It’s not at all unusual to want a therapist who really understands our experiences, perhaps has even shared them.   Is that reasonable?  Is it realistic? Obviously there are many things we would never know about our therapist (assuming they have appropriate boundaries), but there are certainly there are some things that couldn’t be hidden if someone tried—race, age, geographic and educational history.

Peer support is support that comes from people who share our experiences, like in 12 step programs.  Professional support comes from trained professionals, like licensed therapists.  It’s much easier to trust the expertise of non-peers for non-psychiatric medical problems—most people don’t really care if their oncologist has ever had cancer, so long as he’s an excellent physician.  But it’s different when the clinician is treating us not only with clinical skills but human connection.  We crave understanding and we want to know that we’re not alone in our experiences.  And sometimes we want someone who’s sat in our chair.

A Changing Field

The therapeutic relationship didn’t used to be an element in therapy at all.  The origins of therapy dictated that the therapist was a blank slate.  Those stereotypes of lying on the couch while the silent analyst sits out of sight.  This dynamic of the therapeutic relationship is relatively new to the field.

With this new element, there are new ethical guidelines on therapist self-disclosure and cross-cultural training is frankly underrated and underutilized. Neither of these are necessary with a silent, distant clinician.

So now we have engaged clinicians.  We want clinicians who understand us.  We don’t want to explain what it’s like to be ourselves when we could see someone who gets it.

Walking in Someone’s Shoes Wears Them Out

Also, overcoming difficulties can make people more critical of people who are struggling with the same situation. For example, both people who had and had not been bullied as teens were told a story about a teen who was being bullied.  If you or your loved one were that teen, you might want a therapist with some experience with, right?

Maybe not.  People who had experience being bullied were more compassionate than people who had never experienced bullying toward the teen who was being bullied and was coping well.  However, they were much more harsh judges of the teen who was not coping well.  The thing is, people usually are in therapy to learn to cope better with problems.  So while having a therapist who’s walked a mile in your shoes may seem like a no brainer, it’s actually a complex decision.

Tomorrow, tips on how to decide whether a “peer” clinician is right for you.

Photo by {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}