Tag Archives: over-identification

Can first-hand experience of a mental health problem help therapists to better help their clients?

Now that’s an interesting one. I would have to say, on balance, yes and no.

I myself have experienced episodes of depression and anxiety and I have also bared witness to family members struggling with addiction, psychosis and schizoid affective disorder. So you would think, on balance, that I would have a good head start as a psychotherapist working with clients who report very similar symptoms.

It is true that my personal experiences have had a significant bearing on my choice of current profession; however, with experience, I can see some of the pitfalls of ‘over identification’. Is it always possible to remain subjective when the client seems to be telling ‘your story’? Can one always retain professional distance if this is the case?

In my experience to date, I have paid particular attention to these obstacles and have discussed such transference issues at length with my supervisor. I guess this is not a challenge specific to therapists as it appears to be human nature to identify and empathize with others. It does however require self-reflection as it is not the norm for therapists to self-disclose whilst working with a client who will be quite unaware of the subtle identification process that might be going on.

I would also like to note how my own struggles with mental health have, I believe, benefitted my professional development as a psychotherapist. I have discovered that theory and formulation does not necessarily equate with desired outcomes, i.e. improved mental health and wellbeing. When I have attempted to stick rather rigidly to particular ‘models’ of therapeutic intervention, I have often hit a brick wall. I have essentially lost touch with the client and my own subjectivity in my attempt to remain the objective scientist. To counteract this effect, I now approach every client with a blank sheet, essentially encouraging myself to be mindful of everything that is happening within the room so as to respond authentically and holding theory, skills and my own subjective reality on an equal level.

Finally, I would like to thank all my clients to date for giving me greater insight into my own inner world. It is often assumed that given my training I must be super adept at managing my own life’s worries and problems. I do my utmost to ‘practice what I preach’ but at the end of the day, I am human and I’m glad to be able to identify with others’ difficulties. Without this personal insight I really don’t know how I would be able to do my job!