What makes a good therapist? Is it education, training, compassion, techniques? The truth is that it is all of those things and more. Each therapist, and each client, has their own personal definition of what a “good therapist” really is. As professionals, I find that the definition of what makes a good therapist is often shaped by our belief about what therapy should be. For me a big part of doing a good job in therapy is meeting my clients where they are emotionally. I had a great conversation with another therapist about the pros and cons of solution-focused therapy last week. In part we both agreed that there are times that focusing on solutions and the future is not what clients are looking for. This is not to knock the value of this therapeutic approach, I use many of the techniques in my work and have great respect for many of the therapists who developed and research this model. But it got me thinking about the idea of understanding where a client is and simply being with them in that emotional space.
When I was in graduate school, my husband asked me about my work as an intern and what I did in session. At that time I was working with a few clients who were trauma survivors. I tried to explain about the coping skills and other tangible techniques but something was missing. There is an intangible quality of therapy, especially when trauma is involved. Late one evening I found myself watching What Dreams May Come, a film from the late 90’s with Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra. I loved the movie the first time I saw it although it was sad. Williams and Sciorra portray a couple whose children die in a car accident. The wife is devastated and nearly falls apart but with psychiatric care and her husbands help she recovers only to lose her husband in an accident as well. (Sorry for spoiling the plot if you haven’t seen it!). What struck me the second time I watched it was that twice Robin Williams “saves” his wife by simply being with her in her pain. In spite of all of his efforts to support and understand and cajole her out of her depression he can not “fix her”. He can not make her better but he learns that he can accept her pain as part of her reality. He learns to sit and be still and hold on to the hope for her without asking her to do anything beyond surviving her pain that day. I often find in therapy that is my job. Sometimes a couple is too angry and too betrayed to talk with me about hope or work on communication excercises. Sometimes I work with teenagers who are so fragile or depressed that they can not “do” anything. At these times it is my job to simply join them where they are at that moment and hold out hope that things will get better.
Therapy is a journey and often times your therapist is a guide, someone to hold your hand and stay with you even at the times when you stop and aren’t sure you can go forward. There are numerous theoretical perspectives and research to support techniques and help us understand the psyche. These are important tools for any good therapist to have. They offer us a method to what is sometimes maddening work. But for me the first step in helping any client I see is understanding who they are and where they are … and then meeting them there.