I think the best description of how I approach being a psychotherapist is to say that I “re-parent” my patients.
When I was training in psychotherapy in the 70s, reparenting was part of the classic model. I believe our profession has moved away from taking on this role but I can’t imagine doing what I do in any other way.
The people who come to see me usually have significant problems. Their traumatic issues and experiences cut deeply into who they are and disrupt their lives and relationships. I would say that every one of them suffers from seriously flawed parenting. Growing up in their families of origin included either harsh discipline, neglect, alcoholism or drug use, or some type of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
The people my patients loved and trusted and depended on for their lives – their parents – significantly betrayed them in some way.
There are important things they didn’t learn; they weren’t able to grow up in the right ways. They want their lives to be good but things keep going wrong for them in ways they sometimes understand and sometimes are completely confused about. They need to be reparented.
And I want to say, right off, that this role is a huge one to shoulder. To do it right, with integrity and humility, is very, very hard. The burden of responsibility to reparent my patients is as awesome a responsibility as being an actual parent of a child.
It was in the role of a parent with one of my patients last week that I needed to share one of the most difficult experiences of my life. My patient was at a critical turning point and needed to be able to learn from my example, like a good father helping his kids learn from his mistakes. Believe me, I thought about this very carefully. I don’t like sharing this story and I need to be absolutely sure that by sharing it I’m really going to help someone.
I decided to go ahead. As usual after telling this story, I ended up sweating, drained, and shaking inside. I had trouble sleeping that night.
I hope my patient heard me. Now I’ll see where he goes with it.