What It’s Actually Like To Be A Therapist

Spoiler: It’s awesome.

From time to time I’ll get little peeks into what people who’ve never been in therapy, or who went briefly, think it’s like. It’s usually off-base in some way, sometimes minor and sometimes pretty unsettling. A bunch of this is surely due to the many misconceptions and goofy portrayals of therapists in our entertainment media.  So I try very hard to be quite vocal about the reality of it, with the hopes that more people will allow themselves to find out. The work is incredibly beautiful and fulfilling. But its authenticity, and how that extends far beyond session time, comes up too infrequently. Even those who are clients of therapy probably don’t know a bunch of this stuff, which I realized when I began to have conversations about it with friend of mine. So I thought I’d share a few things that the general public might find fun, funny, helpful, relieving or maybe even a little scary.

I want to answer very thoroughly the question, “Is it hard not to ‘take your work’ home with you?” The short of it is that no, it’s not, because I know my role, and I’m pretty awesome at boundaries and self-care. I’m not a fixer. I’m a witness and a supporter. The work is entirely about healing and experiencing and growing. It results in the ability to enjoy way more pleasure, because you get to learn how to manage pain and complexity. And for any of that to happen it means I get to have deeply intimate connections with a bunch of people. It’s pretty awesome.

Now, keep in mind that this is about only me as a therapist. While much of what I will share is universal, that won’t be the case for all of it. Let’s start with a big, fun one…

I dream about my clients.

All.the.time. And how could I not? I spend hours with them engaged in deeply intimate, difficult and moving explorations. My dreams are part of those explorations, because they can inform me about what’s happening in my unconscious and subconscious in relationship to my client. They tell me things I may have missed, they inform me about what I’m thinking or feeling about someone, what I’m feeling about myself as their therapist, where their material overlaps with my own, etc. Sometimes I’ll dream that a client has met someone from my personal life, which opens up a whole other bag of possibilities: Is that about something they need in their life? Is it someone I would or wouldn’t want them to meet? Why? All of those things further inform me and our work together. It’s like free case consultation with my subconscious. Our subconscious is very smart, you know. It’s like the Oracle in “The Matrix.”

I think about my clients outside of session all the time.

It’s not just during my sleep that a client will pop into my mind. A song will remind me of them. I’ll see their favorite food and think of them. I’ll hear a joke that I want to share with them. I’ll see a store I think they’d like. I’ll remember a story they told and I’ll giggle or worry or feel proud. I’ll suddenly have a question or insight about them. The same goes for my old clients. I wonder how they are, what they’re doing, how our work together is or isn’t serving them now. And I often miss them like crazy.

I bring things from my clients lives into my own.

As with any interaction we have with others, I learn more about the world through my clients. I read books they read, watch movies they have mentioned, try restaurants they like. Sometimes I do it primarily for their sake as a means to deepen an exploration by having more information about it. Sometimes it’s just because it’s of interest to me personally. But even then, I enjoy thinking about my client, imagining their experience and thereby learning more about them in that way, too. And I get to learn more about myself, because I have my own, different reactions. In exploring those differences, I learn things about both of us.

I learn things from my clients’ processes.

I’m inspired by and learn from my clients all the damn time. If someone paid all my bills and supported my knitting and vintage clothing habits, I’d do this work with only that as payment because it’s a huge source of nourishment and reward. Because this work is about what’s best for the individual in front of me, I have to constantly look at my own stuff to keep it out of their way. And sometimes I’ll encounter a place where I have a blind spot or an unconscious agenda. Sometimes just recognizing that is enough, other times I have to take it to my own therapist to get her support in processing the material. Sometimes (and this is a fun and challenging one) a client will come in with something that I was just exploring in my own life. If the material is too painful or I can’t keep my agenda out of it, I refer out. But because therapy isn’t about advice-giving, and especially because I work somatically, the work stays clear. It very often doesn’t matter if I’m still working on the same explorations. So many of them are life-long, anyway. I think that’s beautiful. We are masterpieces that get to be attended to over an entire lifetime.

A client once asked me what the difference is between therapy and the outside world. As you can see, not a whole damn lot. That’s why you can and should trust it. It’s the safest possible version of the outside world, because we therapists are trained to be awesome at making it that way for you. It’s incredible what people are capable of when the environment and the relationship is right.

We affect each other. That is the point of therapy: to find healing in a relationship, and to master being oneself (in all its complexity) while in a room with another person so that you can move through the world in the same way.

If you have a therapist and this is bringing up a few questions for them, don’t be afraid to ask. Be ready to process what you learn, or even the question itself, but you can always ask. While we’re on it, the same goes for hugs. Little known fact: hugs are a-ok by a whole lot of us. Ask for them. See how cool this work is?

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