How Can You Trust a Therapist’s Authority?

Confession: the first time I went to therapy, I’d been a therapist for more than five years.

I asked a friend for a recommendation. He gave me the name of a therapist. I conveniently lost the number. Several weeks later, I asked him for it again, and he gave it to me again. It collected dust for a few more weeks. Then, one day, when the suffering within me finally outweighed the resistance within me, I made the call.

No one likes to schedule a first therapy session.

therapist naperville

Photo Credit: stockasso (Bigstock)

It’s hard enough to spill your mess in front of a perfect stranger. It’s hard enough to present your pain to someone you’ve never met. It’s hard enough to reveal your hidden parts to someone you have not yet begun to trust. But, ironically, it’s particularly hard in therapy, not because you don’t know anything about this therapist person, but because you think you know at least one thing:

You think they’re different than you.

They’re a therapist, so they’ve got it all together. They’ve figured it out. They’ve arrived. Whether by good fortune or good training or some combination of the two, they are on a whole different level of health and happiness. They may not be superhuman, but as you pick up the phone, you assume they are at least a little better human than you.

This, is baloney.

The authority of a therapist does not come from some big difference; it comes from just a little bit of distance.

A therapist with true authority is someone who’s gone on a journey into their own inner world. Into their own mess. Into their own pain. Into their own hiddenness. They’ve ventured all the way into their own humanity and, along the way, they’ve discovered a few essential things about what it means to heal:

It’s scary to unhide what we’ve hidden, even from ourselves. It hurts to dig through our mess and our brokenness and our disappointments and our sorrow. There are dark, dark stretches along the interior road that begins with a phone call and ends at the heart of who we are. But, at the heart of each of us, is a light—a flicker, perhaps, a guttering flame, an ember waiting on oxygen, but a light nonetheless. Rediscovering it, and fanning it back to life, doesn’t happen overnight. But it can be done. Patiently. Steadily. And eventually, joyously.

A therapist isn’t on a higher path; they are simply a stone’s throw ahead of you on your path—this human path we are all walking.

This is why therapists with true authority—those who aren’t interested in superiority and power—are constantly trying to give their authority away. Their deepest desire for their relationship with you is to close the gap. To call you forward, to where they stand. They want you to join them in the light. They want you to join them right in the middle of the very good news about why you are here.

You are here, simply, to be more fully human, to be more fully you, just like the rest of us.

Even those of us with a diploma hanging on the wall.

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By the way, this is the philosophy of the therapy practice I co-founded, Artisan Clinical Associates. Click here to read our practice’s mission statement, entitled “The Artisan Way.”

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Cathy Bogen Kraft

    Lovely, Kelly. Spot on. My therapist has, through the years, very matter of factly revealed some of her own journey. One step ahead of mine, just as you said. This post makes me miss her. We’re moving so she and I have wrapped up our sessions.

    • Cathy, it sounds like your therapist showed great care and wisdom, to know how much to reveal without making the process about her. I’m so glad your path crossed with hers for a while.

      • Rita Kerley

        Kelly… always good to hear your voice or read your words! Honestly, my best therapists were my parents ( esp. mom) because they DID listen & being professional they did NOT judge! Wish I could say or think that of my generation or yours or our grandkids! Wake up folks… ya really gotta listen b4 you act or respond! Hugs to you & Mrs. Dr Kelly… always inspiring!

  • Jody

    Well, Kelly, you did it again. You have this ability to see into the heart of matters and then articulate the truths eloquently, simply, deeply. In one of my women’s groups the women decided to stay in touch after the retreat and they came up with the name: “Beautiful Works in Progress” BWiPs for short. I was included. It still touches me deeply.

    • From one BWiP to another, thank you for this, Jody, and thank you for everything you do to help others embrace that reality.

  • Laura Auzina

    My issue with authority is more of how to find a matching one. My deepest fear in my darkest times was that what if this therapist is too mainstream and judging or too rough…
    So my question is more how to get in line the stuff above. Though, it did take me a while to get therapists words in serious while seeing his imperfections.

    • Laura, it’s a great question. Typically, if a therapist has gone through their own therapy, they will not be judging or rough, because they know how vulnerable the process can be. They will typically be patient, compassionate, encouraging, and hopeful.

  • Kelly Tan

    Well said. I always find the key be a good therapist is ongoing self-development and inner journey which is often more arduous than our “external” walk in life. It is only when the inner flame is lighted, you hold the torch knowingly or unknowingly for the client sitting opposite you.

  • Christi Masso Byerly

    So true. I’m a life coach, and that’s exactly it. We are all on a journey, and we all need a good witness to our lives, so we can see who we are inside.

    • We all need a witness. Absolutely, Christi. It’s a great way to frame one of our most important roles.

  • This made me stop and think about what it was about the counselor that helped my husband and I through a long and difficult period of our lives. I realize that every time I drive by her office I just want to call and see how she is doing..and that’s because she let us in to HER life just enough to help us to know that we were not as on the outside as we thought. We maintained a professional relationship but I would go on vacation with this woman! I’m so grateful there are those of you out there that are like that..human. (:

    • Thank you for sharing this, Donna. Your story highlights that it is possible to be both vulnerable and professional at the same time. Finding that middle ground as a therapist is such an important part of the process!

  • Mari Van

    What is the difference between counsellors, clinical counsellors, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists etc? I have been quite disappointed in the ‘quality’ of available “help”. Some quite cleary need help themselves and in no position to give help, others are unconcerned and just putting in the hours, and by in large many are just too distracted and /or busy with their own lives to be able to make any difference in someone else’s.

  • D Boyd

    Like recovery, you only need to be one step ahead to shine a light on the path for those behind you.