they don't have is a worldful of people who are
trained to understand. If one needs to err on this balance, this
former client would take understanding over "caring" any day.
Understanding makes the therapist a valued professional. Caring
makes him or her paid friend. My therapist struggled a little with
this distinction before he got it. When he got it, the therapy got
hugely more valuable for me.
4) Understand first. Then, seek to be understood. My
therapist used to always says, "Let me make sure I understand what
you're saying before I even think about responding. You're saying
that...." This was the BEST phrasing in the universe, because often
he was 85% or 90% there, and I could clarify the last ten or fifteen
percent. It meant we were walking the same turf. I was grateful for
this. It shortened the process and made it more valuable.
5) A therapist who remembers that "the client is not their
problem, and the problem is not the client" is doing the client a
real service. I always had the nagging sense in therapy that the
therapist was lacking a sense of who I really was; apart from
whatever my presenting problem happened to be. Yes, it's true that
in therapy we're there to talk about big issues and big concerns.
But our lives outside the room are so much more than that, and the
therapist who explores and understands the whole range of our lives
-- our work, our play, our love, our being part of a larger
community, our literary tastes, our good experiences as well as our
painful ones -- will be a more effective therapist for us. We
clients have problems, just as therapists have problems. But neither
the therapist nor the client "is" their problem.
Similarly, the problem is not the client. Yes, a client may have
some pathogenic belief(s) or maladaptive patterns. But they're far
more than that, too. They might be essentially good people with
those beliefs or even because of those beliefs. It might even be
that those beliefs contribute or underscore their being good people
in the world, even though the beliefs might not be so comfortable
for the client.
The more the therapist was able to grasp me as a whole person, the
better the therapy was. And the more the therapist was able to
underscore and strengthen the good, as well as try to repair the
pathogenic, the better the therapy was. Sounds simple, no? If it was
that simple, and more therapists could execute it effectively, a lot
fewer people would be abandoning therapy.
Lisa Brookes Kift is a Marriage
and Family Therapist in Marin County, California. She is the creator
of The Toolbox website at
www.lisakifttherapy.com which contains her mental health and
relationship articles, workbooks, therapist tools and information
about her private practice.