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Preparing to be Self-Aware Therapists

Stories | 03.04.19

Katie Roach is a first-year student in the Master of Arts in Couple and Family Therapy program in Chicago. Roach shares her first experiences at Adler University and how the University’s unique approach has helped shape her as a future therapist and socially responsible practitioner.

I remember my group interview day at Adler University vividly.

The contemporary campus sits atop the 15th and 16th floors of a Chicago skyscraper with students milling around campus looking more professional than collegiate and an environment that is collaborative and small enough I’d call it cozy. But that’s not what struck me about my day interviewing at Adler, one of several programs I perused. What struck me was a phrase I’d never heard before, one that came up again and again as we were introduced to first-year students and faculty: Self of the therapist.

I don’t think too many students start off their therapy master’s programs knowing what “self of the therapist” work is even if they come from psychology backgrounds. (And me? I majored in journalism.) At Adler, it’s not just a cornerstone of our work – it’s what makes the entire program unique.

When faculty left us with those same first-year students to ask questions about the program, we were told that our entire sense of self would do a full 180, and for some reason, that’s exactly what I wanted.

Popping the Hood of Your World Paradigm

One definition of self-of-the-therapist work might be “sorting through your own stuff.” Another, and one of my favorites, is borrowed from Minuchin: You just might be your own best asset in the therapy room, more so than any theory or specific orientation. We may one day tell clients we want to help them get out of their own way, and in many ways, this is a crucial and foundational step of being a good therapist to those clients. It also helps us serve our communities through social justice.

Self-of-the-therapist work is the practice of digging through our own minds, assessing for pain points, specific cultural paradigms, unhealed wounds, special skills, values, beliefs, wisdom, and worries. After all, clients and practitioners alike are all human; in many ways, we are the sum total of our life experiences, which have shaped our perception of the world in ways we need to know so that they don’t get in the way of our work and our lives. Self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-esteem are all positive byproducts of self-of-the-therapist work. Who doesn’t want to emerge from a master’s therapy program as a better person?

At Adler, the phrase self-of-the-therapist is used almost as often as the phrase, “So what just came up for you?” which is saying something. Ask any student who’s been here for more than a couple months and they’ll tell you that they can feel themselves metamorphosing.

Cohort Camaraderie

Anyone who’s attended middle school understands what can happen when peers are made to go through all their classes together, eat lunch together, work on group projects together, and commiserate over homework assignments together. Students laugh together, cry together, and form permanent bonds.

Enter: the collegiate cohort model. A very important and deliberate aspect of what defines the experience of the Couples and Family Therapy program is the way students spend all of their time collaborating and learning together. The program is generally small, and we take every single one of our classes together our first couple semesters, splitting up rarely for select classes. It’s a microcosm for growth and exploration, both of ourselves and of classmates who have radically different backgrounds. At Adler, this experience is taken to the next level through cohort group therapy.

The Gift of Clarity

One of the most impactful things about the personal work we do here at Adler University is that it helps all of us see clearly – see ourselves clearly, see our clients clearly, and see the world a little more clearly, too.

Our self-of-the-therapist work helps us mitigate all the ways we might be getting in our own way. It also helps us see that we’ve accumulated a life’s worth of wisdom and understanding that serve as valuable tools with our clients. It helps us see that our stories have crafted empathetic and resilient humans who can help our clients unearth their own resiliency and empathy, too, and that to feel a little unsure of yourself is part of the human experience. Our stories have gifted us communication skills and honed our intuitions, all of which play an invaluable role in the therapy room. To me, it is a beautiful gift that illustrates why so many of us are drawn to the field of therapy.

To quote Virginia Satir, who championed the Self-of-the-Therapist model, “Maybe I had so much success with people, not because of what I know, but because of who I am.” At Adler University, students find symbiosis in the merging of both.

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