It can be weird being open and vulnerable with others as a person who also happens to be a therapist. People are sometimes very surprised to hear that their therapist friends also, believe it or not, struggle to understand their partners, get petty or irritated, feel abandoned, lash out at people, avoid flossing or exercising or initiating difficult conversations, or feel judgmental. For example.
I’ve been hearing the refrain “But you’re a therapist!” since—actually—before I even technically became a therapist. (Back then it was, “But you’re going to be a therapist!” Yes, and? You’re apparently going to be a millionaire or a bestselling author one day, and yet.) I even see therapists themselves throwing this at other therapists in some of the Facebook groups I’m in. That, combined with actually becoming a therapist and hearing a lot about how other people think, has given me a lot of opportunities to reflect on what causes people to say this.
People seem to be of two minds about therapists. Either we are fully self-actualized human beings who float through the world with the gravity-defying force of our own impeccable coping skills and preternatural ability to sense others’ thoughts and intentions; or we’re all “crazy” and “broken” and got into this field either to wallow in our misery along with our clients, exploit those clients, or use them to somehow fix our own unusually severe mental issues.
Obviously, I highly dislike both of these stereotypes (though the latter is of course more offensive and ableist). The reality is that most people will experience some sort of significant mental distress at some point in their lives, therapists included, and experiencing it early in one’s life can be a motivating factor when it comes to choosing a career path.
But I think there’s more going on here than just stereotypes about particular professions, and I think it reflects a common misunderstanding of how therapy works. That misunderstanding is:
- Go to therapy
- Talk about yourself
- Have a Sudden Realization™ or receive a powerful Insight™ from your therapist
- Profit/recover from your mental illness.
Actually, it’s more like:
- Go to therapy
- Fill out a lot of paperwork (sorry)
- Talk about yourself
- Hopefully, maybe (please) do some homework stuff outside of the session (I call them experiments!)
- Learn things about yourself and your mental illness, both through information and perspectives provided by your therapist and your own experience
- Apply that knowledge to change some of your patterns of thinking and/or behavior
- Have a really bad week/month and forget all of that knowledge for a while
- Relearn the knowledge and resume applying it
- Increase your tolerance of painful thoughts and feelings and your confidence that you can climb out of future mental health setbacks
- End therapy and continue being an awesome person.
The first model doesn’t work chiefly because 1) there’s no magical realization or insight; shit is way too complicated for that and more importantly 2) knowledge alone doesn’t automatically change people’s thoughts, behaviors, or circumstances.
(Why does anyone still think that therapy is about Receiving Insights from on high? I blame Freud.)
But if it did, then it would generally be true that therapists wouldn’t have the same problems other people do.
But since it doesn’t, it stands to reason that our knowledge about mental health and creating positive change doesn’t automatically cure our personal problems. Kind of how even the best brain surgeon in the world doesn’t operate on their own brain.
The inconvenient thing about therapy is that it is, at its core, an interpersonal process. That’s why the strongest predictor of effectiveness in therapy is the strength of the working relationship between the therapist and the client.
Although there are a lot of fascinating processes that go on in therapy (I hope someone has written a blog post about them), I would argue that the core process—the one that’s absolutely necessary for any kind of change to occur—is the one in which the therapist shows the client that they have worth, that they deserve respect, that their experiences are real, that their feelings are valid, and that their attempts to cope with their situation make sense, even if they aren’t working well for them anymore .
And that is really hard to do for yourself. I would say it’s a bit like giving yourself a hug. Can you go through the motions? Sure. Is it even anything like a hug from another person? Nope.
And this is why all good therapists have their own therapist at least some of the time. And also why we have the exact same super cool fun problems as the rest of you.
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