When the person in the client’s chair is you: Validating the 20-hour personal therapy rule

“I don’t want to be here, but I have no choice.” I have heard similar statements from clients; however, in this instance, those were my unspoken thoughts, as I reacted to Loyola University’s mandatory 20 hours of personal mental health counseling or psychotherapy, for Pastoral Counseling students. In retrospect, that experience as a client has made me a better counselor.

It was difficult sitting in the client’s chair. As much as I theoretically recognized the value of counseling, I was not comfortable. My therapist patiently listened as I selectively shared thoughts without allowing interruption. At the end of the session, she gave me homework which I accepted, but ignored once I left her office. While I am not proud of my behavior, nor do I encourage others to emulate it, it helps me to empathise with the clients who I now serve.

In their work The Practical Counselor (Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1997), Philip Lauver and David R. Harvey stated “you get to practice piano in private and perform when you’re ready, but in counseling, the practice is the performance.” This cannot be a comforting statement for a newly-minted counselor; however, having experience as a client, does help to alleviate some nervousness that new counselors face.

In my situation, I resisted even as my therapist displayed genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. Eventually she talked me down from the ledge of arrogance and anchored me in the client’s chair. That was when my work began. I learned to reflect the qualities she presented as I released my defenses, recognized my biases, and addressed my fears.

During that time, I realized the importance of trust, not only in the counseling process, but also in myself. And, I finally understood what Irvin Yalom meant when he wrote in The Gift of Therapy, that the therapist’s own self was his/her most valuable instrument, and that valuable instrument had to be well-tuned and kept in good repair, so as to be effective. Sitting in the client’s chair provided me that opportunity.

Today, I have my own clients, many of whom do not volunteer for therapy. They present similar defenses as I did when I was a client, selectively sharing their thoughts without leaving room for interruption, and rarely doing homework. I offer genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy, as I prepare a therapeutic space where healing can begin.

I finally realized the value of the 20 hours of counseling that Loyola requires, reiterating Dr. Yalom’s statement that personal psychotherapy is the most important part of psychotherapy training.  It is also fundamental to ongoing maintenance of that valuable therapeutic instrument, viz. the therapist’s own self.