And there’s nothing you can do about it! You have to fail.
You must fail… If you want to succeed.
To foster a patient who loves himself, warts and all, therapists must accept and own their foibles and follies. To the best of my knowledge, there is no greater strength than the courage to look our demons straight in the eye.
This is a question – “what are your strengths and weaknesses?” – you will face at comprehensive exams and internship interviews; my answer always begins, “they are one-and-the-same: my greatest strength is how I have grown from my weaknesses.”
Beginner Therapists & Weaknesses
Weaknesses can be exponentially difficult for beginning therapists: we are supposed to be some sort of an expert, right? Yet amongst the terrors we may face the first time we sit across from a patient is often a sense of stark incompetence.
But what should we, psychotherapists-in-training, do about this?
Embrace it! Love it!
The day that I can predict, and thereby be prepared for, everything that will happen in a session is the day I will retire. In fact, I hope I do not come anywhere near this point in my career by the time of my retirement. What draws me to psychotherapy is the complexity of the human experience: we are the luckiest profession to be afforded the opportunity to see the world through another human being’s eyes!
Yet, there is a catch. Because of the complexity of the human phenomenological experience, each person’s way of perceiving the world is not only unique and distinct, but also ever-changing, developing and growing (especially during the course of psychotherapy).
It has been my professional experience that seeing the world through the patient’s eyes results in the most effective therapy. Consequently, I would argue psychotherapy innately involves novelty – new terrain to tread – with every session. Therefore a psychotherapist can never be, with certainty, completely prepared for what might arise in a session. So the catch is that many beginning psychotherapists misinterpret this innate level of uncertainty as incompetence, rather than a feeling of incompetence.
Embracing Uncertainty as Therapists
Therapy innately involves novelty, and novelty precludes the possibility of being completely prepared. This leaves therapists vulnerable to feeling incompetent. The sooner we can accept and embrace uncertainty, the more quickly we can help those who are suffering. We can, and must, admit we are mere humans: perfectly imperfect. When we can accept the imperfections of the human condition, our patients can begin to do the same.
Maybe part of being competent is being prepared to be unprepared. To be certain that uncertainty will ensue. To be sure to admit when we are unsure. And to be devoted to continued learning.
These articles were originally written prior to my doctoral internship. The intent was to share with doctoral students entering into practicum what I wish I had known at that point in my academic career. The first two articles in the series demonstrate a perspective on being a therapist, while the final article provides brief introductions to various approaches to therapy, serving as a guide to those who want to expand their knowledgebase.
Other Articles in this Series
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2015 and has been updated.
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- Uncertainty, Transference and Other Reasons Therapists Might Fail - December 16, 2020
- How I Failed My Client In Psychotherapy and Grew From It - December 2, 2020
- Attention Psychotherapists… You’re Going to Fail. - December 22, 2017