Several months ago, I got a call from a potential client. She asked a question I’d never heard. “I need to know who you voted for in the election.”
I’ve been a therapist for over 25 years. I’ve been asked if I was divorced, married, how old I was, whether or not I was a Christian, and certainly what methods I used in therapy. More than once, I was asked if I’d personally been through what the caller was struggling with, which sometimes is a question that simply reflects the intensity of the pain he or she is in. “You couldn’t understand or help if you haven’t been through this.”
But never had I been asked about my vote. The question revealed how strongly this woman felt about not being safe if my political beliefs weren’t aligned with hers and perhaps, even culturally, how politically charged these differences have become.
She said she couldn’t continue our conversation without an answer. So I wished her well, but explained that there was a boundary between my personal and professional life — the same answer I’d given for that kind of inquiry for many years. I hope she got some help.
Should your therapist be like you?
Is a therapist better for you if they’ve walked the same walk you have?
It’s a good question. It’s why males might prefer male physicians for certain problems and women prefer women. You feel better knowing they’ve experienced life with the same hormones and body parts you have. It’s why people want to know what someone’s spiritual faith or political party is so they feel bolstered by knowing that they already have a connection. It’s why support groups can be very effective, which by definition, are composed of people whose experience parallels yours enough for you to feel understood, as others may want to understand or try very hard, but can’t pull it off.
I was involved several weeks ago in a workshop for parents whose children had died. I watched as those who’d somehow managed to breathe and put one foot in front of the other after it happened in their lives — comforted and supported others whose loss was more raw. I felt very humbled in the presence of such suffering, as I often do in my own office. Yet I offered what I could, not having the personal tragedy those people were trying to live through — but what I’ve learned from my work with other horribly bereaved parents.
So what’s better? Which way should I go?
So should you look for a therapist who’s been through what you’ve been through or not?
It comes down to choice — whether or not you choose someone whose life has been similar to yours.
For example, people have come to me because I’ve gone through infertility, am open about having anxiety or have read I was anorexic at one time. They know I’ve walked that path and that’s valuable to them. Whatever defenses you’re putting up — however you may be avoiding the work you need to do — you may give that therapist more permission to help or confront you because they’ve been there.
Remember, however, that it’s important with that choice to feel that they’ve worked on themselves enough to guide and lead, and that they’re not doing their own healing work on your time. The relationship should be about you — not them. That therapist earns your trust by listening with educated ears, showing empathy, offering at times difficult observations and ideas, providing a safe emotional relationship, and focusing on goals for healing and change.
On the other hand, many patients have come in and don’t know anything about me except what their lawyer, doctor or friend had to say or whether or not my website was helpful to them. More often than not, I haven’t experienced a similar history. I’ve not been personally exposed to gang violence, child pornography camps, secret rooms where women were sexually brutalized, horrific parental abuse, war crimes, or the murder of a loved one — all histories I’ve sadly taken. Nor have I experienced some of the same mental problems — feelings of wanting to die, compulsive needs to shop, steal or lie, erratic mood swings that seem to appear out of no where.
Then there are differences that are based on more pragmatic facts. I grew up in the South. My family wasn’t a military family, poor or unstable. The only color skin I will ever have is white.
Those things may inherently limit my personal perspective, but hopefully not my professional one. I cannot know how it might have felt if those pragmatic things would’ve been different. But I’ve learned how others have felt and what they’ve experienced. And I’ve watched them heal.
How do I handle such obvious differences between me and my patients? I ask questions and try to educate myself about my patient’s world, both past and present.
So what if you choose a therapist who has not walked your walk? This therapist also earns your trust by listening with educated ears, showing empathy, offering at times difficult observations and ideas, providing a safe emotional relationship, and focusing on goals for healing and change.
It’s the same process.
How do I find out what a therapist’s experience is?
We’re lucky enough to live in a time where most professionals have their own website. Often therapists give some personal information — what they believe in, what kind of problems they have experience within. You can get a feel of who they are — and how working with them might be.
And you can always ask to speak with a therapist personally before you meet with them. That’s not an inappropriate request at all. It may be their protocol to have their staff or secretary make appointments for them, but most therapists will answer your questions or offer information before you come in for an initial session. You feel a connection — and that connection is vital for therapy to work well. You can sense they care.
And if you don’t, then don’t go back. Therapists can be very different and it’s important for you to feel that support.
I’m a therapist because therapy helped me see things in my life that I was struggling to see myself — things that were causing chaos and pain.
Whomever you choose — someone who’s walked your walk or someone who doesn’t necessarily have that same experience, but who you feel comfortable and safe with, please reach out.
It’s worth the time, the effort, the money and the risk.
Been there. Done that.
If you’re in a safe, supportive relationship, you might want to thank your partner in a small way. Click here for “Marriage Is Not For Chickens,” a gift book by Dr. Margaret!
You can hear more about sexual abuse and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly blog posts and podcasts, as well as a free copy of her eBook, Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.