Recently I have been privileged enough to hear pioneers of family therapy speak and engage with other family therapists, both new and established. This enriching environment has fostered my curiosity and interest in the idea of “the self of the therapist.” The notion of the self of the therapist is so important in *systems therapy because it acknowledges the role of the therapist in the room as more than just a prop. In today’s managed health care system when insurance companies and universities are attempting to manualize and make treatment briefer and briefer it has become that much more important to use the tools that are the self of the therapist.
The self of the therapist honors the therapist as an individual within the system by using the tools the therapist possesses naturally and it honors the family/couple by then using those tools to help them reach their goals. In other words this authenticity is always used for the benefit of the client not simply for the benefit of the therapist.
When one is around other therapists it becomes clear how each one’s work is influenced by who they are as a person. Some therapists are particularly adept at using humor because they possess that skill outside of the room as well. Other therapists have an ability to make people feel at ease that works well with clients. Other therapists possess a literary skill by which they can bring creative metaphors into the room. These parts of the self are what we should take with us into the therapy room, right along with our theories which are the framework upon which we build therapy.
The challenge with using the self as a tool is that it requires a self-awareness and an honesty that is not for the arrogant. There is a humility in using ourselves for the good of others, of reaching in and bravely challenging the system to reorganize for their own good. If one is accessing themselves honestly throughout session that bravery is cultivated and our clients are the better off for it. There is also a need for self-care with this because it involves a genuineness that removes pieces of the mask created by psychoanalysis.
The self of the therapist is a relationship between the therapist and the client(s), one where both influence each other with an overarching goal of positive regard and a desire to empower and help the system function better for its members. The self of the therapist will not be the same with each client instead we should be flexible, know ourselves well enough to bring different parts out as necessary for the clinical goals. This provides our clients with an experiential therapy that is many times more powerful and enduring than insight alone.
Ignoring the self of the therapist is like ignoring the humanity in the room. Manualizing therapy strips therapists of their creativity, their responsibility, and limits the therapist’s ability to meet the family where they are. In a managed health care world where administrators believe they know more than the people doing the work it is more important than ever to bring our authenticity, our framework of theories, and our self of the therapist into the therapy room.
*I use systems therapy and family therapy interchangeably because I believe that all families are systems. I also believe that systems therapist is a more accurate name than family therapist but that’s just my opinion.