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Why Therapists Should Trust Their Gut
How our inner voice can inform healing.
Posted Aug 13, 2020
In my recent interview with Cherie Currie for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast , Currie boiled down her approach to life and her creative process to a simple formula. “We just have to trust our inner voice. Follow it. That's all we have to do,” Currie told me. She went on to explain how listening to her inner voice informed her as an artist—including her work as a vocalist with The Runaways, her new solo album Blvds of Splendor , and her award-winning work as a chainsaw wood carving artist. Currie explained how listening to her inner voice helped her overcome traumatic events and connect with supportive people who gave her strength in pursuing her life’s purpose. She has been through and has accomplished a great deal. And her wisdom is well taken.
Listening to Currie’s story made me reflect upon my own relationship with my inner voice, my intuition. I recall how decades ago, as I was on my path to becoming a clinical psychologist, I had received advice very similar to Currie’s. When I first began training as a therapist in graduate school, I was 22 years old and “green” to say the least. I had no personal experience in therapy and knew little to nothing about the therapeutic process. However, I was convinced that I knew a great deal because of my formal psychological training and work: I had majored in psychology as an undergraduate, worked in a research laboratory that studied cognitive-behavioral interventions, and was continuing my studies in graduate school. Not to mention, I had always been a good source of a shoulder to cry on for my friends and felt like I could offer helpful suggestions in problem-solving. So, I was fantastic therapist material, right? I was a stunning combination of high arrogance and high ignorance—not a stellar combination for being a clinical psychologist.
But then as I prepared to meet with my first individual one-on-one patient, I noticed a familiar feeling: terror. I knew this feeling but it was previously reserved for apprehension that I might get beaten up by a bully or otherwise publicly humiliated. And slowly but surely, it dawned on me that I was entering a circumstance about which I actually knew very little. Oh, and by the way, there was a person who was in need and expecting me to help them. It was getting very real, very quickly. My arrogance faded and my ignorance felt omnipresent.
What on earth was I supposed to do?
It was around that time that one of my professors gave me a piece of advice that I did not heed at the time, but I will never forget. Trying to seem surer of myself than I was, I asked how I should approach therapy sessions. He said succinctly, “You’ve got to trust your gut.” At that moment, this was unfortunate advice as my gut was telling me to go running out of the room screaming in fear. But he said you always had to trust your gut because that’s what grounds you and allows you to connect with other people. But he was clear—your gut was neither the only relevant piece of information, nor was it necessarily correct. But he explained that while you should always listen to your gut, as you got more experience, more education, supervision, and training, your gut was more likely to be “right” over time.
In retrospect, that advice was dead on. Unfortunately, it took me many years of clinical practice to truly absorb it. At the time I received this advice, I couldn’t connect with it because I was convinced that in order for me to be a good therapist, I needed to suppress every natural instinct that I had. For example, I had a very specific stereotype of what a therapist should be—calm, quiet, demure, unbiased, and never offering up opinions or solutions. In other words, not me. I tend to be outgoing, loud, opinionated and with a frequent inability to stop talking (just ask my wife).
Also, I was very aware that the therapeutic alliance, or relationship between therapist and client, was an important predictor of outcomes in therapy. But the ways that I relate to people—by connecting through shared interests and humor, exchanging personal stories and exploring hopes, dreams and a sense of purpose—seemed to have no place in therapy. I was supposed to be more of a “blank slate.”
So, I believed that I needed to hide who I was. Suppressing myself took many forms. I frequently bit my tongue and avoided sharing insights. I even tried to make my voice softer and higher than it was to smooth over my rough edges. How on earth could I trust myself if everything I represented was the opposite of therapeutic? My gut and my inner voice were meant to be stifled not allowed to roam free.
So, what happened? How did I start trusting my intuition—my inner voice?
As my professor predicted, over time and with more education and experience I saw that my intuition was leading me in more effective directions. For example, I was taught early on to check in with my gut reactions to a client as part of the information I was gaining—perhaps as an indicator of how they may be feeling, or the reactions they may be eliciting from others. That allowed me to have a better holistic sense of that individual’s world.
But more importantly, I came to realize that while being a “blank slate ” may be an effective approach for some therapists, it didn’t work for me. In order for me to connect with my clients, I need to be my authentic self in a way that allows the client to know who I am and what I’m about. Over time I am more and more the same person in sessions that I am outside of sessions. I trust my gut and listen to my inner voice which leads me to have opinions and suggestions that I share with my clients when helpful. And while it may not always be smooth and easy, it’s authentically me. It’s a dynamic collaboration where we work together to help the client effect change in their life.
To be sure, my relationship with my inner voice is an evolving process and not the exclusive factor in improving outcomes with clients. But it has served as a foundation whereby, with ongoing experience, it will hopefully continue to be a vehicle for my development. Towards the end of my conversation with Currie, she said, “You're born with a purpose and honestly, I mean, talking to you, I realize that you followed your path.”
I am grateful to people like Currie and my former professor who champion and value trusting our gut and listening to our inner voice. And one thing that I’m sure of is that doing so has helped me come closer to being the therapist and person that I’m meant to be.
To listen to Dr. Mike's conversation with Cherie Currie, go to the Hardcore Humanism Podcast on HardcoreHumanism.com , Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.