The Other Side of Therapy: Experiencing Social Work as a Client

The Other Side of Therapy: Experiencing Social Work as a Client

Written by Muzna Gulamali, LSW, Medical Social Worker

Working in healthcare, I’ve learned that most patients appreciate a physician who can empathize with what it feels like to be on the other side of the relationship, one who has also been a patient. Many professionals seek services offered by others in their field. Lawyers have their own lawyers. Doctors have their own doctors. Hair dressers get their hair done by other hair dressers. However, it is seen as taboo for a mental health professional to admit they too are in therapy. It brings up the question: “how can you help others when you need help too?” Sharing this information in session may infringe on many therapist’s beliefs in disclosure. However, feeling shame in being in therapy perpetuates the stigma that being in psychotherapy makes you defective.

It is a foundational principle that trust is vital to the strengthening of a therapeutic relationship. Being a patient in therapy elicits strong feelings of vulnerability.  What is often overlooked is how difficult that trust can be to build, and how much courage it takes to divulge parts of yourself to someone who is initially a stranger. Patients share topics that can be painful, topics they may have never shared with anyone else. An effective way for a therapist to grasp how significant that vulnerability is, is to be on the opposite side of that relationship. We cannot require our patients to do something that we are not prepared to do ourselves. There are some programs that require their students to be enrolled in counseling as a part of their curriculum. It can be professional growth for a therapist to understand the frustrations and anxieties of being in counseling.

Social workers are familiar with the concept of self-care. We preach it religiously to our clients. However, many times it is a challenge to put the concept into practice in our own lives. Seeking therapy can also be a practice of self-care. Shockingly enough, mental health practitioners are also people. Offering compassion is imperative in the profession, but this also leaves the counselor vulnerable to feeling the patient’s pain. Treating patients who are undergoing such pain and trauma also comes with the necessity to develop the ability to leave what one has heard during a therapy session in the room. A practitioner must be fully engaged in session, while being mandated to disconnect and not carry it in to the next session, or in to their personal lives. In order to be in the right mental space for the people we serve, as well as our duty to ourselves, it is important to exercise good self-care. Therapy is a helpful outlet for a practitioner to confront feelings of countertransference they may be feeling.

The art of counseling is different than other occupations, because our sense of self is the primary instrument in our own work. It isn’t reasonable to separate who we are as people from the work we do. It is important that we nourish our own wellness, and discover for ourselves the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable.

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