NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Parallel Losses For the Psychotherapist and the Client

Loss and grief are an unfortunate part of life, and it's one of the reasons why many people come to therapy (see my articles: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?,  Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both of Your Parents and Coping With Grief).  There are often times in psychotherapy when the psychotherapist and the client are going through parallel losses.  In fact, this phenomenon occurs more often than most people would think (see my article: The Psychotherapy Session: A Unique Intersubjective Experience).

Parallel Losses For the Psychotherapist and the Client

This parallel process between the psychotherapist and client often benefits the therapeutic work because, through her empathy, the therapist has more to give to the client because she is going through a similar process.

In order for this process to be healing for the client, the therapist must be trained and skilled at being able to experience the client's suffering while, at the same time, dipping into her own experience briefly without getting lost in her experience.  

The psychotherapist's focus must be mainly on the client and, while their experiences might be similar in some ways, the therapist can't assume that the client's experience is exactly the same as the therapist's experience.

From my own experience as a psychotherapist and from what colleagues have told me about their experiences, it's often the case that a client comes to therapy at the same time that a therapist is having a similar experience.

Depending upon the psychotherapist's theoretical orientation, the therapist probably won't share her loss with the client, especially if it will impinge on their work, because the therapy is focused on the client and not the therapist.

There might be times when it is therapeutic for the therapist to share a similar personal experience with the client, but only if it is in the service of furthering their work together.

Let's take a look at how this parallel process between therapist and client shows up in therapy in the following fictional vignette:

Fictional Vignette: Parallel Losses For the Psychotherapist and the Client

Lois began therapy because her mother, who had advanced Alzheimer's, was rapidly decompensating both physically and mentally.  

Parallel Losses For the Psychotherapist and the Client

Her mother began showing signs of dementia about 10 years before.

Until recently, the decline had been slow and her mother still knew Lois and Lois' siblings.  But a month prior to Lois starting therapy, her mother was becoming increasingly confused and no longer recognized Lois and other family members.

The doctor at the skilled nursing facility where Lois' mother lived told Lois and her siblings that her mother's condition was worsening, and they discussed the treatment plan, including advanced directives.

Lois and her mother were close, and it was excruciating for Lois to see her mother deteriorate over time.  Prior to the dementia, her mother had been very sharp and active, so it was especially difficult for Lois to watch the mother she knew slowly disappear.

She found support at an Alzheimer's support group, but she found her visits to see her mother increasingly difficult.

Knowing that her mother's life would soon be coming to an end, Lois knew that she would need more than her support group.  She needed the one-on-one support of a psychotherapist.

From the first therapy session, Lois felt understood and cared about by her therapist (see my article: The Creation of the "Holding Environment" in Therapy).

In addition to helping Lois cope with emotional pain of watching her mother decompensate due to Alzheimer's disease, the therapist also provided Lois with practical information. 

Lois felt fortunate that she found a psychotherapist who was so knowledgeable about loss, grief and the practical issues involved with having a family member who has dementia.

Little did Lois know that her psychotherapist also had a mother who was suffering with advanced Alzheimer's disease, and they were both going through a parallel process.

Lois' therapist wondered if it would be therapeutically beneficial for her to disclose to Lois that she was also going through a similar situation.  But she sensed, based on things that Lois told her, that Lois needed something different from her at this point in time--she needed to feel that her therapist was outside the world of Alzheimer's disease, nursing homes and hospitals.

As a result, her therapist decided that there would be no therapeutic benefit to disclosing her personal situation to Lois, so she kept it to herself.  She didn't want to impinge on Lois' experience.

Even though her therapist didn't disclose her personal situation to Lois, Lois felt that her therapist was present with her in a way that she had never felt before with her other therapists--as if her therapist really understood what Lois was going through--and this was healing for Lois.

Two months before Lois' mother died, her therapist called her to let her know that she would have to cancel their next two appointments because she had a loss in her family.  

When they resumed work together, Lois expressed her condolences to her therapist.  She didn't ask if the person who died was close to her therapist because she already felt overwhelmed by her own emotions.  Sensing that Lois didn't want to know, her therapist didn't divulge that her mother had just died from complications of Alzheimer's.

When Lois got the call from the nursing home that her mother died the night before, she was grief stricken.  All along she was grieving for the changes in her mother.  Somehow, she thought that, since she anticipated her mother's death.  She knew she would be upset, but she didn't think she would be so upset.

After their father died a few years earlier, Lois' siblings looked to her for advice because she was the oldest, and now it was no different with their mother's death.  They looked to her for guidance and emotional support, so Lois was glad to have her weekly therapy sessions so she could get her own emotional support from her therapist.

Lois resumed her therapy sessions a week after her mother died, and she was relieved to feel enveloped in the caring and empathetic environment that her therapist created for her (see my articles: Why is Empathy Important in Psychotherapy? and The Psychotherapist's Empathic Attunement to Unconscious Communication in the Therapy Session).  

Parallel Losses For the Psychotherapist and the Client

She could feel her therapist's attunement to her, and there were times in her sessions when she felt she didn't even need to talk.  It was enough to be there and feel her therapist's empathy.  

Aside from her advanced clinical training and experience, her therapist also had her own therapy that she relied on for her support through the grief process.  

Her therapist had many years of experience helping clients to cope with grief.  As she listened to Lois talk about her feelings, she recognized the parallel experiences between them.  She sensed the similarities as well as the differences in their relationships with their mothers and their experiences of grief.

Just as Lois found these therapy sessions to be healing, her therapist also had an internal experience of how healing these sessions were for herself.

It's not unusual for a psychotherapist and client who are working together in therapy to be having a parallel experience--whether it's about loss, happy experiences, personal relationships or any other experiences.

Most of the time, if the psychotherapist is skilled, experienced and can contain her own experiences with appropriate boundaries, the client can benefit from going through this parallel experience with the therapist--whether the client knows about the parallel experience or not.

There are times when even the most skilled psychotherapists must be aware of their own limitations and not take on certain clients because they are aware that they have a particular emotional vulnerability to whatever the client is going through and the therapy wouldn't be beneficial for the client.  Usually these instances are more the exception than the rule.

The therapist usually makes a decision on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the client's needs and the therapist's comfort level with disclosure, whether or not to disclose her own experience.  For instance, in substance abuse treatment, therapists often reveal their own history with substance abuse because this is an accepted practice in substance abuse treatment.

Psychotherapists' disclosure is a topic where there are many different views.  While the therapist is expected to be genuine and no longer expected to be a "blank screen" with her client, the decision to disclose personal information or not must be viewed in light of whether it would be of therapeutic benefit to the client and not solely for the therapist's benefit.

Getting Help in Therapy
Whether or not to start therapy can be a challenging decision (see my articles: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent and Psychotherapy and Beginner's Mind).

Finding a licensed mental health professional who is right for you is a process (see my articles: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

When you and your psychotherapist are a good match, you can benefit from your work together in ways that might exceed your expectations (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

The healing process in therapy can lead to emotional breakthroughs and a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

See my other articles about Psychotherapy: My Articles About Psychotherapy.