[15 January, 2012]

on being a therapist

Therapy is a mysterious process. Something unique happens when two souls meet in a circumscribed safe space. They affect each other in ways that are hard to describe to the outside world. Many people wonder what makes therapy special and what exactly produces results. When people hear about my training, they start asking me questions, or they make comments about therapy that are wrought with their own assumptions. Usually it's people who haven't experienced therapy for themselves.

I've been thinking about my answers to some of these common questions or comments, so here are my attempts to clear up some misconceptions:

Therapists get paid to be supportive and automatically like the people they work with.
Ethical therapists don't lie to their clients, ever. Sure, we receive some training on how to evade certain questions we feel would be harmful to answer, and we don't disclose too much personal information. But other than that, everything we say is truly what we think and how we feel. We are genuinely amazed by people, their survival and their abilities. We don't love our clients blindly and automatically, without any consideration of who they are, just because it's our job. We don't even necessarily love all aspects of our clients all the time. There are usually things we don't like as well, and when the time is right and the relationship is strong enough, your therapist will probably point those out. But therapy wouldn't be what it is if we didn't find beauty in all of our clients' souls. People, in their struggles, in their vulnerabilities, in pain, in perseverance, are pretty amazing. And this includes every person I have worked with up to now and will work with in the future.

What's the point of therapy; can't you just complain to your friends?
Therapy and friendship are similar and different. Both therapists and friends see people during painful and vulnerable points in their lives, and both like those people despite their faults and mistakes. However, therapists are trained to listen with a different ear. They open up a door in their hearts and take on pieces of people's struggles. Therapists listen to their clients, and they listen to themselves. Therapists listen to the tone in the room. Therapists listen for patterns, for significant motifs, for contexts. Therapists don't even really have any stakes in what you say; they just care about what it means to you. They care about how you're feeling now, and how you felt then. They care about your process through tough times, and they rejoice with you in happy times. So the next time you have an issue that you can't talk to your friends about or a feeling so unbearable it keeps you up at night – great! Talk to a therapist; that's what we're here for.

All people do in therapy is complain in the presence of another person, who just gets paid to listen.
Many people tell me that therapy is just about people whining. They ask me how I can choose to sit and listen to people's endless complaining. What they should be asking me is how I chose a profession that is actually one emotional mind-twist. We function on a completely different level than simply "tolerating whininess" and nodding our heads in automatic agreement. Through tuning in to people's emotions, we actually alter their experiences. Consider this hypothetical scenario: a man comes to therapy after growing up with an aggressive father and an absent mother. He has a general disposition of feeling angry, hurt, helpless, ineffectual, undermined, unappreciated. The female therapist, in her position of caretaking and authority, triggers those feelings, and he is usually angry at her in their sessions. But she, unlike his parents, recognizes those feelings, absorbs his anger without retaliating, and also appreciates and empowers him. Over time, he becomes less self-depricating and explosive, and gains a clearer and healthier sense of self. In other words, the process of therapy actually changes his internal experience. So the whining and the complaining is only the tip of the iceberg of everything that is bound to happen in therapy.

Life sucks, get over it. Everyone has issues, move on.
Occasionally I get the "what's the point of therapy; people just need to learn to suck it up" comment. Incidentally, this is a philosophical question that I (and I assure you, many other therapists) have asked myself as well: if therapy is a relatively new field and people have gone on living in tough circumstances and with painful emotions, then why change it all now and advocate that people get help and feel better? The answer is complex, but for me it boils down to these points: a) people have always sought the help of various healers, for emotional, relationship, sexual, existential, etc. issues; b) our knowledge of ourselves continues to grow, how can we not use it to help ourselves (see: medicine); and c) just because people "sucked it up" before, doesn't mean that they didn't suffer all their lives from emotional ailments that we now know are very preventable and healable. Who knows what was getting people through life before (wizards, tight communities, shorter lifespans, rigid social roles, religions?), now we have this tool that anyone can use to find healing and purpose. And I think everyone should give it a try.

Have anything else to add to how therapy works? Anything else left you curious about therapy?

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