It never fails to surprise me how clients see therapists as infallible. Well, maybe not infallible – there are enough news stories to prove otherwise – but above it all somehow: above the pain of living. Clients assume we’ve never had marital problems, trouble with our kids, drug or alcohol problems, or suffered abuse ourselves – or even struggled with our own mental health. I take every opportunity I can to dispel this illusion of superiority and perfection, frankly because it terrifies me. I don’t want to be seen as all-knowing or all-powerful; that’s what faith and spirituality is for. Just yesterday I mentioned to a client that I have seen a therapist myself, and she was shocked. “I don’t know why I’m surprised,” she said.
I do. It’s the perfection illusion. It’s the same thing that made you feel awkward as a kid when you’d run into your beloved teacher at the grocery store dragging her own kids behind her and filling her cart with Twinkies just to get them to shut up. You want to believe they have some secret, that they’re not in the same kind of pain or struggle you are. Somehow that makes us feel hope – as in, “well, they’ve obviously figured it all out, so at least it’s possible, right?”
To some extent, successful therapy depends on this illusion. I wouldn’t go to a therapist who’s life I know is falling apart; it’s like going to an obese nutritionist or a stylist with really bad hair. It’s basic validity – I get it. We sincerely need to see our therapists as knowing more than we do – and with good reason, of course.
And don’t get me wrong; I do have wisdom. 2015 marks twenty years that I’ve been seeing clients in one form or another, whether in my Masters program, an agency, a company, or, for the past 13 years, in my own private practice. I figure I’m fast approaching Gladwell’s magic 10,000 hours of mastery, and I can’t wait to cross that milestone. After this much time in the chair, I’d better have some wisdom.
But that wisdom doesn’t just come from 20 years of experience. It also comes from the willingness to do my own work. I’ve seen a therapist or two on and off since graduate school – not because I’ve had all the problems listed above (though I have had some) or because I’m so dysfunctional, but because it works. Therapy, when done right, really works. It’s provided me with insight, relief from pain, a new way to deal with long-standing conflicts with people I love…and, after a difficult battle with post-partum depression 10 years ago, it’s been a lifeline back to sanity.
I’ve been there. I’ve been the client who can’t wait until the next session and wonders how on earth I’m going to make it until then. I’ve poured my heart out to therapists – some really bad ones, too – and learned firsthand how painful it is to be misunderstood or judged or just dismissed. I’ve also (much more often) felt that seemingly magic lifting of the heart when someone really gets it – even if it doesn’t immediately change a thing about my circumstances. I’ve been deeply grateful for the therapists who have gently, firmly, lovingly walked with me through some of the darkest times of my life, and I’ve been changed as a result.
That’s why I do this. Selfishly perhaps, I want to be a part of that feeling as much as I can. It still thrills and moves me to the core when a client says, “Wow, that’s exactly right. I never thought of it that way before, but that’s the piece I missed in all this. That changes everything for me.” To be a part of that process is deeply humbling and exciting all at once, and it keeps my work fresh and addictive for me. (Clients ask all the time – “How can you do this day after day? How do you listen to people’s problems all day long?” That’s how.)
It’s taken me years to be able to own what I’m good at, and I’m good at therapy. I’m not good at everything, of course – maybe even most things – but I know these two things for sure: I can make a damn fine grilled cheese sandwich (perhaps the best you’ve ever had; yeah, I’m that good) and I’m good at therapy. But I didn’t get good alone. I didn’t get good in a vacuum. I didn’t just get good because of the excellent training I received in graduate school, though that was a very important piece. A big part of how I got good at therapy is because I did therapy with people who were good to and for me. Those experiences shaped me as much as anything else, and they never leave me, particularly as I sit in the therapist’s chair acutely aware that my client sees me as without personal problems. I’m human, just like you. I’m trained and I have a lot of experience doing this, and I’m good at it. But I’m also a fellow struggler who needs a witness, a companion traveler, a guide and consultant just like you do. Honestly it’s a relief to have it, and that’s what I aim to be for my clients too.