Let’s Be Real: Why Therapists Need To Practice What We Preach

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Why Therapists Need To Practice What We Preach

Mental health and self-care for therapists are not talked about enough.

As a UCLA-trained psychotherapist and the owner of My LA Therapy, you might think I’d be a middle-aged woman with perfectly styled hair, donning tightly fitted pencil skirts and pressed silk blouses like a therapist version of Addison Montgomery.

But although I work with a high-echelon clientele, I see clients from my home office, often greeting them barefoot in jeans, and my scrappy, unmanicured dog usually beats me to the "hello."

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Early on in my career, I thought I had to portray an image of having it all together for people to respect me as a professional.

Hair pinned tightly back in a bun and legs crossed one over the other, I sat up straight with my fingers laced in my lap like the tight-lipped, "blank-slate" therapists I’d seen on TV, sporting an endless rotation of taupe cardigans.

I was the embodiment of literal therapeutic neutrality, down to my wardrobe, and I thought that meant I was doing my job.

More than a decade later, I let my wavy hair air dry. I often can’t be bothered to clear the kitchen sink of a few unwashed dishes, and have a penchant for using the F word, which I seldom endeavor to hide.

When a session begins, I sit cross-legged in my oversized chair like a kid talking to a friend at summer camp.

This change didn’t happen overnight.

After many years of working with a wide array of clients of all different backgrounds, ages, and walks of life, I found that time and again, I heard the same, surprising refrain.

It goes that many of the most powerful, healing moments they experienced in therapy were when I shared about my personal struggles and pain.

This flew in the face of everything I’d been taught and believed at the time.

For starters, I held the strong belief that self-disclosure was a selfish act that narcissistic therapists used to gratify their own unmet needs, and that it takes time and attention away from their clients. (In fairness, this does happen, and I’ve heard the horror stories).

Furthermore, I thought sharing my own struggles would shatter my credibility as an expert. I was 25 years old when I finished my Masters at UCLA and began working in private practice, so I didn’t have much life experience at the time.

Why would anyone want to work with me unless I were some perfect being capable of bestowing upon them a never-ending supply of unimpeachable wisdom?

As I've gained more experience and perspective over the years, I’ve begun to recognize the hypocrisy endemic to our profession.

We espouse authenticity while hiding our humanity behind the veil of professionalism, posing as faultless experts who have transcended the vicissitudes of the human condition. And while our reasons may be well-intended, the damage of this misguided approach is manifold.

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If we see ourselves as broken because we’re imperfect and view that as a moral failing, how will we hold our clients’ imperfections in the loving embrace of unconditional love and radical acceptance?

If we mask our struggles and flaws from our clients, how will they develop a love for that which is painful and dark within them? What model will they have for courageously bringing forth their vulnerabilities and failings in their own relationships if we hide ours?

Bestowing tenderness on that which we loathe in ourselves is the essence of robust and enduring self-love, resiliency, and courage.

When a therapist has a self-accepting orientation to her own pain, the client unconsciously internalizes a voice of kindness and self-compassion, or a "kinder and gentler superego," as my mom is wont to say.

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It’s a difficult paradox to master.

How do we bring love to that which we hate within? How do we welcome the very fears and flaws we are endeavoring to heal? How do we work on ourselves without seeing ourselves as broken to begin with?

Living out these questions daily alongside our clients is the single greatest way we can heal ourselves and those we work with.

Embodying this humble orientation to our struggles is far more powerful than anything we say. The way we treat ourselves is exponentially more instrumental in shaping our clients' way of being than the advice we offer.

We must be living examples of flawed yet self-accepting people, bound — like everyone else — by the limitations and frailties of our humanity.

We have to admit that despite our education and experience in personal transformation, ultimately we come to this work with the humble acknowledgment of our own smallness in the face of this fraught and beautiful existence.

While our training may offer some perspective and guidance along the way, the true expertise is in the being, more than the conceptualizing — in the living more than the speaking.

That’s where genuine curiosity and deepening are cultivated. That’s the foundation of true wisdom and resilience. That’s where we can start to play.

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Brooke Sprowl is the Founder, CEO, and Clinical Director of My LA Therapy, a rapidly growing therapy practice with offices around Los Angeles. She provides a wide range of counseling services for individuals, families, and couples.

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