“What is rumbling around in that silent, smug monster’s brain?” It can be hard to be in therapy. It can feel like you are having a one-way relationship at times, because you share so much and they share so little. You can ask them what they think and they will therapist the shit out of that question and redirect the question back to you. Muhahahahwahha (I just googled how to spell “evil laugh,” so that is an evil laugh…it’s always better when you have to explain the joke I heard). There are therapeutic reasons for this (e.g., a therapist will appear more objective and emotionally safe and available if you don’t know every single thing about them). Therapy’s appeal, effectiveness, and uniqueness likely have something to do with these unfamiliar and strange boundaries, but nevertheless it can be unsettling. I can’t speak for all therapists, but here are 7 common thoughts I have while in sessions with my clients.
- “What must that feel like?”
This is a pretty therapisty way to start. I’m well aware, but people often describe the problem or experience, rather than connect to the feeling or contact the sensation. I love talking shop; developing insight and discovering new awareness. I love exploring the reasons, the patterns, and connecting dots. It’s great, buttttt it’s often not where the change happens. Insight and awareness are parts of step one. Application of said insight and awareness is down the road where the (drum roll please…) feelings reside. The feelings that have kept you entrenched in unsatisfying and harmful patterns for years. You can know you need to stop doing a certain behavior, but not be willing to address head on the feelings that arise when you try to make new patterns. There are emotional injuries connected to these patterns. You have to be open to feeling them, not just talking about them. It sounds like a total bummer, but I promise you it is a surefire way to engage more fully in your life.
- “I know you think I’m judging you, but I’m so not.”
This is probably one of the more palpable experiences in the room for me. Clients clearly, and understandably so, worry about me judging them. They will say things like, “I know this sounds stupid [or insert any other self-deprecating word), but…” or “I know I’m so crazy. You don’t even have to tell me.” Other clients will be talking; on a roll seemingly moving toward something new and scary, then they look up, realizing they aren’t alone, and clam up or change the subject.
Here is the thing. No matter how fucked up you think you are, you’re not being judged (at least not by the therapist…can’t guarantee you’re not doing a bang up job of that on your own. More on that later). I can’t speak for all mental health professionals, nor would I want to, but for most of my colleagues, judging others is typically not in our nature. People who seek out this field often have an organic proclivity toward openness and compassion, even in the face of objectively heinous behavior. I’ll clarify what I mean by judging. I’m not saying I or other therapists are saints so pure we are impervious to thinking bad thoughts about other people or feeling certain behavior is bad. Of course we do. However, I find that I am able to see all behavior as meaningful, purposeful, and/or protective in nature. I am looking to see an integrated picture of a person. I am not seeing one behavior or even several and repeated ones and making an assumption about the integrity or worthiness of that person.
Outside of it not really being in my nature, it’s not effective to judge you. Let’s say you’re engaging in a behavior almost universally viewed as harmful (e.g., abuse, neglect, cheating, stealing). If seemingly the goal is to reduce harmful behavior toward others, me viewing you as a monster is the worst thing I can do. There is nowhere to go with that. No healing being made available to you, to us. It’s an old adage, but a true one from what I have seen: “Hurt people, hurt people.” Our response then, if we are aiming to heal, cannot be to harm the harmers. It must be to hold the harmers with compassion and kindness and insist they do the same to themselves until they are able to tolerate their own pain enough that they don’t need to project it onto others.
Finally, your fear about me judging you is not really even about me (yay!!). It is about the insidiousness of the judgment you feel toward yourself before you even step foot in my office. One thing that has opened itself up to me throughout clinical practice is how often client’s anxiety about having anxiety, or depression about having depression exacerbates their symptoms, limits their functioning, and eviscerates their sense of themselves. I often want to say (or scream with waving hand motions), “Yes you are dealing with some anxiety and depression and you are doing so great!”
It is truly normal to feel anxious or depressed about many of the things that happen in our lives. Oftentimes I am able to see how depression or anxiety can be adaptive responses to life’s circumstances. I’ve had clients say to me, “No one I know is anxious.” I promptly laugh and call bullshit (seriously, I do). We are all anxious and depressed to a certain extent and at certain times in our lives. My favorite quote from one of my most beloved graduate school professors: “If you’re not anxious, you’re dead.” Anxiety and depression alike have uses in our lives. When I’ve had clients share that they don’t know people who are anxious or depressed, my heart hurts. Part of the reason I started this website was to illuminate this misinformation. A lot of us suffer in the dark, because we feel we are alone. We aren’t. I believe we have a duty to normalize the raw and vulnerable pieces of our lives, which means showing all of the picture. Not just the parts that make us look like we have it all together all the time. Now, obviously there are variances in severity and types of mental illness and overall mental health fatigue. I do not intend to minimize this at all, however at the end of the day, regardless how severe and intense one’s mental illness, it is always in your best interest to remember the universality of suffering (and joy, too. “Whaddup, girl.”) and refrain from pathologizing yourself.–“You’re not crazy. You may have anxiety, depression, a trauma history, difficulty regulating moods, etc. This does not mean you are falling apart, or alone, or the only person who has experienced what you have.” Call it as it is. Nothing more, nothing less.
- “Well fuck. What do I say in response to that?”
This is a really common one for me. People say so many incredible things in sessions—ludicrous, hysterical, beautiful, boring, profound, heavy, superficial, horrible, terrifying things. When I have this thought, I typically say nothing or acknowledge I don’t know what to say. Clients often get real squeamish with silences, which is honestly comical at times and, more importantly, often elicits enough discomfort to catapult a client into a new level of vulnerability. Sometimes silence is necessary. Sometimes what you are sharing deserves some time and space to exist without commentary or response. In fact, most of the time, just saying something at all can be more than enough.
- “Holy shit. They think I actually have a definitive answer to that.”
One of the most amazing things I’ve encountered is that clients think as a therapist you know everything. Not just basics about psychology and human behavior. They think you know every theory backwards and forwards (false), you have the answer for every situation (lolzzz), that you know about every profession, every culture, every happening in public sphere, nearly every human experience possible (note: inherently impossible). It’s overwhelming. While I have the experience and required education to be a licensed therapist, I often feel like a fraud. I feel like I’m going to be found out that I don’t really know everything. I was talking with my own therapist about this once and she mentioned Impostor Syndrome which didn’t sound great, but I immediately connected to the term impostor.
It truly feels like they think you are perfect and know everything…and more than that you begin to feel in order to be a good therapist you must be perfect and know everything. The truth is what I know more than anything—more than theories, more than answers—is how to listen and be entirely present with another person. As I thought about this more, I realized I’m not an imposter. I’m not a fraud. I have doubt and feel pressure just like everyone else. I feel inadequate and helpless just like everyone else. These don’t make me a shitty therapist, they make me a better one. The pressure I feel to have the right answer or know everything is partly my own shit, but it’s also an indicator of the urgency my clients feel to know those things too. They struggle with their inadequacy, doubt, and helplessness. This leaves me with these wonderings: “How can I help us hold that reality that we are not perfect and never will be? That we will never know everything? Not push it away. Not change it and put that positive spin on it. How can we feel that together? Embrace it? Welcome it? Accept ourselves in those moments of fear and uncertainty?”
- “Ut oh. They want me to tell them what to do. Not happenin’”
Every single day, clients look at me, truly wanting answers about what to do and choices to make. I can’t give them what they want. I imagine that sounds mean or withholding. Well, its not. I’m not going to tell you what to do because (1) I don’t have the answer for you, (2) I only get to make decisions about the choices in my own life. Samesies go for you, sorry ‘bout it, and (3. my personal favorite), even if I did, even though you really, really think you want me to, you ultimately would not do what was suggested. Not because you’re lazy, maybe you have your lazy moments (and thank goodness for them), but that is not why you would not do what was suggested. You wouldn’t do the step-by-step plan because it’s not yours. It wasn’t constructed with full understanding of where you are right now, because only you know what that means. I believe we all do the best we can with what we have in the moment. So the solution is not for me to tell you what to do, it is for me to sit with you, talk with you, hold with you while you discover where you are, what your patterns are, and what you need to accept more fully in order to trust your own instincts. I find more often than not that people end up in my office because so many people before me (e.g., parents, friends, bosses, significant others, strangers, media) told them what to think, do and believe. Let’s try something new shall we?
- “Please, I beg you. Just let yourself fucking cry.”
Just do it. You know you need to. You know you’ll be fine. You know you’ll likely feel better if you do and even if you don’t know that, still fucking do it. It is a response coming from your own body. Are you saying you know better than your body about what you need? Are you? Don’t say that because it’s horseshit and we both know it. Clients will try to avoid this one like the plague. What are you worried will happen if you cry? Seriously, ask yourself that. What would happen if you listened to yourself and let go for just a moment? Would who you are change? Would your integrity or worthiness change? Would the people in your life love you less? We already covered that I’m not judging you so we can bypass questions related to what I think about you if you cry. Let’s stop denying ourselves the space to fully connect with what is happening in our minds, hearts, and bodies, especially in the safety of therapeutic context. Oh, and don’t apologize for crying.
- “Jeepers creepers, you are amazing.”
I am so in awe and inspired by my clients every day. No matter where they are in their own process, I am amazed. They are willing to try to share their vulnerability with me and I feel really fucking honored to be a part of that.
If you are interested in getting involved with a therapist of your own, Psychology Today can be really helpful in finding someone in your area, who takes your insurance or offers sliding scale fees, and who has experience in tackling the things you’d like to work on.
With gratitude and compassion (and all of the swears), Your Beth