June 14, 2024
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June 14, 2024
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Therapist and Client: Fellow Travelers

There are many ways to view the relationship between a client and their therapist. Some people see it as one would a patient and their doctor. The patient has an issue or problem that needs resolution — in the case of talk therapy it’s often related to mental illness, relationship troubles or challenging life events — and the therapist is qualified to facilitate coping or resolution of these issues. In this perspective, the relationship may be more “cold” in nature, as there is less emphasis on the relationship as much as addressing the issues at hand.

Others may view this relationship more so as an elite level friendship. The client has an opportunity to speak with a professional on a regular basis, who excels in areas such as listening, compassion and empathy. With this mindset, the relationship may be viewed in a “warmer” light, as it is the very connection between the client and therapist which is a key facilitator of growth.

These are only a couple of the many ways therapy and the therapeutic relationship can be viewed as. All perspectives are valid and each person is entitled to have their own idea of what the relationship should look like and how they would personally benefit from therapy.

I’d like to share a perspective on the therapy relationship which I learned from the well-known psychiatrist and writer Dr. Irvin Yalom in his book, “The Gift of Therapy.” Yalom expresses that in his many years as a psychotherapist, he had seen various terms used to describe the therapist-client relationship: user/provider, client/counselor and patient/therapist were some examples. He relates that not only did these descriptions poorly and inaccurately describe the relationship, they actually repulsed him! Why is that so?

Yalom went on to explain that therapists are not powerful healers who have some great advantage over other humans. They are not better than or more superior to the people they help. He describes that oftentimes clients possess a fantasy-like view of their therapists. They may feel as if their therapist is a greater being or simply better than they are. Yalom felt that the terms mentioned above suggest a power dynamic between the therapist and client, as if therapists have some kind of authority or power over them.

In reality, all therapists are as human as anyone else. They endure hardship and struggle just as anyone else does. They may have difficulties in areas such as their own mental health or personal relationships. They have experienced successes and failures as much as the next person. They are people who have been on a journey of growth. Their own process of learning about themselves and others around them may have sparked a passion to choose to help others as well. They may have decided to pursue an education in areas such as psychology or counseling to further this knowledge and become more informed. Their own path toward healing may have deepened their capacity to comprehend human suffering and hardship. So yes, they may be a therapist, but they are first and foremost a human. This is why Yalom ultimately felt the most appropriate term to describe the therapist-client relationship was “fellow travelers.” Humans who help others as they themselves continue to discover and heal themselves.

Let’s bring back this concept into our current view of the therapy relationship. Obviously, for practical purposes we aren’t going to start referring to our therapist as our “fellow traveler” (although I like the ring of it). It’s perfectly okay to refer to them (depending on their credentials) as our doctor, therapist or counselor. However, more important than their title is how we view what a therapist should and should not be. A therapist is not some cold, distant or superior expert. On the contrary, they should be extremely human. No two people are the same, but a common thread of qualities therapists should possess are emotional intelligence, empathy and most importantly, to be humans who are themselves in a process of growth. We may not know the private details of a therapist’s life, such as if they self-reflect or go to therapy themselves. However, we can trust our intuition as to whether they are the type of person who is or isn’t this way.

On a personal note, I would say that my own life experiences were the number one influence on why I chose to help others. My very raw and human journey furthered my interest in human nature and growth, which then led to receiving formal education and training to become a therapist. Some of the best therapists I know are individuals who had personally dealt with challenges from anxiety and depression to substance use issues and traumatic experiences. A great therapist is great not in spite of their own challenges and process, but because of them. Because they are on a journey themselves as they help others; because they are fellow travelers.


Josh Frank, LMSW is a psychotherapist who works with clients experiencing anxiety and related issues. Josh and his wife Sarah are residents of Teaneck. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram @therapy.with.josh for more mental health content.

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