Can a Therapist Who Struggles Be a Good Therapist? Experiencing the Other Side of The Couch

There are many people who still associate a “good” therapist with someone who has only done well educationally; regardless of whether or not that person can also do well understanding and guiding people; yet to be a good or great therapist requires not just the brain but the use of the heart.

Renowned Doctor Elio Frattaroli says, “a great therapist utilizes both, brain and heart when treating a patient. He doesn’t just bring knowledge to his practice but also his own experiences without transgressing or transferring these onto his patients“–Elio Frattaroli is a worldwide well-known author, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in full time private practice. He is on the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia and is also an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

Doctor Frattaroli’s sentiments are echoed by many therapists from the old branch of psychotherapy and psychology, such as renowned Doctor, Gabo Mate (a Hungarian Canadian physician and author. He has a background in family practice and specializes in childhood development, trauma and potential lifelong impacts on physical and mental health). Because of Doctor Mate’s own painful experiences and struggles, his approach focuses on the trauma his patients have suffered and looks to address this in their recovery.

If we take a look at the fathers of psychoanalysis and soul therapy; Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, we quickly realize one commonality–they were not people with perfect life records. On the contrary, they rose from pain and confusion, which is what motivated their journey and what made them so great within their field.

Despite his brilliance as an academic, Freud struggled with his mental health “In 1899 Sigmund Freud got a new telephone number: 14362. He was 43 at the time, and he was profoundly disturbed by the digits in the new number. He believed they signified that he would die at age 61 (note the one and six surrounding the 43) or, at best, at age 62 (the last two digits in the number). He clung, painfully, to this bizarre belief for many years. Presumably he was forced to revise his estimate on his 63rd birthday, but he was haunted by other superstitions until the day he died—by assisted suicide, no less—at the ripe old age of 83.

That’s just for starters. Freud also had frequent blackouts. He refused to quit smoking even after 30 operations to correct the extensive damage he suffered from cancer of the jaw. He was a self-proclaimed neurotic and suffered from a mild form of agoraphobia. And, for a time, he had a serious cocaine problem”–Let us not forget however, that back then cocaine was used by many as treatment.

Carl Jung used the terms “psychosis” and “hallucinations” to describe some of his own experiences. Some thought he was schizophrenic; however, he would not fit the criteria for a diagnosis today, as most of what he experienced falls under depression, anxiety and the holy grail of psychoanalysis “Dissociative Identity Disorder”.

At 38 years old, Jung began hearing voices and having visions. However, unlike schizophrenics, these voices did not come from outside of him but from inside–the voices were his own (D.I.D). He also experienced depression and a total mental breakdown. Instead of letting these stop him, he educated himself with the desire to understand his mind and also help others. He saw his struggles as a gateway to the unconscious mind, so instead of running away, hiding or pretending that he was “normal”, he chose to look in, to learn, to heal and to actively pursued these visions and hallucinations further.

One important criterion for a modern diagnosis of schizophrenia is that it interrupts your daily life, and the voices are external, etc. However, Jung reported the ability to enter this state of mind as he pleased. That makes his experience of psychosis unlike that of people who receive a schizophrenia diagnosis today–instead he had the ability to dissociate, which is the ability to tap into various parts of our brain–something not many can do.

In his books, Jung explains that once he learned more about his condition, and worked through his healing, he learned to use it to induce his dissociative states at will. Between appointments, he would enter this state to better understand the unconscious mind–as such he brought to his patients, his knowledge, his heart but also a level of dissociation that maintain a humane attitude without transferring his own issues onto his patients.

When it came to his struggles, he explained, “In order to grasp the chaos and fantasies… in me ‘underground,’ I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them.” Jung believed he had to “gain power” over his pain by meeting it, so he could better understand his patients. –This reminds me of Nietzsche’s’ “Superman”, the one who dives into the abyss to be reborn as the hero of self.

Neuroses? Superstitions? Substance abuse? Blackouts? Suicidal thoughts? –some would say “so much for the fathers of psychoanalysis”, others would wonder if all shrinks are really “that crazy?”--The obvious answer is no, not all therapists struggle with as much as any of the therapists here mentioned. However, if we look not just at the therapists already mentioned here, but at the list of beautiful minds throughout history, such as Nietzsche, Ciaran, Dali, Da Vinci, Mozart, Bethoven and many countless others, we end up with this…“genius goes hand in hand with pain”–something philosophy, psychology, spirituality and pure science have stated time and time again. In other words, from meeting our pain we can extract the most light, we can extract our gifts and our talents.

I am not saying, surrender to pain, for that is not meeting pain, that is giving up. Nor am I saying go put yourself needlessly through pain; all I am saying is that for those who struggle, you are not broken, you are not worthless, and you have a lot to offer. Remember that it takes more courage and strength to meet one’s shadow and pain, than it does to choose to deny and hide in an attempt to be normal. BTW the definition of normal is simply this “standard, usual, typical, or expected”–so not to fit such category, is not necessarily a bad thing.

The above therapists struggled, and through their struggles and healing process they learned compassion, introspection and how to help others from a genuine place; a place they themselves knew too well.

The old style of therapy was based on seeing a patient as a human being who needed “Soul Therapy” or what is modernly being called “Transpersonal Therapy”— a Psychotherapeutic approach to understanding the human experience by embracing wholeness within your body, mind, spirit and emotional body from the soul level–for in Psychology, psyche is the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious, not just a body part (brain), as it is often seen by many modern therapists.

So can a person who struggles or has had a less than perfect life be a great therapist? the answer is yes–so long as their experiences are backed by schooling, proper training and doctor-patient etiquette. It is also important to point out, most people who genuinely love their profession as therapists, have picked such career because of their own wounds and dysfunctionalities. They know these too well and seek to help others go through the process of healing, feeling a little bit lighter, more grounded and with support.

“Personal experience is of seminal importance as it helps us build our professional identities. Therefore, it is important for practitioners who lack on that area, to seek personal therapy. Practical experience always helps us in growing and becoming more efficient, therefore it is considered to be more informative than theoretical knowledge. In fact, this is what Freud suggested when he composed “Anyone who wishes to practice analysis should first submit to be analyzed. Anyone taking up the work seriously should choose this course, which offers more than one advantage; the sacrifice involved in laying oneself bare to a stranger without the necessity incurred by illness is amply rewarded. Not only is the purpose of learning to know what is hidden in one’s own mind far more quickly obtained and with less expense of effect, but impressions and convictions are received in one’s own person which may be sought in vain by studying books and attending lectures.”

While we talk about personal therapy, I want to bring into light that supervision and practice (which is what we are taught/and go through during the process of our learnings) are very different from therapy. Supervision is a client-focused process, unlike personal therapy.

At the most basic level, I believe I would be right to say that having the experience of being a patient themselves, would make a therapist more empathetic and able to understand unstated feelings better. It helps the therapist develop compliance, rapport, and other therapeutic aspects.

To summarize I would like to share that those who had the most impact on my choice to become a Transpersonal Counselor, were not just the great minds mentioned above–but those who introduced me to those minds. They were my mentors and my own therapist (and greatest mentor); people whom I learned to trust not just because of their impressive background and clinical experience, but more importantly because I could see in their eyes the genuine concern and desire to help–for they knew too well the dark place I was referring to. I believe it is important to point out, that just like you would not take your car to be repaired by someone who simply read a book on mechanics, when it comes to the psyche and soul, no one can beat knowledge, practice and more importantly personal experience.

A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.”–Carl Jung


By Sofia Falcone

I passionately believe one person can make a difference. I write from my own experiences and interests. It is my greatest hope that by writing about my own challenges, victories, hopes and learnings, others may feel inspired to believe more in their inner power and to fully embrace themselves!

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