- Mental Health
The Lessons I Learned From Being a Therapist
The People I Met In Therapy
In my twenty five years of doing therapy and counseling I had the good fortune of working with different types of people and in various capacities. I worked with low functioning and high functioning people. I worked with people with eating disorders and personality disorders and dissociative disorders. I worked with children and teens with learning disorders, ADD, and various behavioral problems. I worked with adults with sexual issues, depression, schizophrenia, relational problems, anxiety, and PTSD disorders just to name a few. I met people of all different races and nationalities and sexual preferences. I met very good people and some not so good. I was what you call a generalist--someone who was able to work with a variety of people problems.
And for the most part, I enjoyed my time as a therapist. I enjoyed meeting new people every day and discovering the uniqueness of each individual that walked into the counseling room. I learned about people's strengths, their flaws, their vulnerabilities, and the things they were afraid to share with others--the skeletons in their closets, their shameful and traumatic secrets. I heard things that would make your neck hairs stand on end. But in all of my experiences, every one of my clients had something valuable to share with me and, in turn, taught me a valuable life lesson. I may not have liked every client I counseled, but I learned something from each one. For that I will always be grateful.
Lesson #1: Finding the Good in People
Part of your job as a therapist is to connect with the client, to find the client's strengths and positives so that eventually the client could see themselves as having positive qualities.
I learned that it is wise to find the good in people. It changed the way I related to the world. It's unlike a police officer who, perhaps, is only around people who are at their worse--committing crimes, breaking society's rules. But the job of a therapist is the opposite--it is to find the good in people. This counteracts the way clients often view themselves--worthless, a failure, and unloveable.
The amazing part of this was that it was relatively easy to find the good in people. People are mainly good but they get caught up with substance abuse or are a product of abusive parenting or they have poor coping skills and often deal negatively with others and stressful situations. But in the counseling room you see the whole person, not one aspect of the person--and those clients that I worked with were predominately good people.
Why do people become therapists?
Lesson #2: People Want to Grow and Get Better
People inherently want to grow and get better but there are obstacles in the way. Some of the obstacles are bad breaks in life like getting cancer or losing your job or having overriding responsibilites that prevent one from reaching her potential. And there are some obstacles that are self-imposed; perhaps the person has a low self esteem and she feels she should stay in an abusive relationship. She might feel that she can't make it in the world without the abusive partner. Perhaps the client believes that he is inherently stupid and going to college and pursing a dream will end up as a failure.
Therapy is a place to get help in dealing with these obstacles--whether the obstacles are a result of bad brakes or self-imposed. It is a safe haven for people to give it a try and recover from faulty thinking or painful hardships. People go to therapy to get better and grow.
Sometimes all it takes is a few sessions to overcome an issue and move on in life. Other times it might take years to get unstuck.
What Therapists Do...
Therapists provide a non-judgmental atmosphere so that clients can increase self awareness, bring about emotional healing and help facilitate relational growth. They uphold a high level of ethical standards, especially in the area of confidentiality so that clients feel safe and secure in the therapy environment. Therapists must have a master's degree or doctorate to practice clinically in the field
Lesson #3: Some Clients are More Functional than Their Therapists
There is a play called Equus by Peter Shaffer. It's a story of a psychiatrist treating a young person who has extreme religious connotations with horses. The psychiatrist doubts the value of treating this young person, since he will simply return to a dull, normal life that lacks any commitment and passion. As a therapist I often saw clients having a more passionate life than I did. I often saw clients who had better social skills and communication skills than I did. I saw clients who had more friends, were smarter, had a better family life, and was a better father than me. I realized that I was far from being superior to my clients even though they were on the couch and I sat in the therapist swivel chair. And even though I helped many of them live a more emotionally stable life--many of my clients taught me how to have an exciting and fuller life. And it was something that the psychiatrist in Equus learned from his young, obsessive client.
Lesson #4: I Could Easily be on the Couch
There's only a short distance from the therapist chair and the client sofa. Many times as I was listening to a client, I was saying to myself--I have some of the same issues that I struggle with and in some cases I cope just as poorly. The only difference between me and the client is that I have more self awareness or insight and I might self-correct faster when I'm overly angry or coping poorly.
Being a therapist often made me think about how I dealt with, let's say, marital discord or my anger toward my father or my son and his behavioral issues. I had several advantages over my clients--therapy education and therapy experience. That's the only reason why I spent more time on the therapist swivel chair and not the couch.
Lesson # 5: I Got More than I Gave
I noticed through the years, the more I gave to the client--the more the client would give to me, and not just candy on the holidays. The clients taught me many things and the fact that they were so open and honest with me was truly a gift. When the clients were honest with me they shared how human nature works, how people suffer, what resources they use in order to pull themselves out of the hole they were in. Holes that were so deep and dark that it took an amazing amount of human strength to climb out.
They helped me to help others. They helped me to solve problems and to come up with creative solutions. They helped me to help myself with their courage and never giving up no matter how difficult their life was. When clients would offer me Christmas gifts I would say, "Sorry I can't accept it." But in my mind I said, You gave me too much all ready.
Final Lesson: I'd Rather be Writing about Therapy
After twenty-five years in the field of mental health, I began to feel like I had enough. I had enough of the job, sitting in an office and listening and strategizing and helping people calm themselves down or find ways to overcome some of their problems. The once rewarding job slowly became draining and not so much fun anymore. Although I truly cared about the clients that I worked with, I felt that I did my time. My time was up. I had to move on to a new venture, an interest that was brewing inside me since a teenager. I had to get out of the office and use more of my creative skills that for years I kept under wraps.
Now I prefer to write about therapy or the things that I learned from doing therapy than actually sitting in an office for 8 hours a day. It was time for me to hang up my pince-nez glasses and pick up my Mac Air and start typing. I had found and used my therapist voice--now it was time to find my voice as a writer.
The people that I worked with in therapy will forever be engraved in my mind, in my everyday life and in my written word.
If there are any therapists out there who have experienced the same life transition, let me know about it. Your comments are appreciated.