In life, there are many experiences that tie people together. But, perhaps the most common shared human experience is that of sometimes feeling alone. You know, how sometimes you are experiencing something and you believe that no one else could possibly understand how you feel or know why you are responding the way that you are because they haven’t lived through what you are going through at the moment. This may come up in many aspects of your life, such as if you are in a polyarmourous relationship, you find yourself wanting more friends who are also in that kind of relationship, or if you are navigating an infertility journey, you may want to talk to and spend more time with people that are experiencing infertility. You tend to want your social network to be filled with people that parallel your journey. You try to surround yourself with people who are like you or who have the characteristic struggles that you have so that you don't feel so alone. You want to feel understood without having to justify or explain what you are feeling. You also want to share in the joys that come with your lived experience. The question is when it comes to therapy, does it really matter if your therapist has your same lived experience as you? Is that even possible? Let’s explore the answers to these questions here.
I Need a Therapist Who Understands Me
Last year I wrote a guest article on Soft Heart Psychology about “How to Find a Therapist Who Helps You Feel Safe”. This article is chocked full of practical tips about looking for a therapist such as making sure you understand the difference between a therapeutic relationship and friendship, questions to ask a potential therapist, how to prepare for a free consultation to make the most of your time, and even what types of questions can help you get to the root of what you want to know about the therapist. In that article I touched on the concept of asking potentially taboo questions. Without going into that article too much (you are encouraged to read it on your own) the outcome was that while there is no such a thing as a taboo question, you would likely benefit from exploring why you want to know the answer to a question that seems personal. I want to dive into that deeper here to answer the question of whether it matters if your therapist has a specific lived experience.
"A therapist does not have to be in your body, to have empathy."
This seems like a good time to remind you that a therapist holds a different skill set and role than that of a coach or a friend, and they also hold a different vantage point than you. Unless you are your therapist’s first ever patient while they are training in graduate school practicum, your therapist has more than book smarts, even if they have not lived a particular experience. Honestly, even if you are their first client, you are still supported by their supervisor’s years of practical and clinical knowledge. Most therapists that you will encounter likely have the practice of supporting the healing journey of someone like you or with concerns similar to yours if they specialize in what you need. It is even more likely that your therapist has had numerous cases, supervision meetings, and consultation sessions with people who have had similar experiences as you. Your therapist’s experience as a therapist means that they have seen what you are managing from many different angles, like a kaleidoscope. This kaleidoscopic view of your situation gives them insights and advantages that you may not be able to see on your own because you have a sole perspective.
But, You Haven’t Lived This Yourself, So You Don’t Know
In your social world, you have probably heard the sentence, “I know how you feel.”
Perhaps you equate that sentence with the emptiness or aloneness that we discussed earlier, so when you think of therapy, you want nothing to do with that sentence, understandably. However, “I know how you feel” is not a phrase that I have ever uttered when my therapist's light is shining. I’d love for other therapists to chime in here, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that most competent therapists aim to not say that phrase. As therapists, it is not our job to tell you what you are feeling, it is to get you to explore and express what you are feeling in a way that helps you feel safe. We may wonder with you when we notice what seems like unexpressed or unrealized emotions, but we will not tell you that we know how you feel. we may offer to validate your emotion by letting you know others in your situation have expressed similar sentiments or have used your exact wording, but we do not pretend to know what it is like to be in your body, feeling what you feel, even if we have lived through a similar situation. That does negate empathy. A therapist does not have to be in your body, to have empathy. The truth is, “empathy does not require personal experience.”
"kaleidoscopic view of your situation gives them insights and advantages that you may not be able to see on your own because you have a sole perspective."
You don’t have to live through something to know that it’s complicated, challenging or that it hurts. For example, up until about 7 years ago, I had never broken a bone. I was proud that I had lived without that experience because I could reasonably imagine that there would be significant pain involved. Well, no shocker here because when I did break a bone, it hurt - a lot. Do you know who I called for help? Another person who had never broken a bone. True story. This person was able to get me to urgent care, empathize with my pain and even make me laugh a bit after the initial pain had subsided. That person didn’t have to share in the experience to share in the experience or know what to do. They also never tried to tell me that they knew how it felt. Therapy can be like that; someone being with you on your journey, being able to help you in ways that you can't do on your own yet, and letting you feel what you feel.
I Just Know That I Need Support
All support isn’t the same. In some support groups, it is common to have a support group leader who has the same lived experience as the members of the support group. This is the case for groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, grief & loss support groups, parenting groups, etc. These are people who want tips, advice, and shared space with people who have similar challenges. You can find comfort and so much help in a group like that. While those groups can be therapeutic but they do not have the same goals, regulations, and training requirements as therapy. So, what you really need to ask yourself when you are looking for a therapist for you, your child, or your family is what outcome do I want? If you want tips, advice, and shared experiences, you may be looking for a friend or a support group. If you want someone who can help you evaluate specific aspects of your life, help you get to the root of those areas, help you draw interpretations and conclusions, increase your level of insight and guide you through a journey of growth or change, you may be looking for a therapist. And for therapy, sometimes lived experience in your particular situation may not matter that much.
The key points here are simple this week.
Therapy is different from support groups.
Empathy doesn’t require lived experience.
Broken bones usually hurt and you don’t have to experience that to know it’s probably true.
There are helpful strategies to finding a therapist that is a good fit for you.
Regardless of where you are in your journey, I hope that you find a therapist and a support network that gives you everything that you need. In the meantime, please be gentle with yourself, wrap yourself in compassion, douse yourself with love and make moments for play.
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