What do master therapists have in common?

It’s not their degree or diploma. It’s not the particular kind of therapy they practice. It’s all about their personality.

Research1 suggest that a therapist’s theoretical knowledge and approach have very little effect on the success of therapy. In reality, most therapists become eclectic in their work2 choosing different methods that best reflect their own personality.

So what makes a gifted therapist?

A study3 of the most effective therapists found that they all shared similar characteristics:

  • They are all enthusiastic learners, who not only wish to know their clients really well, but constantly read new literature in the field and are familiar with the latest techniques and studies.
  • They draw on their experience with similar problems. Effective therapists are not just an omnipresence, covered in mystique, but human beings who’ve had problems and doubts, just like anyone else. A good therapist is not afraid to acknowledge that and draw from these personal feelings in order to understand the client better.
  • They value complexity and ambiguity. Successful therapists understand that not everything in the human realm follows the linear way of logic. They have to be able to understand and appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of subjective emotional experiences in order to provide adequate help.
  • They are emotionally open. This involves being able to accept any feelings that the client brings up as well as being able to recognize and share one’s own emotional reactions. It is a myth that therapists never get annoyed, bored, frustrated or angry. They do, but they are in touch with these feelings, deal with them constructively and communicate them effectively.
  • They are mentally healthy and mature. Again, let me bust the myth that therapists never experience emotional distress and subjective discomfort. Of course they do! The difference with most people comes with the way therapists process their problems and take care of their psychological well-being.
  • They nurture their own emotional well-being. How can you take care of anyone else, if you are broken yourself? How can you meet other people’s emotional needs, if you have needs that have not been met? It would not work and good therapists realize this and take care of their own emotional well-being first, before they can be useful to anyone else.
  • They realize that their emotional health affects their work. The opposite is naive and makes one a dangerous therapists – one that I would never want to visit.
  • They have strong social skills. I don’t really need to explain that the profession of a therapist requires people skill, right. Social skills are not only needed to communicate with clients, but also institutions, physicians and family members.
  • They cultivate a working alliance, because they know that, above all, it is the unique therapeutic relationship with the client that leads to healing.

1. Yalom, I. & Leszcz, M. (2005). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (5th edition). Basic Books: New York. 2.Kopta, S. M., et al. (1999). Individual Psychotherapy outcome and process research. Annual Review of Psychology, 50, 441-469. 3. Jennings, L. & Skovholt, T. M. (1999). The cognitive, emotional and relational characteristics of master therapists. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 46(1), 3-11.

Image: Joan M. Mas

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