Can a divorced therapist, for instance, be a successful marriage counselor? Can an overweight therapist coach clients struggling with weight loss? How can you tell if a therapist’s personal “baggage” will be a hindrance to the healing process — or if it’s a nonissue, or even an advantage?
Kayla and Eli Greenberg* were distraught over their son’s aggressive behavior. Every day, there was another incident that ended with ten-year-old Shaya’s siblings in tears. The Greenbergs had taken parenting courses, read parenting books — but nothing seemed to help. That’s when they heard about Judy Kanner, a psychotherapist who specialized in dealing with children with behavioral issues. With cautious optimism, the Greenbergs scheduled an appointment.
Judy seemed pleasant and intelligent, and she asked the Greenbergs targeted questions about Shaya to get a picture of what they were dealing with. Kayla and Eli asked Judy a few questions of their own, trying to gauge if she’d be the right “shidduch” for helping them and their son.
“By the way, how many kids do you have?” Kayla asked curiously.
She couldn’t have been more surprised — and dismayed — when Judy gave a small smile and replied, “None of my own.”
Kayla and Eli looked at each other. No words were necessary to interpret what the look meant: If she hasn’t dealt with children of her own, how in the world will she know how to help us with our child?!
This type of scenario can evoke many uncomfortable feelings on both sides of the therapy couch. At the root of the discomfort is a larger question: Does a therapist need to experience personal success in the areas in which she is counseling clients? Can a divorced therapist, for instance, be a successful marriage counselor? Can an overweight therapist coach clients struggling with weight loss? Can someone with a temper effectively teach clients to manage their anger?
To broaden the question: Do mental health professionals need to wear a mask of “perfectly managing” in order to earn their clients’ trust and confidence?
In other fields, like law or medicine, professionals rarely come under this type of scrutiny. We would never size up a divorce lawyer by checking into his marital status. We choose surgeons and cardiologists based on reputation, not character. But when hiring a therapist, suddenly personality does matter, and details about their personal life might very well impact the hiring decision.
Perhaps this is because, unlike in other fields, a foundational part of the healing process is the relationship between the therapist and the client — and trust and comfortableness are essential ingredients in building that connection. How well a therapist communicates, and how open a client feels, can dramatically impact how much healing can occur. And whereas you might forgive a surgeon for being in a bad mood, a therapist’s emotional health and her ability to manage her own emotions is not just a “bonus,” but a critical component of successful therapy.
All of this creates a very high bar for therapists to live up to. As Jeffrey A. Kottler writes in his book, On Being a Therapist, “The client comes prepared with his own expectations for a mentor, a guru, a doctor, a friend, or a wizard.” Those are big shoes for any therapist to fill.
The fallout from such high expectations is that if a therapist isn’t presenting well, even when he’s out in public, he could potentially lose clients. That’s what happened with a respected mental health professional, Asher Beller. As Joel, the prospective client, relays, “I have a temper and I wanted to deal with it, so I started asking around for therapy recommendations. This Beller guy’s name kept coming up again and again because he specializes in anger management techniques.”
Before Joel had a chance to make an appointment, however, he was at the supermarket where he saw a little boy wildly racing through the aisles, ultimately causing several glass jars of pickles to shatter. The boy’s father loudly berated his son, and Joel, looking on, suddenly realized that the man looked familiar… he recognized that face from the ads he’d seen touting Asher Beller’s credentials. The father was Asher Beller himself.
“Perhaps I should have been dan l’kaf zechus,” Joel relates. “After all, it’s not like Beller reacted worse than many other parents would have reacted in that kind of situation. But why would I choose a therapist who isn’t a model of calm communication?
“Am I putting the therapist on too large a pedestal, insisting on impossibly high standards — that he always remain in control, during every situation, at every moment of the day? Maybe. But I just can’t justify choosing a therapist who yells at his kids like anyone else to help me with anger management.”
Rivka had already started therapy when she accidently discovered personal information about her therapist. “Do you know Chaya Ross?” her friend had asked. “You know, she’s a psychotherapist, she has an office on Woodland Street?” Rivka did know her — she had started seeing Chaya because Rivka’s daughter was showing alarming signs of sliding religiously and Rivka wanted to work through her feelings and learn how to respond to her daughter in the best way possible.
Rivka was caught off guard by the mention of Chaya’s name, and even more so by what her friend said next: “So upsetting… I saw Chaya’s son the other day — he’s totally off the derech.”
Rivka was so upset that she canceled her next appointment with Chaya. “It wasn’t just the thought of How can she help me if she doesn’t even know how to help herself?” Rivka says. “In all fairness, there could be a million reasons why Chaya’s son chose to walk a different path for the moment and it’s very possible it has absolutely nothing to do with Chaya herself. But how could I take her advice without subconsciously second-guessing it? And now that I know about her son, how on earth could I bring it up without creating a very awkward moment?”
Talking it Out
Despite our towering expectations of therapists, they are, after all, just as human as we are. Aside from having their own bad days, they might also lack the personal life experience to know what we’re going through — or, alternatively, they might have too much personal experience with our issue to properly guide us. How can we determine if a therapist’s flaw will be a hindrance or a help? In the Greenbergs’ case, for instance, how can they ascertain if Judy’s childlessness will be an impediment to successful therapy — or if it’s a nonissue or even an advantage?
There are ways to tell, and it all comes down to communication.
Kayla Greenberg, who only discovered her therapist’s “blemish” while already in session with her, says, “There’s no question my husband and I were initially very wary of continuing with Judy after her disclosure. However, Judy was very professional and up-front about it. She told us, ‘Look, I’ve studied this topic extensively; I’ve come up with some very effective strategies for children struggling with the same issues as your Shaya; I’ve had much success in my field. But you’re right — I’ve never dealt with children of my own. If that represents an impediment to you, you have every right to call it quits with me and find a different therapist. You’re the client — the choice is yours.’
“My husband and I had to think long and hard, but then we realized it was fundamentally petty to stop using Judy simply because she hadn’t been blessed with children, particularly if she had good strategies that could help us.” They were honest and open with their concerns rather than being furtive, and Judy honored their concerns and responded authentically. They had in that interaction established the beginning of a relationship built on trust, which is a necessary ingredient for therapeutic work.
Now let’s go back to Rivka. Although she was understandably apprehensive about bringing up Chaya’s off-the-derech son, she would likely find Chaya to be as receptive and open as Judy was with Kayla. A therapist’s job is to provide a safe haven where a client can explore her thoughts, emotions, and patterns of behavior without worrying about being politically correct. Indeed, therapists are trained to put aside their own feelings to better focus on the client’s emotional process.
A skilled therapist well understands that if a client perceives a need to tread carefully, or feels inhibited to work through something so as not to offend the therapist, the therapeutic process becomes stunted in its ability to help. That’s why therapists are so vigilant about keeping the paths of communication open.
What does this look like in action? Let’s use a theoretical example of Aliza, a woman in her forties who is always on some type of diet, with only minimal success to show for her efforts. She learns that there can be emotional factors that make it difficult for the body to let go of excess weight, so she decides to schedule an appointment with a therapist named Sheila who is known for her compassion and expertise in this area. Imagine her shock and dismay when an overweight Sheila warmly welcomes her to the office.
How can this woman possibly help me? Aliza wonders. She tries to judge favorably: Perhaps Sheila has a metabolic issue. Perhaps she has successfully lost a significant amount of weight and can help others, but she’s still on the journey. The possibilities are numerous, and Aliza realizes she might never discover what the real story is with Sheila and her weight issue — because the appointment is about her needs and not about her therapist. But no matter what Aliza tries telling herself, she cannot shake her feeling of discomfort.
Sheila, meanwhile, immediately notices her client’s nervousness and furtive glances. Aliza’s eyes speak loudly, and Sheila, who hasn’t earned her credentials for nothing, understands the nonverbal cues: Aliza is feeling self-conscious about discussing her negative body image with an overweight therapist.
Now Sheila has a choice. She must decide whether or not to bring Aliza’s unspoken fears into the session explicitly. As an astute therapist, she’ll only do so if she determines that this is in the best interest of her client’s needs. She has to assess what Aliza needs at this moment to feel comfortable sharing her struggles and embarking on a journey of healing and change.
At the same time, Aliza must also recognize that if she personally has some of her own emotional issues around this topic, which is very likely, she should notice her inner response and let herself know that she’ll deal with her feelings later.
Sheila decides to reflect what she notices and offer her client the opportunity for a rich exploration. “I might be wrong here, but do you mind if I share a thought? I have a hunch you’re surprised that I’m overweight, and that you’re wondering how I might be able to help you succeed with weight loss. If you feel this way, please be assured that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable. Is this something you might want to discuss?”
Sharing something in this way frees the client to disagree and offer a dissenting opinion, another essential ingredient for a healthy relationship. If a client is afraid to give feedback and express what’s working and what doesn’t resonate, her progress will be adversely affected.
Aliza looks a bit embarrassed but decides to openly acknowledge her concern. “Actually,” she stammers, “I feel badly saying this, but yes, I’m concerned. I pictured a thin and fit therapist who would be my role model and visual ‘after’ picture. I’m sorry; this sounds horribly rude. I can’t believe I just said that to you.”
“Aliza,” says Sheila, “it took a lot of courage for you to share that. And if those thoughts and sentiments would remain between us, they would undoubtedly get in the way of progress being made. Tell me, what was it like for you to pluck up the courage and share that worry with me?”
“Well, right now, I’m having trouble getting over the embarrassment that I said that to you! I feel so mean and judgmental… That is taking over anything else. I’m so embarrassed that I’m crying already!”
Sheila passes her a box of tissues. “Don’t worry about that, Aliza. Many people cry when we explore emotions. It’s a very normal response.”
Aliza finds herself blubbering. “I don’t know, I just feel so stupid and hypocritical. And… never mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Sheila meets her gaze. “It sounded like there was something else there.” Now that there’s a safe open exchange between them, Aliza might go on to share a painful memory about being called “fat” as a child by her classmates. This could lead the two women into a very productive conversation around Aliza’s fear of judgment regarding her weight, something that Sheila worked through successfully in her own life. Aliza may also feel safe exploring her emotional eating with a person who understands her, and who modeled nonjudgmental openness. All this from a beginning session that, had it been mishandled due to Sheila’s personal feelings on the topic, could have been disastrous for both her and Aliza.
What if Sheila would have expressed horror and hurt, either verbally or nonverbally? What if she would have blamed Aliza for being rude and tactless and wondered if she behaved that way in her other relationships? The session would have gone in a very different direction, and Aliza’s needs would have remained unmet. And, of course, Aliza would wisely find a new therapist.
Honest, open communication is essential. This starts with the therapist, who is trained to detect when a client might be feeling uncomfortable and who can read nonverbal cues well. Still, therapists are not mind readers or wizards. As clients, we need to know how to bring up our concerns and have a solid discussion about them.
This includes relatively minor things, like the flow of conversation. If, for example, a client feels that she does the vast majority of the talking and this disturbs her, she needs to feel safe enough to broach the topic. Likewise, if she feels she can hardly get a word in edgewise, she needs to be able to point out this concern.
A good therapist will appreciate and even encourage clients to ask questions about the therapeutic process. So it’s safe to say things like: “I’m wondering how today’s session fits into our goals,” or “When can I realistically begin to see some improvement?” or “Sometimes it feels that we’re going in the same circle and getting stuck and I’m feeling tired and somewhat frustrated.”
It can admittedly be hard to address bigger concerns, like telling a therapist that it feels like she’s disclosing too much about her own life that seems irrelevant. But it can be done, and it’s usually simpler than we realize. For instance, the client might just say: “Can I ask you a question? In that story you told me about your life, what were you trying to teach me?”
Clients can even navigate especially tricky situations, like Rivka’s. For instance, one approach Rivka might take is to talk about her emotional process before she brings up the topic of Chaya’s off-the-derech son. She might say something like, “I have something to tell you that’s hard for me to express. I’m scared to even bring it up because I don’t know how you’re going to respond and I’m scared I’m going to hurt your feelings. But can I be open and share it with you anyway?”
Chaya will probably nod and tell her it’s safe to open up. With this go-ahead, Rivka can discuss all the thoughts and feelings that arose when she accidently found out about Chaya’s off-the-derech son.
As a general rule, whenever a client feels uncomfortable, she should discuss it with her therapist. That said, any change from the familiar (whether positive or negative) might produce discomfort. Therapy may be uncomfortable as we look at ourselves honestly and recognize things that we might prefer not to face. That discomfort is positive and indicative of growing pains. Unhealthy discomfort is when you feel scared, ignored, or unimportant — and this must be addressed immediately.
It takes courage to address conflicts and misunderstandings, but when we are able to, we might just end up with a therapist who serves as a mentor, doctor, and friend in our journey to healing and emotional health.
*All names and identifying details have been changed
Esther Gendelman MS, LPC, CPC is a licensed psychotherapist and certified professional coach who specializes in working with relationships. She’s the coauthor of The Missing Peace (Menucha Publishers).
Malkie Gendelman is Esther’s daughter-in-law. She works as an editor at Israel Bookshop Publications and lives in Lakewood with her family.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 612)
Oops! We could not locate your form.