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Should You Go to a Therapist Who Has Gone to a Therapist?

Heck, yeah! You'd be crazy not to. . .

Pop Quiz:

Which one of the following does not belong?

  1. The personal trainer who doesn’t exercise

  2. The off-duty cop who exceeds the speed limit

  3. The financial planner who declares bankruptcy

  4. The therapist who has never been to therapy

Trick question. The correct response is: None of the Above. Because: All of the Above are hypocrites. Not to be confused with Hippocratic, as in The Oath. (You know, the first rule of health care providers, “First do no harm.”)

Semantics aside, each grad school course in my mental health counseling program began with a version of the same informal poll. The instructor would enter the classroom, flop a briefcase on the table and remove a ream of collated, stapled syllabi. After a brief intro, Professor would inquire, “How many of you have been in therapy before?”

The first time The Question was asked, up shot my hand without a moment’s hesitation. Having chosen my customary front-and-center spot in the packed lecture hall, I could not see how my classmates had responded. Dumbfounded when the instructor failed to raise a pointer finger and begin silently mouthing numbers while scanning the forest of palms, I swiveled inconspicuously to look. Apparently, Professor could count to three without using his fingers.

Three? 3? Thuh-reeeeeeeeeeeeee? Really?

Mental health counselors are not supposed to be judgmental, but I hadn’t taken that course yet. So I was unabashedly aghast at the infinitesimal percentage of mental-health-counselors-to-be who had never parked their tush on a therapist’s couch. Aghast . . . and then ashamed. Am I the only one here who has had “issues”? Maybe I’m not supposed to be here. Maybe only people who don’t need mental health counseling are qualified to give it. Ego deflated, my hand responded in kind, sinking like a stale balloon.

The stigma surrounding therapy has shriveled significantly compared with decades past, but I hadn’t taken that course yet either. So there I sat, at once red-faced and grateful. At least my position at the epicenter of the lecture hall meant I was spared the sight of all those eyes staring at my back.

As grad school progressed, a subsequent professor suggested that many who are drawn to the “helping professions” have hidden agendas, or subconscious ones. They are there primarily to address their own needs, not necessarily the needs of others. She had offered this counselor caveat in a fit of anger, rebuking underperforming students after a particularly dismal round of midterm test scores. “How can you expect to make a career of counseling when you are making no effort to learn?!”

This instigated another informal poll: “How many of you intend to get licensed?” Again, my fingers thrust heavenward of their own accord. This time, I was not surprised when a scant one-third of my classmates responded in kind. What’s the deal?

A few indicated the master’s degree was for them a stepping-stone to a Ph.D. Others explained a psychology background would help them in an intended career in another field – trial law, for example. But the majority responded with blank faces or blushed cheeks. And unanimous silence.

Midterm: True or False

  1. I am here to address my own needs.

  2. I am here to address the needs of others.

Another trick question. I had been kidding myself. Though I would prefer the world to believe that “1” is False and “2” is True, the correct answer isn’t even listed as a choice. What’s True for me is “Both of the Above.” I chose to become a mental health counselor for myself as much as for the clients I serve. There, I said it. No turning back now.

Looking back, though, has been helpful. Anorexia as a teen. Sixty-seven pounds at my lowest point (physically and psychologically). I remember my 14-year-old self sitting on the couch in the counselor’s office. He began each session with a customary greeting, delivered in his thickly accented English. (Dr. R was from Cuba.) “How are you feeling in your spirits today, Baloreeeee?” I twirled a Mickey Mouse watch around my wrist, contemplating an answer. Though the shiny red patent-leather watchband was fastened on the first hole, it hung like a bangle bracelet on my bony arm. Eight months of twice-weekly weigh-ins and hour-long sessions with Dr. R lifted my spirits and saved my life. Literally. I know. Years later I wrote a term paper on the topic for an Abnormal Psych course in grad school. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health diagnosis. I have lived to tell. And now, to help others as I have been helped.

I have returned to therapy at various critical junctures since that time: a brief eating-disorder relapse during my freshman year of college; depression and anxiety while transitioning to married life; a short period of couples counseling following the death of my father-in-law after a long illness (my husband’s unresolved grief and my unexpressed resentment had pulled us apart). At a certain point – I cannot say when – counseling for me became less about surviving and more about thriving. Which is why I remain committed to ongoing personal growth work, whether by using the “tools” I have learned in previous counseling, or by occasionally going for a “tune-up” with a therapist of my own.

Having said all that, clients must be aware that a competent therapist never brings their own baggage to work. Once the white noise machine in the waiting area is purring and the inner office door clicks shut, it’s all about The Client. This is why I believe the best counselors are the ones who have done their own work in therapy.

Final Exam: Short Answer

Breathe some fresh air into the cabin-pressure cliché, as trite as it is true, about the use of oxygen masks on airplanes. You know the one: “If you are traveling with a small child, place your own mask on first, before helping others. The moral of the story is. . .” In your answer, make it new.

My Response? I am able to be here for you because I am here for me.

Counselors are people, too. We all have issues. A responsible therapist knows, we can take others only as far as we ourselves have come.

Considering therapy? I've been there. Let's talk. Call 954.494.3848, e-mail vzaffos@aol.com.

Valerie Zaffos is a licensed mental health counselor at Self Empowerment Counseling in Weston, FL, working with teens and adults, individuals, couples and families. She also is a certified hypnotherapist. Free one-hour consultations are offered to prospective clients.

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