There are a lot of weird jobs in the world; podiatrist, phlebotomist, priest, butcher—but the weirdest one of all might be psychotherapist. We are like an emotional filtration system, helping to clean out the gunk from people’s hearts and minds. The ways in which we do this are hard to articulate, but often involve long uncomfortable silences, saying things no one would say in any other situation, and feeling somebody else’s feelings. Clients tell us their darkest fears and craziest dreams, but if we bumped into them in the grocery store we’d hesitate to say hello.
We can speak to them for an hour a week, for years and years, and then they suddenly disappear—and though we miss them and wonder what happened, we must let go without a word. We are discouraged from attending client’s funerals if they die, and usually never meet the people closest to them—people we know all about. They inform and color our daily lives, yet we cannot discuss them with anyone except, possibly, another professional.
We are secret keepers, security blankets, psychic vessels, mirrors, and shape-shifters.
And though we are all of these things, we may still be a mystery to you. Here is some other stuff we’d like you to know:
1. We’ve been on the couch too (and if we haven’t, you shouldn’t be working with us).
Any therapist who hasn’t done therapy has no idea what it feels like to be completely vulnerable, and therefore, they won’t have the deep level of empathy required to do the job. To use a simple analogy, you can’t fly a plane if you’ve only been in the simulator.
Furthermore, any therapist worth their salt would gladly acknowledge this, and should welcome inquiries to that end. Don’t be afraid to ask, “have you ever done therapy yourself?” If the clinician’s response is defensive in any way, run!
Though we are there to help solve your problems, it doesn’t mean we haven’t had problems ourselves, and if we haven’t undertaken some serious work to sort them out, we’re in no position to counsel you.
2. Your issues are not that unusual.
As a colleague of mine likes to say, “You are special, but not unique.” You’re unlikely to shock us or bring a variation of life’s challenges that we haven’t run across in some form before. If you do, congratulations! You are the most interesting person in the world. (Actually we find every client interesting or we wouldn’t do this job.) Everyone struggles with fear, shame, abandonment, anger, self-esteem issues, or all of the above—but what everyone doesn’t do is try to mend those broken places. We celebrate your willingness to try and heal.
3. You’re not paying us to be your friend.
Many clients grapple with the idea of having to “pay someone to be their friend.” Though we are your friend, that isn’t what you’re paying us for. Instead, you get our psychological expertise, our unbiased (or less biased than anyone else you know) feedback, the opportunity to sit in a room and say and feel anything freely and confidentially without fallout, the chance to be selfish without guilt, the gift of a “corrective emotional experience” which is a fancy way of saying having a healthy relationship, wherein trust and honesty are the rule of thumb, and boundaries are respected (a first for many clients), and the chance for the kind of growth that could completely transform your life.
The fact that money is exchanged does not invalidate our relationship—in fact, it gives you permission to be as as self-centered as you need to be, and gives us the acknowledgment of the professionals that we are.
4. Human beings employ defenses against fear and pain, and we are trying to understand yours.
Be they anger, projection, compulsion, deflection, perfectionism, avoidance, denial, or any of the other standard defenses, you can be certain that you are using one or more of them. Those are your valid and unconscious attempts to solve a problem in your life—and they may also unintentionally create other problems, which you then employ other defenses to try and solve. Yikes.
How am I so sure you’re doing this? Because everybody does.
A classic example:
Problem: pain associated with childhood abuse or neglect.
Solution: drugs to numb the pain.
Problem: money needed to buy enough drugs to numb the pain.
Solution: theft or other illegal activities.
Problem: destroyed self-esteem due to childhood abuse or neglect, exacerbated by shame around addiction and theft, or other illegal activities, and possible incarceration.
Solution: contemplation of suicide.
There are as many ways to use defenses as there are leaves on a tree, and the only way to get to the core of what’s troubling you is to pluck them off one-by-one and take a good, hard look at what’s underneath. When the leaves start thinning out, you can start to solve the problem that they’ve been covering up this whole time.
5. We don’t secretly have all the answers.
There is this image that even I have, of an inscrutable counselor just sitting there watching me silently as I flail around and say every stupid thing a person can say, as I reveal, through my anxiety-laden diatribe, all my basic flaws and the reasons I will never be a successful or whole individual. And that as I am doing this, the counselor is thinking, “It’s really funny how the answers to this poor woman’s problems are so obvious, and really sad that she’s too slow to understand what they are. I’ll just sit here knowing them while she continues to make a fool of herself.”
While it is true that we sometimes know the answers (or think we know them) before you do, if we don’t say anything about it, it’s not because we think we’re so smart or we’re playing games—we just realize how much more powerful it is for you to come to them on your own.
Mostly, though, we’re simply alongside you in the dark, trying to shine a light here, or maybe there, and find stuff that makes sense. I’ll add that we can get pretty insecure ourselves if we don’t seem to be able to come up with helpful ideas, and our stoic faces might belie that discomfort.
6. You can edit your story.
Most of us have a fixed idea of what our story is, and generally it’s not great. “I grew up with parents who didn’t love me, therefore I am unlovable,” “I never fit in at school, therefore I’m a loser,” or “My husband left me for another woman, therefore everyone will betray me,” are some simplistic examples.
We all write stories in our heads about ourselves because that is the way we try to make sense of a nonsensical world. We don’t have the ability to take in all the information around us, so we pick and choose, come up with a narrative that seems to work and roll with that. But our narrative is such a small piece of our whole story. If we have help we can edit it, change the arc, and do what the writers of Wicked did—turn a tragic character (us) into a sympathetic one. In other words, we can be our own hero.
5. We’re excited when you tell the truth (to the best of your ability).
It is one of the most miraculous things in therapy to see a client (at least momentarily) release their defenses and begin telling the truth. There is a simplicity and an elegance to the truth, though there is sadness and fear too, because, as I said, all of our defenses are there to cover up pain.
When we shift gears and let ourselves see the world as it is, rather than as we wish it would be, we emerge from the confusing atmosphere of smoke and mirrors we’ve put in place to protect our tender hearts. What we see when we do this will be surprising in the sense that, while it is still the scary thing, without all the distractions our fear appears much smaller—maybe even manageable. We can walk over to our fear and realize perhaps that this is just our child-self, a vulnerable child all alone, and we might feel strong enough to hold her hand, or put our arms around her, and say the things that she has needed to hear for an entire lifetime.
7. Sometimes we want to wave a magic wand.
Oh, man do we wish we had a magic wand! Little known fact: most clinicians come to love most of their clients in a way that is tough to explain. It is not romantic love (and if it is there is something very wrong and treatment should be terminated). It is also not the love one feels for a child, a parent, or even a regular kind of friend. Actually, there might be no word in the lexicon for this kind of love. Carl Rogers called it “unconditional positive regard” and while that kind of describes it, it still feels too clinical to convey the actual experience.
I think it has something to do with the fact that therapists are in a position to fully accept who you really are because we don’t need anything from you. It also has to do with the intimacy and respect that necessarily develops when someone trusts you with their entire selves. We are in awe of you—flawed though you may be, we are fascinated by you, and we want nothing more than for you to become—to use an annoying cliché—your best self. So when we see you suffer, or know that you are stuck, or hear about how some a**hole is being mean to you, we wish we could just yell out Abracadabra! and make it go away.
This leads me to number eight—possibly the most important thing your therapist wants you to know, and that is this:
8. We are forever changed by knowing you.
Whether you come in for a couple of sessions, or we work with you for several years, you have changed our understanding of the human experience. You have broadened it, and deepened it, and in doing so, have given us the only thing we’ve ever really wanted—and that is to be a more effective helper.
We thank you for this, and though it is not your job to make us better, you inevitably do.
I will end on this note, and will try not to sound sanctimonious—but the final, final thing we want you to know is this: we believe (because we are therapists) that everyone can benefit from therapy.
You, your mom, your dad, your son, your daughter, your friend, your uncle, your aunt, and maybe even your dog, Francis, (though we might not qualified to treat him).
If you feel stuck, or sad, or confused, or lonely, there are armies of us waiting patiently to help.
Reach out. Things can get better.