A highly popular notion in the field of psychotherapy purports that any professional psychotherapist should be him or herself in psychotherapy, either presently or in the past. Indeed, the notion that "the more the better" is often invoked to suggest that therapists should themselves be in near constant treatment.
With all due respect to my colleagues in the field, I vehemently disagree.
To begin, the argument is often made that engaging is psychotherapy leads to personal awareness and growth that is essential to the practitioner of psychotherapy. This is an unassailable truth. What, then, could be the problem? The problem lies in the following logical, but troubling syllogism: IF adverse experiences lead to personal awareness and growth, AND I want to increase my personal awareness and growth, THEN I should seek out adverse experiences. This is entirely logical, yet deeply wrong and disturbing. The logic here would suggest that one should go out of one's way to bring adversity to oneself. Indeed, this problem in logic is addressed by commentators who suggest that Shaul HaMelech refused to wipe out Amalek for this very logical flaw. He wanted to allow for adversity to exist so that Klal Yisrael would have to overcome it. The mistake was not the logic, per se, but that adversity that comes from HaShem Yisboroch is perfectly designed to elicit personal growth, whereas man-induced adversity is flawed and dangerous.
This flawed logic is also what drives the phenomenon of hazing or other painful rituals. The rituals are composed of pain and adversity purely for its own sake, and those who defend it do so with the same arguments of personal growth and group cohesion. That it results in these benefits is largely true; however, the seeking out of pain and adversity is deeply troubling.
Psychotherapy is an experience of adversity. Baring one's soul, sharing intimate information, and working through problems is painful and best reserved for those with whom we have intimate relationships, not strangers whom we pay and with whom we are unfamiliar. Though it is painful and averse, it is also necessary for healing when one has a problem that requires addressing. Indeed, most forms of healing are averse in the short term. Shots and many other forms of medical healing involve pain and discomfort. They, are however, necessary for healing. So, while engaging in psychotherapy is an experience of adversity, it is most certainly recommended for those in need. Seeking it out, however, in the absence of need, is akin to seeking pain and discomfort for its own sake.
Consider the following analogy: If a doctor were to break his leg and become a patient, he would no doubt become a better doctor as a result. He would understand what it feels like to be vulnerable and to otherwise be the patient in relationship to doctors, not to mention what person growth he would experience from learning to appreciate his body and the kindness of his support network. The question then arises: Does the fact that this would undoubtedly result in him being a better doctor lead to the conclusion that he should go out and intentionally break his leg? Most certainly not. Thus, the fact that being in psychotherapy will undoubtedly make a therapist into a better therapist should not lead to the conclusion that the therapist should seek out the adverse experience of psychotherapy.
Of course, there will be some who would disagree that psychotherapy is an adverse experience. In anticipation of this, I will offer two critiques. Firstly, as I mentioned before, a healthy person has strong boundaries around revealing personal information and becoming vulverable to others. S/he reserves this for his or her intimate relationships. The sad reality is that, often, psychotherapists have poor boundaries in this area. They are often all too willing to share their intimate world with others, even eager to do so. Indeed, I would suggest that this very issue accounts for much of the cultural chasm between psychotherapists and the rest of humanity. When psychotherapists encounter a "resistant" client, they often label the client as pathological, when, in fact, the client may be expressing a healthy hesitancy to be revealing to the psychotherapist stranger. That the therapist often sees this as pathological says more about the pathology of the therapist than it does of the client.
Secondly, as a Torah Jew, I find difficulty with the supposition that psychotherapy is a path toward personal awareness or other forms of enlightenment. There is only one such path and one only: Torah. When psychotherapy is used to heal mental illness and psychological pain, then it is a form of refuah, which is clearly sanctioned by Torah. When, however, it drifts into a good in and of itself that leads to self-awareness and wisdom, then it is something else entirely. Whether explicity or implicitly, it suggests that Torah is insufficient to achieve these lofty goals, and psychotherapy is needed to fill the gap. That we, as individuals, may not have achieved these goals through Torah, does not negate the primacy of Torah as the one and only path to wisdom, self and otherwise. At the end of the day, it is difficult for me to, "l'chatchila," justify the regular use of many hours spent on psychotherapy that is not spent learing Torah or otherwise engaging in mitzvos.
Finally, to return to the analogy to hazing, I will suggest that some longtime psychotherapists seem to justify the necessity of newer therapists being in treatment with a vehemence that suggests the subtle message of "I had to go through this, so you do too." Again, this kind of thinking harkens back to the senior fraternity member or senior commander hazing the new recruit with the same mindset.
As psychotherapists and Jews, we are well educated and trained to think critically. The manner in which psychotherapists are often criticized or pressured to enter psychotherapy strikes me as problematic. It is my sincere hope that this article will inspire others to question both the premise of the argument and manner in which it is often conveyed.
I anticipate and welcome comments and dialogue.