After the 2016 presidential election, I got a call from a potential client, and she asked a question I’d never received before, “I need to know who you voted for.”
I’ve been a therapist for over twenty-five years. I’d 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’ve been asked if I’d personally been through what the caller was struggling with, which, I believe, reflected not only the intensity of their pain, but also the loneliness of that very pain. And the likely belief, “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, on a cultural level, how politically charged these differences had become for some.
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, which is the same answer I always give for an inquiry that goes outside of what I feel comfortable sharing with a client. I had no problem with her question; she had the right to ask it. And I hope she got some help.
Is alignment between therapist and client important?
Is a therapist better for you if they’ve walked the same walk you have? If their values and life experiences mirror yours?
It’s a good question. It’s why you might prefer a therapist who’s your age or ethnicity. It’s why you might feel bolstered by their spiritual faith being similar to yours. It’s why support groups can be very effective, which by definition, are composed of people whose experience parallels yours; each of you going through your own version of divorce or other life transition.
However, for several years, I’ve been honored to participate in a workshop for parents whose children have died. I watched as parents whose grief was older – who’d somehow managed to breathe and put one foot in front of the other during those first years – comfort and support others whose loss was more raw. I felt very humbled in the presence of such suffering, as I often do in my own office. And I offered what I could, being open that I hadn’t walked that walk, but was drawing upon my own experiences and training.
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 personal choice. There is no one right answer.
For example, people have come to me because I’ve gone through infertility, have struggled with panic disorder, or have written a book about destructive perfectionism. It’s especially worth considering if you realize you’ve been avoiding the work you need to do, you’re stuck with the therapist you’re seeing or you’re not allowing them into your inner world. Perhaps you’d give that permission more readily or even trusted them more if their path was similar to yours.
Then there are the 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 immutable characteristics, facts inherent to who I am that are unchangeable. For example, I grew up in the South, my family wasn’t a military family, poor or unstable, and 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, and often therapists give some personal information such as modalities they use or certifications they’ve earned. They’ll make a personal statement of some kind and you can get a feel of who they are and how working with them might be.
It’s also appropriate to ask to speak with them personally before you meet with them. Their office protocol may be that their staff make appointments for them. During that conversation, you can get a sense for who they are and ideally feel a connection. True connection is vital for therapy to work well, and while it won’t likely be deep during that first chat, you’ll hopefully walk away feeling listened to and understood.
And if you don’t, you’ve learned something valuable and can look for a therapist that’s a better fit. Therapists can be very different and it’s important for you to feel that support. I’m a therapist because therapy has been vital to my own growth. But not all of my therapists were good fits and I had to terminate those relationships.
Whomever you choose, whether it is someone who’s walked your walk or someone with whom you feel comfortable and safe with, know that therapy can certainly be worth the time, the effort, the money and the risk.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!
First published on October 25, 2019; updated and republished on August 7, 2021.