Since onset of my career, I have held the ideal that authenticity and genuineness are cornerstones of being an effective therapist. These ideals stem not only from humanistic and existentialistic therapies as I learned throughout my graduate program, but also from my own values of being honest and genuine as a human being. While it seems then, that being authentic in therapy should come naturally, I’ve learned that being authentic while also being in a professional role can create a dilemma that can be clumsy to navigate at times, especially in new or challenging situations. I’ve also learned that navigating that dilemma becomes a process that needs careful reflection and attention from time to time throughout our careers and professional development.
I recall many situations throughout my early therapy career that allowed for some stumbling and awkwardness yet has helped me to learn how to navigate this delicate process a bit more skillfully. One such example was when I was working as a Parent Coach for a supervised parenting time program, and challenged by a parent receiving services who questioned what I could possibly know about parenting, not being a parent yet myself. It was a guess on his part, although accurate at that time, and my honest nature couldn’t dispute it. I found myself grappling with thoughts of self-doubt due to my lack of life experience in this situation, while simultaneously knowing that professionally, I had something to offer him and his family’s situation. How could I help him see that?
Another such example was when I was doing some couples work, and sat facing a couple 20 years into their marriage, looking at me for direction as they faced empty-nesting and a newly discovered affair, just weeks upon my return from my own honeymoon. Or the individual in my DBT skills group who inquired if I ever have to use (and practice) Distress Tolerance skills, as I was asking her to do so. Such questions and challenges led to a lot of self-reflection and a lot of questions about how to navigate being authentic, yet professional. How do they fit together? Do I use self-disclosure in such situations, and if so, what and how much? How much does life experience play a factor in my professional credibility? And, do I practice what I preach, and does that make me more authentic and trustworthy to my clients?
Through those experiences, I’ve come to learn that being authentic does not mean I have to have all the life experiences my clients have, it’s simply not possible. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that truth in some gracious and humble way, while relying on my professional knowledge and experience to guide the therapy process. I do believe that being authentic is to some degree practicing what you preach, and I have strived over the years to put into action in my personal life what I encourage, teach, and guide my clients to do. This would include developing my own mindfulness practices, utilizing self-compassion when I make mistakes, not stonewalling in my marriage when upset, and yes, even practicing distress tolerance skills to help me navigate difficult life (and parenting) situations. However, I don’t believe it is practicing what I preach alone that makes me authentic and trustworthy to my clients, but it is also those moments I can acknowledge to them that sometimes I don’t. That I am as human as they are, and offer them the same grace and humility in their growth process that I hope they offer me.