#106 - Improving your Therapeutic Use of Self and Why it's Such an Important Part of Therapy

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC June 24, 2020

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Improving your Therapeutic Use of Self and Why it's Such an Important Part of Therapy

If you are a therapist, you have probably heard the term “therapeutic use of self.” Do you know what it means? Do you understand how to implement it into your daily treatments? 

Today, we talk about what that term actually means and how you can focus on improving your ability to use it, in order to provide better treatments for your clients. 

Parents and family members - this is a great episode to learn more about what therapists SHOULD be doing during treatment sessions. Do you feel like your child’s therapist is utilizing their therapeutic use of self effectively? If not, what can you do? Don’t be afraid to ask questions and find out how your therapist is doing! 


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What Is Therapeutic Use Of Self & Why It Is Important?

As many occupational therapy instructors inform their students of the definition and significance of therapeutic sense of self, comparatively few show how to apply those teachings in real-world settings. It is commonplace for individuals starting their career as an occupational therapist or assistant to gain experiential knowledge through day-to-day activities on the job. However, we have the unique opportunity to make a huge difference in the lives of these children, adults, and their families.

The Therapeutic Use of Self Defined

The definitions of therapeutic use of self are best articulated by MyOTSpot.com and LifeLongLearningWithOT.wordpress.com - both invaluable resources for the subject matter! 

As My OT Spot notes, the therapeutic use of self is "a means for encouraging clients to engage in occupation. It's the planned use of his or her personality, insights, perceptions and judgments as part of the therapeutic process. It creates a meaningful relationship between the therapist and the patient in order to produce meaningful participation and progress in occupations that matter to the patient."

Additionally, the LifeLong Learning with OT outlines therapeutic use of self as "being aware of yourself, your verbal language, body language, what personal information you choose to share while interacting with a client, and using your own personality and interpersonal skills to build rapport and ultimately, make the client feel at ease, motivated, and that they can trust you."

To understand the core of therapeutic use, it is essential to recognize how we interact with each client and adjust our conduct based on their style. As opposed to utilizing identical methods for everyone, we should customize our strategy so that each individual's needs are met. We have to be able modify what we say accordingly in order for it to resonate with the specific context at hand.

The Importance Of Therapeutic Use Of Self

As therapists, it is all too common to become trapped in a pattern of repeating the same thing over and again. It's easy for us to get distracted from our clients, slowly detaching ourselves as we continue working with them. To break free from this cycle, we must take extra effort steps to ensure that each client receives undivided attention throughout their entire therapy journey!

From time to time, we've all felt a sense of burnout due to numerous reasons. Oftentimes, it is caused by something going on in our personal lives. When you become tired or exhausted and your attention towards providing great service for clients starts slipping away, this could be an indication that you are experiencing burnout. Regrettably, therapists often feel overwhelmed with their workloads; however they soldier on because it's part of the job!

If we wish to help our clients reduce their heightened emotional state and provide a comforting therapeutic experience, it is essential that we manage our own levels of burnout first. We cannot possibly calm them down if we are still in fight or flight mode ourselves; instead, the therapist must maintain an even-keeled demeanor so they can act as a beacon of security for their client.

Remember that, if you are undergoing any personal issues at the moment, it is still possible to utilize therapeutic use of self while helping your client. However, it's important to be able to differentiate between these two roles and separate them temporarily in order for you to properly focus on aiding the client.

How to Become More Aware of Your Own Therapeutic Use of Self

By taking the time to engage in self-reflection, we can gain invaluable insight into ourselves and our clients that will help us make meaningful changes. To get you started on your journey toward enhanced therapeutic efficacy, here are five effective tips, tricks, and strategies for harnessing your therapeutic use of self with lasting results.

Tip #1: Be Mindful Of Your Interactions With Your Clients!

Be mindful of your physical stance in any situation, whether you think someone may be watching or not. Pay attention to the messages that your body language is conveying, such as:

  • Are your arms crossed?
  • Are you sitting down?
  • Are you engaged with your client?
  • Are you smiling? Is your client smiling?
  • Are the activities that you are doing skill-based? Do they require your knowledge and expertise in order to be completed, or could they just be done at home without your help?
  • Are you providing your client feedback?

We all have our off days, so if you are working with a client who is struggling with anger and emotional regulation issues, use your own experiences to guide their learning. Use this as an opportunity for the client to learn about self-regulation strategies and how to work through difficult emotions. Everyone goes through hardships; show them that with resilience we can overcome those moments of hardship in life.

Tip #2: Build Your Interpersonal Skills!

How can you do this? You can attend workshops, complete continuing education courses, and invest in programs geared towards helping therapists build their skills beyond traditional treatments. Focus on those subjects that will help you be a better therapist through self-reflection and growth.

Acquire knowledge! Educate yourself on how to communicate with diverse groups of people. You will undoubtedly encounter multiple sets of diagnoses and cultures, particularly since we live in a world full of varied backgrounds. Being aware and understanding your own biases is critical for learning how to interact with those from different cultural backgrounds - this skill set can come in handy quite often.

To further develop your skills, try recording yourself performing simulated activities with a family member. This can be done on either your phone or computer's camera and will allow you to watch the video back in order to assess your performance. Remember that this should not be done while interacting with a client!

Tip #3: Learn About Your Client And Their Family!

Establishing a successful relationship with children requires learning more about them. Therefore, it is important to take the time to understand their interests and beliefs as well as what they like or dislike. Furthermore, get acquainted with their family structure, cultural background, religion and familiarize yourself with any rules of conduct in their household before you engage further.

Connect with the children's parents on a personal level by asking them personalized questions and making comments related to each individual child. This demonstrates your attention, presence, and interest in their growth, while also offering an opportunity for them to nurture important social skills. When you authentically invest in the lives of these students' families and show that you genuinely care about more than just teaching – it can be absolutely transformative!

Tip #4: Rest!

It's of the utmost importance to take care of your mental and physical health before being able to properly care for those around you. So, be sure to check in with yourself regularly!

  • Are you feeling well?
  • Are you feeling exhausted and worn out?
  • Are you feeling the effects of burnout? If you want to make some improvements, now's the time to reach out and discuss with your supervisor and team.
  • Are you doing more restful activities outside of work?

Achieving a healthy work-life balance can be difficult, particularly if you take your professional responsibilities seriously. You may find yourself bringing the job home with you from time to time - an endeavor that is understandably stressful. To manage this issue, it's essential to establish and maintain clear boundaries between home life and work life.

Tip #5: Communicate!

To foster a strong team and relationships, you must communicate. Speak with your colleagues, supervisor, and family members openly about successes, failures, opportunities for improvement or growth. Collaboration is essential to maximize potential within teams; by communicating often and regularly everyone can benefit from each other's insight.

Articulating your feelings to others can help you apply therapeutic use of self, as it not only encourages reflection but may also provide solutions to:

  • Why has my client not been making progress?
  • Why has this family chosen to discontinue working with me?
  • Are you pushing yourself to reach your maximum potential, and what can we do together to help further develop those successes?

When you cultivate a spirit of openness, growth opportunities, and collaboration with your colleagues in the occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical therapy field- it is the key to building an effective team. By maintaining strong communication with each other and embracing these attitudes towards work ethics, you will create a unified group that can achieve great things together.

Enhance Your Therapeutic Use of Self Skills

Even though it's not natural, you can develop the skill of therapeutic use of self with practice. If you're having trouble establishing a connection with your clients, accepting and learning from feedback is essential to make progress. You must be open-minded and willing to evolve in order for positive changes to occur; otherwise nothing will improve!

It is also essential for parents to understand the power of advocating for your child. If you don’t feel as if the therapist is making a meaningful connection with your family and utilizing their therapeutic use of self to its fullest potential, then please know that searching for another provider who meets these needs is more than acceptable.

By reflecting on the ways therapeutic use of self has positively impacted your professional life, you will be better able to capitalize on these experiences and utilize them more effectively in the future.




While we make every effort to share correct information, we are still learning. We will double check all of our facts but realize that medicine is a constantly changing science and art. One doctor / therapist may have a different way of doing things from another. We are simply presenting our views and opinions on how to address common sensory challenges, health related difficulties and what we have found to be beneficial that will be as evidenced based as possible. By listening to this podcast, you agree not to use this podcast as medical advice to treat any medical condition in either yourself or your children. Consult your child’s pediatrician/ therapist for any medical issues that he or she may be having. This entire disclaimer also applies to any guests or contributors to the podcast. Under no circumstances shall Rachel Harrington, Harkla, Jessica Hill, or any guests or contributors to the podcast, as well as any employees, associates, or affiliates of Harkla, be responsible for damages arising from use of the podcast.

Keep in mind that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you.

This podcast should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing “standard of care” in a legal sense or as a basis for expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on the podcast.

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/l, AC, CPRCS, and Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS are Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialists. They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. They specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica and Rachel are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica and Rachel, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.

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