This blog is not FDA approved
It was the fall of 2007. I lived in Boston, was halfway through my master’s degree and I had just started my internship seeing therapy clients for the first time.
I felt like the biggest fraud in the world.
You know when you’re about six years old and you put on mom’s heels and pearls and lipstick and then go prancing about the house, hoping you don’t trip and fall and give yourself away? That’s about how I felt.
They all say you’ll never forget your first client, and while I can’t remember her name, I do remember what she told me when we sat down across from each other for the first time: “Don’t be so scared, honey!” But I was, and what terrified me the most was that my fear was apparently obvious.
I inherited the tendency to suffer from general and social anxiety, and over time I have learned that if I just push through my discomfort, I usually come out on the other side having learned something about myself, having grown as a person, and feeling proud of myself. As I made my way through high school and college, I slowly realized that 1) I wanted to be a therapist, of all things, 2) I thought I’d be good at it, and 3) It scared the shit out of me. That settled it – I sent out applications to counseling master’s programs.
It’s weird that I am a therapist. No one in my family has been one; I didn’t go to therapy as a child. Therapists (and people who have been through the process as a client) use this language, this psychobabble, as if it were normal, but when terms like unconditional positive regard and attachment figure slip out of my mouth in front of friends and family, the looks on their faces highlight a distance I sometimes feel from the general population.
What I do during the day is odd. I get paid to listen to perfect strangers tell me their deepest, darkest secrets, and I am expected to say brilliant things to make those people feel better and think about their problems in different ways. An added layer for me is that I work at an agency where we serve survivors of domestic and sexual violence – talk about alienating people at cocktail parties. While I feel comfortable talking about abuse (with both my clients and the general population), most people don’t, and I completely understand that, but it’s tough when some people ask what I do or where I work, and the conversation basically ends after I give my answer.
For the above reasons, being a therapist can be an ironically isolating career to have. Yes, I get to listen and work with people in such an intimate way, but that intimacy has to stay private…confidential…sacred.
Another side effect of shrinkdom that I have to actively reframe is my distorted perception that the world is a very, very dangerous place. Every single one of my clients comes to see me because they have been victimized in some way, often by more than one person. If I’m having a bad day, I think about all those perpetrators running around and it makes me terrified at the thought of one day having children and sending them out into the world. I’ve noticed that I do little things to make myself feel safer: I always lock the door when I am home. I carry my bike up to my second story apartment because it’s just too easy to steal. If I am in my car, it’s locked, no exceptions. The trick is to not let these little things turn into big things that get in the way of me living my life, hence the reframing. I’ll hang out with healthy friends and remind myself that not everyone abuses others. That may sound ridiculous, but for me, it’s essential to my sanity.
Another thing that adds to my therapeutic performance anxiety is this notion that therapists are held to a higher standard as humans, as if our training gave us mystical powers to analyze others and cultivate perfectly healthy relationships with loved ones. As an example, a former boss of mine, who didn’t have a clinical background, once commented to me when several therapists at our agency were having a dispute, “You’d think that with all your training, you guys would know better how to get along.” Yeah, thanks for that added pressure to be perfect, but it doesn’t really work that way. Sure, we have mad skillz, but we also have baggage just like anyone else.
One of the ways us therapists get a handle on our issues and biases is through getting our own therapy. My first experience of being a therapy client didn’t happen until after I realized I wanted to be a therapist. Some therapy degree programs actually require that the students get into counseling, and while mine didn’t require it, I still wanted the experience. I wanted to see what being a client felt like because I knew that it would later help me connect with clients, but more importantly I needed to deal with my own junk and gain some personal insight.
Let me just say that therapists make the worst therapy clients. We analyze, we second guess, and we try to usurp the process- Oh no! I know what you’re trying to do! You’re trying to get me to FEEL THINGS! Well it won’t work! Nonetheless, my first therapist’s name was Rebecca, she was a godsend, and I miss her. I was able to unload and process all the crap that was happening in my life: moving across the country away from my family, moving in with my partner for the first time, and starting this crazy master’s degree. She laughed at my jokes, she was there when I cried, and she didn’t judge me. It was life changing.
It was through my time with Rebecca that I began to integrate these seemingly polar opposite sides of myself- the competent therapist and the anxiety-ridden fraud. At first, the competent therapist in me felt guilty for getting my own therapy, because I was functional, healthy, I was taking a time slot from someone who probably needed it more than I…and I should know how to get by on my own, right? I was supposed to have all the answers. On the other hand, the anxious pretender in me felt so relieved, because I didn’t have to pretend in therapy. Oh, it felt so amazingly good to admit how fucking scared I was and how I had no idea what I was doing.
Rebecca thought this was bullshit. She didn’t think I was supposed to have all the answers. She didn’t think I had no idea what I was doing, either. And she was right. Looking back, I think I knew this about myself all along, but just needed someone to say it to me. There is room for both parts of me, and they aren’t opposing forces. They’re just me.
So where does this leave me? I still worry. I worry that my older clients won’t take me seriously as a young professional. I worry that my non-white clients won’t take me seriously. I worry that my low socioeconomic clients will see me as a spoiled brat. I worry that clients who are parents will reject my feedback because I am childless. I worry that I won’t be able to help people.
And then I remember what it was like to be a client myself. I remember that I was terrified of crying in front of a stranger, terrified that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, terrified of being judged. I remember that all I wanted as a client was to be heard and understood.
And I think to myself, I can do that.