Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The young therapist - Part 1

Jay Haley
“When a therapist is young, he should not try to appear wiser than he is. The beginning therapist is often young and even unmarried. Faced with a couple married for 25 years, the beginner may be tempted to act as if he understands that stage of marriage as well as they do. It is not so. Instead, the therapist should find a stance to work from that is acceptable to the older couple. For example, the beginner can say, “Obviously you know more about marriage than I do since you’ve been married for a long time, and certainly you know more about your marriage than I do. But as an outsider, I can offer you an objective view of some of your problems.””


This has some personal significance for me because I began as a very young therapist. I began running my first therapy groups with a cotherapist when I was 22 years old. Probably about a year later I started seeing clients individually and has done so ever since. My circumstances were unusual in that both my parents were psychologists and they ran one of the first ever private therapy training institutes in the city where I lived.
I started my original psychology degree when I was 20 years old and began in my parents training institute when I was 21. In those days in a university psychology degree you would study psychology for three or four years before you actually got to work directly with any clients. In the private training institute it was very hands on. Starting with being a therapist with another student as a client in the training group with the supervisor there. Then as a cotherapist with ‘real’ clients and then finally in individual therapy, all under supervision of course until one passed the exam and was qualified.
When I began in the private training institute I was the youngest by far and remained the youngest student in it for a number of years. I experienced the situation of an early to mid 20 year old therapist working with adult clients who were at time many years older than me.

Bob tea rotto TA
My mother with Bob Goulding on workshop - holiday. The person sitting with the long hair in front is myself (early 20s year old at the time)

Obviously I was aware of this and at times I did think of it but not really all that often. I can only recall one situation where a client stated it to me that I was young. It is highly likely that some talked about my age to others in their life when they talked about the therapy they were doing with me. 
However in the early years I always worked in private practice which meant the clients who came to see me, they selected me and paid me money to counsel them. They were not assigned to me which can happen in a counselling agency where the client does not get to choose which therapist they see. This I imagine allowed for some self selection by clients. If they felt my age was a problem they would have never selected me in the first place and this may account for the fact that only one client ever said anything to me.
I can recall talking about it with other trainee therapists and thinking about it my self. This is why I have quoted Haley above. What view can one take of this, as young therapists are not all that uncommon. Haley’s point seems to be quite a good one and what I used to say was a bit similar. My view was:
“I have learnt the basic theory and the basic techniques so I just do what I do. If people get something out of it they will come to see me and if they don’t then they wont.” 
I think this is similar to what Haley says. There is no attempt to justify or explain away the age issue. No attempt to say that age does not matter or some similar kind of thing. It is a statement of I am who I am and the input I can provide. This is available if you want it and if you do not, that is OK.

girl whistle blower
Young adults.

What is the problem?
Obviously the problem for the young therapist is a lack of life experience. But does this mean anything. As a young therapist I lacked more (at times much more) life experience that almost all of my clients. However people still voluntarily came to see me and obviously got something out of being my client. 
At that age I did not understand what effect lesser life experience would have on me as a therapist. Now as an older person I do understand. This lack of understanding actually helped I think because at that age I had belief in myself. It was not until later that I realized maybe my belief in self was a bit unrealistic. However I had a confidence in what I was doing and most people respond favorably to a person who has confidence and particularly a person who just is who they are which my statement above tends to say. I never tried to show my self as being more experienced than I was and never felt the need to justify myself. I accepted myself as a 22 year old therapist doing what he had been trained to do with the personal and professional resources he had at that time.
Clearly young therapists can and do work effectively, so life experience is by no means a necessity for an effective therapist. Having said that life experience can help. Having been a very young therapist and now an older therapist I am of the view that it can help in the practice of therapy.

girls on bridge

All new therapists are technicians, no matter how old they are. They have been taught the basic theory and practical techniques of the therapy they are trained in. When they meet their first clients they apply those techniques were it is appropriate. The practice of therapy can have a mechanical feel in this way. After time as they get life experience as a therapist they can stop being a person who just applies the technique and they can relate more to the client as a person who also does therapy with them. You can’t make that shift without the life experience as a therapist no matter how much other life experience one may have. Thus it is my view that life experience as a therapist is more important than life experience in general.


  1. I started young too, and the only real negativity I got was from other people in my field that were older, yet less qualified. I guess they felt threatened. A few clients made comments about my age in the early years, and I found after a session they're concerns were gone. Even now I've worked with clients 30 years my senior, but the same goes - once a client gets past physical appearance and sees what you have to offer - concerns disappear.

  2. Replies
    1. Hi Tony, it's Louise (your supervisee from a long time ago!). I find it hard to comment on your blog without signing up...sorry!

  3. Young people can be real too Tony. I don't think the inclination to phoniness and being a technician is age related. Perhaps it increases with age - older people believing they have got results with the methods they have developed and so if clients don't get better it is obviously the client's fault.

  4. I am not saying that anything is phoney Evan. What I did say was that any beginner therapist of any age will begin as a technician because they have never done it before and all they have is what they have been taught in the classroom. As they get more experience as being a practicing therapist then that lessens over time.

  5. I had a young student last semester and she lacked confidence as well. Her skills were excellent, but she didn't quite believe in them. A couple of clients asked for a more mature counsellor. We did. I agree with you Tony, it was not her age, but her lack of confidence that the clients picked up on.

  6. Thanx for your comment Rosymosie and your observation is interesting. That distinction between lack of experience and lack of confidence seems to be a valid one to make. They can be seen as two different things but of course they can be related as well. More experience can result in an increase in confidence and hopefully this will happen to the student you talk about. Graffiti

  7. This is off topic, but you had some magnificent hair in those days :D

  8. ...perhaps you could further the blog posts with a section on confidence?

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