3 Ways Therapeutic Use of Self Can Improve Patient Outcomes

Therapist putting arm around patient

As an occupational therapist, your ultimate goal is to help your patients increase their independence and work toward the goals that are meaningful in their lives. While traditional treatment methods can provide a strong foundation for intervention, utilizing therapeutic use of self can make a significant difference in patient outcomes.

Therapeutic relationships are vital to patient engagement in therapeutic activities and to the outcomes of therapy. Many occupational therapists consider therapeutic use of self as both the most important skill in occupational therapy practice and a critical element of clinical reasoning.1

In this article, we’ll explore three powerful techniques for using therapeutic use of self that can help you establish deeper connections with your patients and improve their treatment experience. By incorporating empathy, authenticity, and vulnerability into your practice, positive relationships can be formed in order to enhance learning and educational outcomes.2

1. Empathy: Going Beyond Sympathy

One key component of the therapeutic use of self is empathy. Empathy involves truly putting yourself in your patient’s shoes and understanding their experiences and emotions. By practicing empathy with your patients, you can develop a deeper understanding of your patient’s perspective to help you tailor your treatment approach and build stronger rapport.

Additionally, empathy can help your patients feel seen and heard, which can be incredibly validating and therapeutic. So, how can you cultivate empathy as a therapist?

Start by actively listening to your patients, asking questions to better understand their experiences, and reflecting back what you hear to show that you understand. With practice, you can develop this skill and use it to make a real difference in your patient outcomes.

2. Authenticity: Being Your Genuine Self

Another important aspect of the therapeutic use of self is authenticity. Being your genuine self can help build trust and establish a strong therapeutic alliance with your patients.

Creating a safe and non-judgmental space where patients feel comfortable sharing their own struggles is key. Authenticity breaks down power dynamics and creates a more equal partnership—resulting in teamwork to help them accomplish their goals instead of instruction.

It is important to take the time to reflect on your own experiences and emotions to help create an authentic relationship, which allows you to give insights that come from a place of genuine understanding. It’s a place of communicating clearly and honestly with your patients—and even admitting if you do not have all the answers.

By being your authentic self, you can create a therapeutic environment that feels safe, genuine, and supportive. And by building a strong therapeutic alliance, you can partner with your patients to work on what is important to them.

The power of authenticity sets the stage for embracing vulnerability as an occupational therapy practitioner.

3. Vulnerability: The Power of Openness

By being your authentic self, you can create a therapeutic environment that feels safe, genuine, and supportive. And by building a strong therapeutic alliance, you can help your patients achieve better outcomes and live their best lives. But what happens when you bring vulnerability into the mix?

As a therapist, it’s natural to want to appear strong and put together in front of your patients. However, research shows that embracing vulnerability within the professional context can actually strengthen the therapeutic alliance and improve patient outcomes.3 When you allow yourself to be vulnerable with your patients, it creates a deeper level of trust and empathy.

For example, if you’ve experienced mental health struggles in your own life, sharing that with your patient can help them feel less alone and more understood.

Additionally, when you’re willing to admit your own mistakes, it creates a safe space for your patients to do the same.

Of course, it’s important to remember that vulnerability doesn’t mean oversharing or making the session about you. Instead, vulnerability should be used strategically as a way to connect with your patients and model healthy emotional expression.

Incorporating empathy, authenticity, and vulnerability into your therapeutic use of self can be the difference between a successful treatment outcome and a disconnected one. The power of therapeutic use of self techniques lets your treatments be from a place of collaboration.

As a result, you can create a more positive treatment experience that helps facilitate lasting change.

Remember, it’s not just about what you say or do as an occupational therapy practitioner—it’s about who you are as a person that makes all the difference. As human connection researcher and author Brené Brown once said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

  1. Taylor, R. R., Lee, S. W., Kielhofner, G., & Ketkar, M. (2009). Therapeutic use of self: a nationwide survey of practitioners' attitudes and experiences. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy: Official Publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association, 63(2), 198–207. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.63.2.198
  2. Haertl, K. (2008). From the roots of psychosocial practice—therapeutic use of self in the classroom: Practical applications for occupational therapy faculty. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 24(2), 121–134.
  3. Kielhofner, G. (2008). Model of human occupation : theory and application (4th ed.). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.