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On Being a Therapist

I’ve often wondered what being a therapist and giving therapy feels like?  What does it feel like to be on the other side of the couch, the so-called mentally healthy side, slowly building up that all-important trust, respect and safety, dispensing wisdom, experiencing and sharing flashes of insight, feeling the poignant pangs of empathy and for some, being able to conjure up that third person, the second client in the room – the inner child, the little girl/boy who so desperately needs a voice to be heard after being silenced many decades before?

At University yesterday during psychoanalysis class, we did some role-playing.  We got into groups of three and became therapist, client and observer.  I was the therapist and had a twenty minute session with my “client.”   It felt positively exhilarating but I was also as anxious as the person sitting opposite me.

I was nervous about being able to ask the right guiding questions to elicit a response so I could see repetitive destructive patterns emerge between childhood and adulthood.   I wanted to be experienced and wise, insightful and empathic and I could hear myself talking in a “Jennifer Melfi” voice (remember “The Sopranos”).  Sort of consistently highish, slowish and girlyish.  It was a voice I use when I need to give comfort and solace to my children.  Not a good voice to use all the time as a therapist and highly inappropriate with other less regressed clients.

If my voice was steadfast, then my eye contact was unwavering.  In a general conversation with friends my eye contact wavers to the left, to the right, above the head and below it and it’s unremarkable.  I tend to talk to the nose or even the lips.  However, as a “therapist” I maintained a steady unwavering contact with the eyes themselves.  This is what my therapist does.  She maintains unbroken eye contact for a long period of time.  She tells me it is a loving/kindness presence, and I know this, but my body experiences it as a “po-faced death-stare” from a beady-eyed monster because my armpits and eyeballs itch when I feel someone else can see the indelible stains on my adolescent soul.

So I needed to ask my “client” if I was staring too hard and too intently at her and she replied no, she was pleased with the constant eye contact, for her it engendered calm empathic presence and an interest and understanding in what she was saying.  She was also pleased I gave her a five minute warning the “session” was about to end.

How did it feel for me?  It felt good, connected, attached and induced a warm and fuzzy state in me, but she also triggered some deeply buried issues that pushed my heart up into cardiac arrest zone.  But I was able to concentrate on her experience rather than my own and I didn’t tell her this.  This was about her, not me.  I would deal with my trigger issues later, in “supervision” perhaps.

Imagine doing that hour after hour, day after day, year after year?

Imagine living inside twenty or thirty other people’s heads each week.

Is there enough room inside for that many occupants?

Where does my own stuff fit in?

My partner’s stuff?

My children’s stuff?

My cat’s stuff?

For me it felt good, self-empowering and empowering others.  To give back what I have been given by my own therapist.

Sometimes the apple does not fall far from the tree.

On Being a Therapist

Sonia Neale

Sonia Neale was recently awarded the Inaugural Barbara Hocking SANE Australia Fellowship to study and research Borderline Personality Disorder overseas in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. Her previous Psych Central blog was called Therapy Unplugged. She is the author of two books, The Bad Mother’s Revenge and Death by Teenager, both published by ABC Books/Harper Collins. She lives in Western Australia, is married with three adult children, has studied psychoanalytic psychotherapy, has a Certificate IV in Mental Health and is studying for a Psychology/Counselling degree. She currently works as a peer support worker in the mental health field. Please email her on davson at

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APA Reference
Neale, S. (2010). On Being a Therapist. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 May 2010
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