Orlinsky, D.E., Ronnestad, M.H., Hartmann, A., Heinonen, E., & Willutzki, U. (2019). The personal self of psychotherapists: Dimensions, correlates, and relations with patients. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Online first: DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22876
What role does the psychotherapist’s personal self play in determining their interpersonal stances with patients? It is an intriguing question about the intersection between the personal self and the professional self of psychotherapists. Are we different in our personal lives compared to our professional lives? In this large survey of over 10,000 psychotherapists from Europe and North America, Orlinsky and colleagues examine the convergence of the personal and professional self of psychotherapists. The personal self was defined as therapists’ view of the self when engaging in personal relationships. This can include behaviors in close relationships, and also one’s temperament defined as innate sensitivities or proclivities in relationships. Previous research indicated that when relationships are satisfying, life typically feels rich and meaningful – but if personal relationships are limited or non-existent, life can feel empty and meaningless. The survey asked therapists a number of questions, including about how they describe themselves in close personal relationships, what their general proclivities are around affect expression, cognitive style, and expectations of relationships, and how they rated their life satisfaction. Half of the sample of psychotherapists were psychologists, and there was also a large representation of psychiatrists, counsellors, and social workers. Major theoretical orientations were represented (psychodynamic, CBT, humanistic), and therapists came from a number of countries mainly in Europe and North America. Most psychotherapists identified themselves as caring (friendly and warm: 85%) in close relationships, but some also reported being more forceful (authoritative: 37%) and reclusive (guarded: 27.6%). In terms of temperament most therapists were optimistic and intuitive (84% each), but some also indicated more pragmatic (72%) or skeptical (25%). Therapists who more caring and expressive also reported higher levels of personal life satisfaction. In general, therapists who were more caring in their personal relationships reported being more affirming with patients (r = .52), those who were more forceful in personal relationships tended to be more directive with patients (r = .48), and those who were more reclusive in personal relationships were more reserved with patients (r = .20).
Not surprisingly, most therapists saw themselves as warm, affiliative, optimistic, and receptive in personal relationships. But, many therapists (35%) also described themselves in negative terms (reserved, guarded, skeptical) in close relationship. Although psychotherapists may see their personal relationships and their professional relationships as independent, this large multinational survey indicates otherwise. Personal relationship style and temperament has a moderate to large association with professional interpersonal style with patients. This may indicate that therapists generally are genuine (consistent with themselves) in their relationship with patients. But other therapists may have to reign in more negative aspects of their selves and social behaviors in order to be empathic and caring towards patients.