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Sometimes what you do for others benefits you, too.
Toward the end of our first Talking Therapy podcast, my co-host Marvin Goldstein, PhD, quoted Sidney Blatt, PhD, as saying he felt best as a person when doing psychotherapy.
I immediately resonated with Blatt's insight, realized it also applied to me, and spent the next week trying to figure out why I felt like a better man while doing therapy than in most, if not all, of my other roles in life.
I came up with these 3 interacting ways in which doing therapy is therapeutic for the therapist.
First, and perhaps foremost, is the utter unselfishness that is required if one is to correctly function as a therapist. I'm by nature not a very selfish person, but my motives aren't always purely selfless—even with those I love most. But I can recall only a few instances during a long career when I knowingly put my personal interests above my patient's—and these all had to do with choosing family first (as when my kids were born or a family member became ill). Having been unselfish with patients helped me learn how to be unselfish with others and, in the process, made me a better person.
Second comes the special intimacy that's inherent in the therapeutic relationship. I've felt closer to some of my patients than to almost everyone else in my life. It is a special privilege to share in other people's most private experiences, thoughts, feelings, hopes, heartbreaks, griefs, disappointments, and triumphs. Doing psychotherapy brought out depths of feeling in me I did not naturally have and saved me from becoming the shallow, frivolous, and immature person that was my likely destiny.
Finally, doing therapy helps therapists because it is so gratifying to be helpful to others. Not every therapy works, but most do at least to some extent, and sometimes you get to see people make really giant leaps in their lives. It's impossible to know how much you are actually contributing, and unfair and unwise to ever take credit, but it certainly feels good to be part of your patient's feeling and doing better.
I've always felt extremely grateful to my patients for letting me see the world through their eyes and teaching me so many things about life I never could have learned any other way. But I never recognized the added bonus--they were also making me a much better person and this allowed me to feel better about myself.
Dr Frances is professor and chair emeritus in the department of psychiatry at Duke University. Find him on Twitter @AllenFrancesMD.