It’s so easy to push hurting people away because we don’t know how to respond to the sadness. This short animation does a great job of showing how being with someone in their sadness can be more effective than trying to buck someone up.
If you’re a parent, I invite you to watch this and imagine the sad fox is your child. How can you be more like the bear and less like the goat? We parents, we’re awfully good at “at least”-ing.
Thank you to commenter Louise Allana for the heads up!
I used to teach parenting classes for the Oregon State University Extension Services, which was tricky because I wasn’t yet a parent. This wasn’t something I disclosed to the class attendees (unless they asked) but the second time around I was pregnant when I taught the class and most of them asked me if I had any other kids at home.
Naturally these parents got a little tetchy when they found out that I didn’t. Who was I to think I could teach them anything about parenting? But the great thing about the curriculum I taught is that the focus was on their families and their values and not on trying to be a parent in one particular “right” way so it didn’t really matter that I didn’t know how to be a parent. The premise was that they knew but needed help figuring out what they knew. My expertise was in child development and their expertise was in their families and together we had a terrific class.
This is how I look at therapy, too. I don’t think it’s necessary that your therapist have the same background that you do as long as she has empathy and trusts you in your experience. I do not think that only a gay therapist can counsel a gay client or that only an abuse survivor can counsel another abuse survivor and I don’t think that only a parent can counsel another parent.
That said, there certainly can be some advantages to seeing a counselor who shares your experience. We all know how easy it is to be a good parent before you have kids and so a counselor who’s experienced how hard it is to raise children might have more realistic expectations for her clients. As Kim at Kim’s Counseling Corner says, “Pre-motherhood, I had all kinds of homework for parents, such as charting 5 different aspects of a behavior during the week (when, where, why, your response, their response…sigh), completing daily exercises with their children, taking personal time out for an hour a day… can you imagine? I am much more cognizant of the daily demands of parenthood.” (Her whole list is interesting — as is her blog — so check it out!)
The flip-side to that is that some counselors may become so entrenched in their own experience that it’s hard to see their way out. A counselor may be so sure of her way of parenting that she has a hard time understanding your way. Or she may have unresolved issues from her own history that make it difficult for her to separate her own emotions and expectations from yours.
When I was a teen I saw a counselor who seemed to be as enamored with my high school boyfriend as I was, making it awfully difficult for me to extricate myself from an emotionally destructive relationship. I don’t know if he had frustrated fantasies of being a rock star but he sure was interested in my then-boyfriend’s nascent career in a hard core punk band. We spent more time talking about my awesomely cool boyfriend and not enough time talking about how I could get away from him.
Needless to say, that was not helpful.
So how do you know? Again, it comes back to your comfort level and your instinct. Do you feel heard? Understood? When your therapist makes wrong assumptions is she open to your correction? Does she spend too much time talking about herself and her experience? Does she give you room to feel differently than she does?
Your therapist should also be open to hearing about your concerns without getting defensive. Which means if you say something like, “I’m not sure if you can really get this since you’ve never had to come out to your parents.” She best not huff and puff and try to convince you that she knows plenty, thanks. Instead she should focus on your concerns about her understanding. Remember, your therapy is about you, not about placating your counselor’s ego.