I heard an interesting question posed on CNN that got my gears turning. The poll question was whether having served in the military was essential to the role of presidency. One respondent argued that there is no teacher as good as life itself. Another stated that knowledge about the issues is even more valuable than experience. As I was crafting my own answer to the question, I began thinking about how this applies to the counseling profession (doesn’t everything?)
Is there a value ranking for education versus experience? Does the therapist who has been through an experience possess heightened insight; more so than the therapist who has received only academic training in that area? This is not to say that therapists should strive to experience difficult life events in order to gain first-hand knowledge, but I wonder if having a lived experience could serve to enhance the ability of the therapist to work with the client.
It seems that it may be as (if not more) important for therapists to be aware of their life experiences as it is for them to be up-to-date with changes in the field. After all, interventions are nothing if not applied in a real world context and knowing when to use one is dependent upon the clinician’s ability to “read” what is taking place. It’s fairly low-impact to engage in a workshop about dealing with couples as they struggle with infidelity but it’s another to sit across from a raging couple. Perhaps a better understanding of that experience makes the difference between a good and great therapist in that moment.
When it comes to education or experience, it may be easy to have too much of a good thing. The answer may rest in the balance between how much the therapist engages and processes in education and how much she does the same in her personal life. I’m an advocate of therapy for therapists, not only because of the “education” it provides in seeing what it is like for the client but because it allows the experience of processing our own life events (which informs us as clinicians whether we think so or not). Taking education and experience hand-in-hand can be used to create a more fully aware and professional therapist.
As I read posts and articles by practicing clinicians, I note how many of them attribute their professional acumen to time in the field. Like most other professions, it’s reasonable to get better with more practice. However, the act of counseling is more than just practice made perfect. At it’s most basic level, it’s a profession that focuses on life and responses to life events. It makes sense that in the 10, 20, or 30 years of practicing, therapists face their own life events which inform their understanding of what might be coming up for a client who is in the throes of a similar experience. It’s not just the acquisition of knowledge that enhances their clinical abilities; it’s their acquisition of life experience.