5 Things You Need to Know about Your Psychologist/Therapist
Updated: Oct 2, 2019
Maybe you've taken the first big step into therapy or perhaps you're a seasoned client who has seen different types of therapists with different skills. You may be wondering about the life, values, and practices of your therapist(s) given that they give very few hints about themselves in therapy. Here are five things you need to know about your psychologist or therapist. In fact, these five features are present in good therapists.
We rarely talk about ourselves or our personal life
We keep our personal lives very private. I've had clients ask me about where I live, whether I have children, what I did on holidays. I usually keep it very broad (e.g., "Europe"; "Yes", "went to the beach") and non-specific. It's not because I don't trust my clients. It's because the sessions are not about me, nor is it about a reciprocal friendship. Once details of my life enter the fray, we are discussing therapy in the context of our lives and our relationship. We want to keep it about you, to focus on your journey, your thoughts, and your life.
We are obsessed with confidentiality and securing your data
This is because we need to make therapy a very safe place for you to share your story, be it shameful, glorious, or awful. It is in our safekeeping. This can sometimes get tricky when you need us to release details for insurance claims, subpoenas, or other medical approval processes. You'll usually encounter reluctance from your psychologist as we're wary that the details we give may not serve in your best interest. There are psychologists who have expertise skills in medico-legal reports for this very reason - they have been trained to create excellent reports that can stand up to legal or medical scrutiny. The only time you'll see us readily and quickly break confidentiality is when there is risk of harm such as high-risk of suicide or significant harm to someone else (especially children).
We will usually only treat certain types of disorders
There are many areas in mental health and learning disabilities. We can't be trained in every area and a lifetime won't even begin to cover the enormous terrain that is mental health. Many of us start to get very good at particular areas. For instance, I can confidently say that my skill as a practitioner in anxiety disorders is better than your average clinician. I've published several peer-reviewed research studies in the area and spend close to 70% of my practice working in anxiety disorders. I'm very wary of clinicians who claim to treat a long list of disorders because I suspect that they haven't spent much time becoming excellent in niche areas.
We have our favourite frameworks
Heard of a cognitive behaviour therapist? A schema therapist? How about ACT therapist (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)? They are different frameworks with different strategies to manage different mental health disorders. Some have more research evidence than others. Some have been shown not to work at all (but still have devotees among practicing psychologists).
Even if we have our different preferences, you'll want a therapist that adheres to one important framework: scientific evidence. If they are using strategies from frameworks that don't seem to work for specific disorders or have very little evidence of working for your particular difficulty, it means that they are more interested in frameworks than serving as your health advocate.
We are human and struggle sometimes
I sometimes get the sense that my clients, especially my child and family cases, think of me as a god-like creature with the answer to all of life's challenging issues. There is a misconception that we live blissful and wise lives without struggle, stress, and mistakes. This is not at all true. For example, despite having a niche in parenting for anxiety and oppositional defiant disorder, I will sometimes struggle with parenting. There are times when I experience episodes of high anxiety because of spikes in workload or just negative incidental events (e.g., family getting sick, disappointing news). I get stressed, frustrated, angry, and sad.
Don't be disappointed if your psychologist is imperfect or if they too struggle. In fact, it's an advantage rather than a disadvantage. When I have periods of poor wellbeing or when I struggle with parenting, it increases my empathy for my clients. Indeed, their difficulties are more chronic, debilitating, and intense. However, experiencing even a small fraction of what some of my clients might go through everyday serves me well as a clinician because it encourages me to be more compassionate, patient, and understanding of my clients.
I can't speak for all psychologists but my clients are a source of great joy and wellbeing in my work-life and these outcomes are incidental (i.e., I don't use my client sessions to increase my own wellbeing). We try to stay quite calm and professional when we see our clients make progress, become stronger, and hit major goals because we don't want to make it about us. However, I've often jumped into the air with a fist pump once they leave the session. Some of that 'hurrah' comes from a sense of achievement as a psychologist. But for me, the majority of that joy is about a deep sense of admiration for the courage, fortitude, and sheer determination I have seen in my clients. I feel very lucky to have been chosen by my clients to be their psychologist and I know it's a special privilege to be part of their journey.