A question I have received countless times takes different forms, but usually has the same need behind it. “Can you understand me well enough to help me?” It has come in the form of “Are you in recovery?”, “Are you a parent?”, “Have you been raped?”, “Have you gone hungry?” and many others. Some of these I can say yes, some I can say no, but the answer is never that straight-forward either.
In grad school, I was encouraged to avoid and dodge these questions because they can be intrusive and you really want to explore the intent behind them. Over the course of my career I’ve decided on my own that you should rarely avoid answering the question altogether. Clients want to see your human side and they want to know that they aren’t spilling their guts to a robot who can’t quite understand what they’re going through. It’s a question of ability, connectability, and capability. I find these to be crucially indespensible to a good therapeutic relationship, so I usually practice some transparency and vulnerability (at my own professional discretion, of course.)
One question that I never received was “Have you ever been in therapy?”
I believe wholeheartedly that you don’t have to experience the same kind of life events to be competent enough to help people heal. It can be beneficial, but it can also hinder if you develop the belief that your way of healing is the only way or the best way. I saw a lot of this in the substance abuse field. If you want to know if your therapist “gets it” enough to help you, the best question to ask them is “have you been in therapy yourself?” If they have, they get what it’s like being the client, maybe anxious, embarrassed, ashamed, in pain, and really dreading sharing about that…one thing? They know how certain gestures, looks, tones, expressions feel on the other side. I believe that a good therapist should intimately know what it’s like to be the client. This also tells you that they value the therapeutic process in a deeper way. They don’t feel shame in being the client and seeking their own help. They have some humility.
My answer to this question is “Yes!” but I usually offer this information up at some point during therapy. The client knows I’m not going to ask them to do anything I haven’t pushed myself to do. My own therapeutic journey has had the biggest influence on the kind of therapist and person I’ve become and I have molded many of the methods I find most useful after my therapist. So, if you find yourself in therapy and curious if they can “get it”, ask them if they’ve been on the other side of the therapy room!
Oh, and if your therapist hasn’t experienced the same kind of issues you may be dealing with, give them a chance anyway. You may be pleasantly surprised.