Preliminaries to Training in Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapies

By Patrick Sell

What sort of preliminary issues come up for people who are thinking about training and qualifying in one of the humanistic and integrative psycho­therapy trainings? What sort of different life experiences are important before training? Should trainees have previous academic qualifications before training as a therapist? Is it a good idea for prospective trainees to have individual psychotherapy before starting their training? If so, of what type, and for how long before starting? Or, as individuals vary so much, is it better to leave this question open so that people can decide what is best for themselves?

To some extent these questions depend on the sort of courses being taken. Different training bodies and disciplines across the whole spectrum of psychotherapy emphasise different preliminary requirements for trainees.1 Some psychoanalytic schools, for example, require a medical degree (i.e. seven years preliminary training) before a student can begin to train as an analyst. Other trainings place more emphasis on having a certain range of life experience. Unfortunately it is difficult to quantify life experience or to make a general rule about it, i.e; if we say – “this much life experience of that sort and within this range of experience is necessary for a trainee to begin training as a humanistic and integrative therapist”  – we can end up excluding all sorts of valid and valuable life experience from trainings.

People are unique and different from one another, and their life experi­ence may be sufficient to turn to training as therapists at different times. Wilhelm Reich was a powerful therapist at the age of twenty three, others have come into therapy trainings effectively at seventy or more years of age. Perhaps the balance of qualifications and life experience appropriate to humanistic and integrative psychotherapy is more important than the actual detailed requirements?

Humanistic and integrative orientated trainings tend to have some similar requirements and attitudes to preliminaries to training, perhaps because these trainings are based in part on similar underlying values and philo­sophies, however much they may vary in overt content2 – ranging, for example, from person centred counselling to psychotherapeutic bodywork and from gestalt therapy to transpersonal psychotherapy. These sorts of underlying values arc based on the recognition of people’s own unique path to healthy development and growth, whether as students, clients, or therapists and the primacy of awareness and individual experience in taking charge of their own lives. They can often lead to less emphasis being put on academic achievement or qualifications and more onto the potential for self-directed growth and experiential learning. Whether or not to have psycho­therapy before starting a training, and what sort to have is really part of the bigger question of whether or not trainee therapists need to have psycho­therapy at all.

Most humanistic and integrative trainings emphasise personal growth and experience as a main part of the learning involved in becoming a counsellor or psychotherapist.3 This emphasis on experiential learning makes it essential, (literally ‘of the essence’ in learning how to be a therapist), that trainees should have their own therapy. After all, how can a therapist attempt to ‘hold’ a client journeying into an unknown story, perhaps facing his or her pain openly for the first time since childhood, if the therapist has never been held in a similar way? Perhaps one of the most important lessons for any therapist is the experience of simply being accompanied where it seems there was no road, at least for some of the time.

It is important to know the difference between the intellectual under­standing of being ‘held’ in therapy, and the real inner experience that can come from it. Although some of the feelings that can come up in therapy may not be easy to bear, being ‘met where we are’ and accompanied in our feelings by someone who is with us sensitively, but is not frightened or disturbed by our pain and chaos, can lead to a sense of security. Even though difficult feelings can still be disturbing us, we might not have to suppress them so much. This could leave us more energy and freedom to address ourselves to life more openly.

From the experience of being held as clients we can take in something solid and make an internal model of what it is to be accompanied in a fearful and chaotic place. We don’t need to think this model up out of mental constructions, but rather, we elaborate and develop internally what our lived experience in therapy might have brought us. When we work as therapists, our inner model of being met and accompanied can help to empower us to act in resonance with the client’s needs, rather than simply to re-act to them, trying to control their chaos or fix their problems for them. This can leave us more free to wait, perhaps, and do nothing, trusting in a client’s sense of inner direction, or to step in and push a little if necessary, or to contain things if they seem to be going too far too fast.

Most trainings do now stress the importance of the trainee’s own therapy during training, but there is some difference of opinion about the importance of having had therapy before starting to train. Some psychotherapy and counselling trainings, for example, place more emphasis on previous academic qualifications, such as a degree, than on emotional development and life experience, such as previous therapy or counselling. However, having therapy before beginning training does have various points in its favour.

Firstly, it helps trainees to have had a direct experience of therapy before committing themselves to a training lasting for at least two, probably three years, until certification.4 It is possible for people to be excited about therapy or doing therapy, or earning a living from doing therapy, without really having enough experience of what therapy is for them at all. It also helps to have had the same type of therapy that is taught in a particular training (i.e. Bio­synthesis, Gestalt etc.). This is not always an insurmountable problem to over­come, depending on the width of the theoretical ‘gap’ between the type of therapy and the type of training. To some extent, both these issues can be partly resolved as many humanistic and integrative trainings have foundation years as part of their training structure, helping people to assess their position after the first year, before continuing on with the main part of training.

This leads to the question of motivation: although being a therapist may not be the highest paid job in the world, there are other compensations for doing it. Some of them deeply satisfying and rewarding, others, not so healthy. Sometimes we can be motivated to ‘help others’ because of unre­solved issues around our own needs, or perhaps we believe, unconsciously, that our needs can never be met. If we can learn to ‘help others’ then our own needs will also be satisfied in some magical way. Or so the unconscious thinking goes. Or, helping others can be the next best thing to helping our­selves and can somehow, we hope, reduce the pain a little (the pain of the unmet needs we don’t own up to having).

Therapy, before we start training, can help us to know our motivations and needs more clearly, so that we do not start to train zealously, slaves to our blind spots and full of unreal and magical hopes of infectious ‘cures’. Rather, it can help us as beneficiaries of the understanding our weaknesses bring us, useful to ourselves and others. Or we may even decide we don’t really want to train as therapists once we develop more direct ways of addressing our needs. It can be a fairly common psychic affliction for us as therapists to find ourselves looking to heal our own wounds, not in our­selves but in our clients. The real need here is to have adequate supervision and support, in training and after it.

Therapy can be difficult to face when inner issues are coming up. It can seem intolerable as rigid beliefs and blocks that might have been protecting us from our ‘unacceptable’ needs and pain begin to open up. In these diffi­cult and anxious times, clients might need holding or accompaniment from the therapist, but not quick solutions. Sometimes it is by getting to the impossible places, where there are no quick fixes or spare cover-ups available, that real growth from a deeper potential can take root.

Being already involved in a training in these circumstances might seem reassuring in some ways, offering a theoretical structure to understand what is going on, and peers and fellow trainees to compare notes with, or to measure distress against. But a trainee might benefit more from a training if some of these difficult passages in individual psychotherapy were travelled through without all the extra structure and theory that trainings throw up. If the trainee has already gone through at least some of this experience of the unknown, before categorising it all and fitting it into the theory (Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, used to call this the ‘fitting game’) s/he is less likely to confuse, internally, training needs with personal needs. The trainee may be able to enter the training with less energy wrapped up in defending from emotion and feelings and therefore, profit more from it.

Similarly, some clients’ decisions to stop therapy can become less simple after starting training; it could be more difficult to make decisions about the therapeutic situation as training issues start to impinge from ‘outside’. For example, if individual therapy is a training requirement, then giving up the therapy can lead to complications with the course requirements for trainees to have therapy. This might make it difficult to face up to the issue of continuing or stopping therapy. More importantly, it might point to possible underlying psychological issues and energies behind the conflict. So, ‘It is a requirement of the training’ or ‘What will happen about my training certificate if I stop therapy?’, can become motives for staying in a stuck place and avoiding the conflict in the therapeutic relationship.

Without taking full responsibility for staying stuck we cannot claim the inner authority to change (or perhaps, not to change, if we prefer, but to enjoy the situation, or do whatever else might seem best).

Occasionally people might apply to start training as an antidote to painful and difficult ‘one down’ feelings they might have as clients. The need for therapy might be felt as a painfully humiliating dependency that can be avoided by going into training; ‘I don’t have (m)any problems. I’m really training to help other people who need it more than me’. The therapy becomes part of the training, undertaken because it is a ‘sensible’ requirement for trainees, to experience what clients might feel, not because of any real potential for growth or change it may offer.

Of course both these last two situations could arise again after the training started, even if the trainees had had previous therapy. But perhaps similar issues would already have come up before training and been worked with a little, or partly resolved. There might already have been contact with under­lying feelings and energies, as it was ‘second time around’. In either case it could have been very useful to have had the chance to do therapy for enough time for the issues and conflicts to arise and for the relationship with the therapist to develop, before training. It is difficult to say how long this time should be for all trainees because of the different times people need for any emotional process, but perhaps a wild guess, for the purposes of dis­cussion only, would start at between six months and a year as a minimum suggested period of therapy.

In conclusion, some opinion in humanistic and integrative psychotherapy would seem to be towards asking would-be trainees to take more time to fulfil certain preliminary requirements before training as psychotherapists and counsellors. Most important of these, in relation to humanistic and inte­grative values and thinking, would be gaining a useful range of life experi­ence, sometimes difficult to define except on an individual basis, and also having individual psychotherapy for some time before training.


1. The Irish Standing Conference for Psychotherapy has five branches: Humanistic & Integrative; Psychoanalytic; Constructivist; Behavioural; Family & Systems. Universities offer academic Diplomas and Degrees but do not necessarily provide a personal development component.

2. Another possible reason for similarities between humanistic trainings could be that even though theoretical details and types of skills differ widely, trainers and trainings often belong to the same accrediting bodies and peer groups, and tend to learn from and be influenced by similar trends in thinking, leading towards an integration of practice.

3. This may be one of the reasons for their popularity as trainings – our motivation to find a way of working that is in harmony with our own needs and growth can create a powerful incentive to train in this field.

4. And perhaps another two or more years after that working under training supervision until accreditation to one of the professional bodies as a counsellor or psychotherapist.