Existential Psychology

You Can Go Further Than Your Therapist

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Experienced therapists, when talking about helping their clients make lifestyle changes, will often say something like “I would never ask my patient to do something I couldn’t do myself.” On the surface, this sentiment sounds reasonable, even praiseworthy, but in trying to do right by their clients many therapists are actually holding them back, and for unconscious reasons.

The fundamental flaw in logic is to simultaneously believe that everyone is a blank slate capable of being molded in various ways and that everyone is fundamentally different and unique. By admitting that there are some things they are not capable of, therapists are implicitly recognizing that we all have different potentialites, different capabilities, different ways of seeing the world.

Underneath the surface, what might be going on is an unconscious power struggle where a helper naturally assumes that there is no way a sick person could go further than the healthy helper. But in any healthy power relationship this is exactly what the person in the position of power wants. The great teacher wants his pupils to excel and one day become masters themselves, even surpassing him. The great parent wants all the things for her kids that she lacked. There is no reason why the counseling relationship shouldn’t be exactly the same.

Thinking “I wouldn’t ask my client to go further than I can go” is wrong thinking from an existential point of view. The idea should really be “I wouldn’t ask my client to go further than my client can go.” The point is to recognize and encourage potentialities, and since it’s hopefully a given that we all have different potentialities, different natural traits at various stages of development, you have every right to believe that you can go further than your therapist, at least in some areas if not all areas, since there is no way to know how far your effortful process of self-actualization will take you as it cumulatively builds upon itself.

As therapists we try so hard to do no harm to our clients that sometimes in the process we end up doing harm to them, and what we are talking about here has the potential to be one of those cases. By capping the things we ask clients to do based on what we can do instead of what they can do, we hold them back from exploring their own unique Selves and implicitly tell them we are the gold standard for health and well-being.