Life experience is an interesting thing which older therapists have more of than younger therapists. Most view it as a positive but it can also be a negative especially if one is a psychotherapist. Without a doubt life experience can be a positive thing for a therapist to have. A person who is 45 will obviously have more life experience than a person who is 25 years old. If they are a practicing therapist this can influence how they work. The older person has extra knowledge about life that the younger person does not have.
If one has been married and divorced they have first hand knowledge of that. Some one who has never been married and divorced can not know about it in the same way which is more likely for the younger therapist. If a client presents who is currently going through a divorce then the therapist who has been divorced knows more about the process and more importantly more about the psychological process one goes through when getting divorced.
If the therapist tells the client they have been divorced then the client can have a feeling of more confidence in the therapist and can have a sense of increased connection with the therapist. The client feels that he and the therapist have a commonality in that way, which they do. In this way the life experience of the therapist can assist the therapeutic process.
However it is not always so sunny. If a couple come to counselling because of marital disharmony and learn the therapist has been divorced this may result in a lack of confidence in the therapist. They have the view that if the therapist cannot sort out his own marital problems how can he ever help others to do so. The young therapist who has never been married or divorced can not have this problem.
Similar to this is the client who seeks counselling for parenting difficulties. They are having difficulty managing their own children or adolescents. I have heard people say they would never seek assistance for their parenting with a therapist who is not a parent them self. However what if the therapist’s children are not all that well adjusted and may be causing all sorts of difficulties for the therapist. Will that be a positive or a negative for the therapist in the eyes of the client. All parents stuff up some where along the line and all children have emotional difficulties to some degree. The young therapist who has no children does not have this on their resume.
In my new book to come out next month - Working with drug and alcohol users - I discuss this very topic. If a drug counsellor has had a history of drug issues is that a positive or a negative. If a client asks a drug counselor directly if they have ever used drugs, does the therapist answer the question, and if so how. How it is dealt with by the therapist can result in the personal life experience of the therapist (whether they have used drugs or not) being a positive or a negative for the therapy.
However there are more things to consider in the life experience conundrum. When one has a major life experience like a divorce that will psychologically impact on them. Their own Child ego state will be effected by the experience and that may be a negative psychological experience. The Child ego state of the young never divorced psychotherapist has never been negatively effected in that way.
Some come out of a divorce feeling bitter and pessimistic about the opposite gender. If the therapist has been impacted like this, is their extra life experience going to be a positive in the therapeutic process especially if the client is of the opposite gender? The young therapist is never going to have this dilemma.
Is the ex smoker (or smoker) going to be better at helping people give up?
Life experience does afford the therapist an extra knowledge or deeper level of understanding of the client who is going through the same experience. This can then allow more of a connection between the client and therapist. However the therapist’s Child ego state may be negatively effected by that experience which may negatively impact on how effectively they work as a therapist on this issue.
Related to this is the idea of the hot potatoe. It is observed sometimes in the field of psychology that some therapists gravitate to counselling in those areas that have been part of their own life experience. The woman who suffer PND herself ends up counselling other women suffering PND. The person who was sexually abused as child ends up counseling others who have been through the same. The man who had a significant drug problem ends up counseling in a drug rehab centre.
In all these areas the therapist’s personal life experience can be a good help in the ways I have described above. However the question needs to be asked - what’s in it for the therapist to work with clients who have similar issues? What is their own Child ego state getting out of it? For most there is no problem, however the phenomena of the hot potatoe is real and does exist for some.
In this instance the therapist is in some way living through the client because they have not dealt with their own difficulties about their similar life experiences. The therapist can pass their own issue (the hot potatoe) onto the client. If this happens all sorts of counter transference problems can develop. The young therapist who has never had children can never have suffered PND and thus can never have these sorts of difficulties like the hot potatoe.
Life experience it seems, is a double edged sword. As with so many things in human psychology its not a matter of having a particular trait or feature (in this case life experience) its what you do with it when you have it. The older person who has more life experience can use those experiences to impede their work as a therapist or to improve their work as a therapist. The younger person has less life experience and therefore in their work as a therapist they do not have this same dilemma.