Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

What Therapists Learn from Psychotherapy Clients: Effects on Personal and Professional Lives

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

What Therapists Learn from Psychotherapy Clients: Effects on Personal and Professional Lives

Article excerpt

What psychotherapists learn from their clients and its impact on therapists' personal and professional lives has been a source of interest in recent years. Most, though not all, of the work in this area has appeared as anecdotal accounts (Callahan & Dittloff, 2007; Goldfried, 2001; Guy, 1987; Katz, 2002; Orlinsky et al., 2005; R0nnestad & Skovholt, 2003; Rosenthal, 2006; Russel, Henry, & Strupp, 2000; Yalom, 2002). Describing the findings of one of the handful of systematic studies, R0nnestad and Skovholt asserted that "Counselors/therapists at all levels of education and experience expressed in a unison voice that interacting with clients is a powerful source of learning and development" (p. 32). In a survey of 5000 psychotherapists on the impact of different influences on professional development, Orlinsky, Botermans, and R0nnestad (2001) found that experience with clients contributes most importantly to professional development, regardless of therapist ethnicity or theoretical orientation.

Therapists negotiate developmental and personal change in the course of clinical practice, especially with regard to significant others in their lives. As Guy (1987) pointed out, "Since their personality is the 'tool' used to conduct this clinical work, who a psychotherapist 'is' undergoes constant challenge, review, and transformation" (p. 105). Skovholt and McCarthy (1988) noted that therapy sessions are akin to a research lab in which "clients' reactions, successes, and failures 'prove' and 'disprove' theoretical ideas and methods" (p. 71). Kahn and Fromm (2001) argued that empathy constitutes a key mechanism of change for both client and therapist, so that by "putting themselves in the shoes of the patient and taking on the deep inner feelings of various patients, we, the therapists, broaden our perspectives, and expand our own personalities" (p. xv). Similarly, Wick (2001) stated that a therapist's experience with clients promotes subtle changes in the professional that are rarely detected as they occur. Therapists may become aware of such changes upon realizing the presence of new thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. In another of the few systematic studies, Stahl and colleagues' (Stahl et al., 2009) qualitative inquiry found that 12 post-intern trainees reported learning therapy skills, self-awareness, and boundary setting from work with their clients. Trainees also reported an increased sense of competency gained from conducting therapy and participating in supervision and case conferences; overall they reported an increased sense of value and meaning in their own lives.

Many highly experienced psychologists also maintain that moments in which they feel changed by their clients represent the very best of their professional experiences (Freeman & Hayes, 2002; Kottler, 1993; Yalom, 2002). For example, Freeman and Hayes (2002, p. 13) say, "Troubled yet resilient clients, who work tirelessly through adversity in counseling, seem to inspire counselors." Although compelling narratives written by experienced therapists bring to life examples of the impact of clients on therapists, the aim of this study was to enhance this work by conducting a more organized, systematic and in-depth inquiry into what therapists learn from their clients. Focusing on both professional and personal influences, we sought common themes across the experiences of many therapists through a semi-structured interview protocol and systematic qualitative analysis of their responses. In the spirit of qualitative inquiry, our report will rely whenever possible on the words of our therapist participants who shared their experiences so generously.



Upon gaining IRB approval and informed consent from our therapist participants, nine researchers each interviewed five to ten clinical psychologists in their widespread, respective geographic regions across North America, for a total of 61 licensed psychotherapist participants. …

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