Should you choose a therapist who has experienced your issue?

In this article, I discuss whether having a therapist who has gone through your issue is an asset or a liability to your making progress.

Like you, therapists have their issues

One of the factors for you to consider in choosing a therapist is whether they have been through the issue you are seeking help with. Given that therapists are not immune from the effects of life’s challenges, you will likely find that many therapists have gone through the issue you’re dealing with and some will even be dealing with the issue currently. As someone seeking help for an issue, it is an obvious concern to you whether having a therapist who has dealt with or is dealing with your issue is helpful, is not helpful or doesn’t matter in terms of their ability to help you with your issue. In this article, I will discuss from my perspective as a Calgary psychologist some points for you to consider in answering these questions. I have arrived at the conclusions discussed in this article from my experience with clients facing many issues such as those in depression counseling, anxiety counseling, anger management counseling, self-esteem counseling, eating disorders counseling, sport psychology counselling and couples counseling.

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Possible advantages of choosing a therapist who has gone through your issue

The primary advantage which may occur from choosing a therapist who has gone through what you have gone through is empathy. Because your therapist has been through what you’ve been through, you know that they know how you feel. Believing that they empathize with you to the nth degree can make it easier to tell your story to your therapist. Feeling that your therapist is empathic is also predictive of a good relationship between the two of you. This positive therapeutic relationship, in turn, is associated with greater likelihood of your benefitting from therapy. In addition, if your therapist has not only dealt with your issue but has overcome it, your expectations that they will be able to help you out of the same ‘mess’ will tend to be higher. Having these positive expectations is also predictive of success in therapy. Based on these considerations, it appears to be a ‘slam dunk’ that you would want to choose for your therapist one who has gone through what you’ve gone through. As you continue to read this article, it may surprise you to find that this is not the slam dunk it appears to be at first glance.

Possible disadvantages of choosing a therapist who has gone through your issue

Despite the points made in the previous section, there are many counter-points which may lead you to question whether you should indeed choose a therapist who has experienced the issue you are seeking help for. These include: (1) Just because your therapist has not experienced your issue does not mean they cannot empathize with you. Empathy involves someone understanding what you have gone through at both a cognitive and emotional level. A caring therapist who actively tries to understand your plight is often capable of empathizing with you even if they have not gone through your issue. This can occur because even though they may not have gone through exactly what you’ve experienced, every therapist has gone through difficult experiences of one kind or another and many of these experiences may be similar to yours in terms of their dynamics and emotional impact. In other words, they may be able to feel your pain even if their pain was not created by factors identical to yours. The good feeling you get from having someone who understands you may therefore still be present even if your therapist has not experienced exactly what you’ve gone through; (2) Having a therapist who empathizes with you is not usually enough to help you address your issue. Feeling understood because your therapist has gone through what you’ve experienced can be a big factor in helping you address your issue. However, you also need a therapist with the skills and ideas to help you take the steps necessary to make progress. If your therapist is lacking in these ideas and skills, the chances of your improving are not good regardless of how much empathy you experience.  In this case, you may want to consider a more skilled therapist even if they have not gone through what you’ve gone through; (3) Sometimes having a therapist who has experienced your issue may interfere with their ability to help you. This can occur if your issue triggers in them negative thoughts and emotions related to their experience with the issue. This may make it difficult for them to focus on helping you. It may also impair their objectivity in advising you on particular courses of action to address your issue. For example, they may mistakenly advise you based on their experiencing of the issue rather than based on what you are dealing with. These problems are less likely to occur if your therapist has taken steps to address the effects of the issue on them—possibly through their having had counseling themselves. The worst-case scenario would be to have a therapist who has only recently experienced the issue and therefore is only now coming to grips with how to deal with it themselves.

So if there are pros and cons, how do you decide whether to choose a therapist who has gone through your issue?

So in the final analysis, let’s suppose you have to choose between two therapists. One of them has gone through the issue you’re dealing with and the other has not. Let’s assume that both therapists appear to be empathic and are skilled in offering ideas to help you address your issue. Let’s further assume that the therapist who has gone through your issue is not currently struggling with the issue and has overcome its lingering negative effects through counseling. In this scenario, which therapist should you choose? In this case, I believe you should go with your ‘gut’ or intuition. That is, if you believe that you need a therapist who has gone through what you’ve gone through, having such a therapist will likely lead to your having positive expectations for therapy. This will likely lead you to be more motivated to do the work necessary to make progress which will increase the chances that you do make progress. On the other hand, if your gut tells you it doesn’t matter whether you have a therapist who has gone through your issue, then you should do equally well in therapy whether you have a therapist who has gone through your issue or not. In short, it is not necessary for your therapist to have experienced your issue in order for them to be able to help you. However, if you believe their having experience with the issue is necessary for you to make progress, you may want to act on this belief in choosing your therapist.

May you choose a therapist who is the right fit for you,

-Dr. Pat

About the Author:

Feeling Challenged? Work with a psychologist who knows how to overcome challenges… Depression, anxiety, stress & other psychological issues may seem as daunting as completing a marathon. My approach to “Plan, Take Action & Track Progress”, has helped 100s of clients and is the same approach I used to succeed in the Boston Marathon & Ironman Canada.

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