What Makes a Good Therapist?

Do real-life experiences that impart an ability to empathize make a good therapist?

The following was originally posted to the HCPLive network blog Shrink Rap.

We were having lunch when Dr. D mentioned she wanted to write a book aimed at teaching residents how todo psychotherapy. It would start with a section on What Makes a Good Therapist? What does she thinks makes a good therapist? Real life experiences which impart an ability to empathize. Do we grow from our own difficulties? More specifically, do we grow in to better therapists? I asked another shrink this, and he said that people like to believe there is some meaning to their suffering, and perhaps it's nice to believe that if you've been stuck suffering, then it makes you a better therapist, but he wasn't so convinced it was true. Me? I don't know, maybe. Or maybe not. Personally, I'm fine with the idea of not suffering, at all, ever again, so long as I live.

In residency, I was taught that warmth and empathy are important to being a good therapist. Empathy would speak to Dr. D's theory. These are hard things to teach--- I don't know how you make someone feel what they don't feel and empathy is there or it isn't. I do think people can learn responses that get perceived as empathic, and that this is important. When a patient talks about sadness around an issue and the shrink does not feel empathy, it's still important to have a modulated response that acknowledges the patient's feelings-- this sounds terribly difficult....tell me more about how you are feeling...or kind, gentle, silence, but not, "Yeah, yeah, well I'm glad your old hag of a cousin died, she was never nice to you anyway."

So what do I think makes a good therapist? The ability to listen and hear what the patient is saying, even if the shrink doesn't agree. A non-judgmental stance, and this can be harder than it appears. It seems obvious, but it can be hard when a patient talks about hard-to-hear things, such as a pro-racism viewpoint, or disliking people of the doctor's religion or political party, or feeling happy that another person is person is suffering.

Non-dismissive is even better. No one wants to hear that their feelings are stupid or unjustified.

Kind. That's important.

Probing in a way that brings up new information and insights.

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