Therapy, in many respects, is no longer the stigmatized endeavor that it used to be. While certainly attitudes toward therapy vary according to culture and location, largely, it is no longer the baby boomer generation’s dirty little secret. Instead, millennials often easily and openly discuss their experiences with therapy, and over the course of their emerging and young adulthood, may even work with several therapists for a whole slew of challenges.
The reasons that my clients seek me out for run the gamut: most folks, unsurprisingly in our troubled political and environmental climate, are struggling with anxiety and depression, at least to some degree. Because I’m also a holistic sex educator, many of my clients reach out for therapy for support around authentic embodiment gender and sexuality. Almost all of my clients seek to have their fears validated regarding trying to make a living somehow under late stage capitalism, particularly those in my own age cohort, who were promised so many things if we went to college, got the degree(s), and just played by the rules long enough to receive stability as our reward. Other of my clients are processing long histories of trauma for the very first time, often becoming aware of the shape and scope that intergenerational trauma has played not only in their lives, but in the lives of their parents and ancestors. Many of us are discovering the needs of our inner children for the first time, or shining a light on how our childhoods influence the way we show up and relate to each other today. Millennials (myself included) in my experience, are doing the very hard work of healing, and one small balm in this challenging endeavor is that we’re finally beginning to feel comfortable talking about it.
Therapy is supposed to be the place where you can say anything, and trust that you’ll be seen and heard. But if you come to therapy, as many folks do, with lot of relational trauma and wounding, that can be hard. Part of what makes it difficult is that many, many therapists practice from the traditional standpoint of acting as a tabula rasa (“blank slate”) in the room – the silent, imposing expert to whom you report all your fears and desires. At least, that’s how we’ve been trained – even in the supposedly more radical avenue toward becoming a therapist that I took, which was via a Masters of Social Work. I just passed my licensing exam, and I can’t tell you how many times the issue of self-disclosure on behalf of the therapist came up as a practice question – with the insistence that therapists almost never disclose anything about our personal lives in the process of working with clients, if we can help it.
But therapy is a relationship, and as such, it’s a navigation of personalities, opinions, boundaries, and needs. A therapist who pretends this isn’t so is probably not going to be doing a good a job as they could be. There’s humility in remembering that you’re no better, no wiser, and no more competent than the person sitting across from you asking for help. In fact, the times that I forget that no, I don’t know everything about the person sitting across from me, that it would take years to even come close, and accidentally acting like I know better – usually by offering advice or an observation of what I imagine I would do in their shoes – quite often results in disconnection, frustration, and feeling unseen. Luckily, some of the most fruitful work in therapy emerges in just these very moments.
Social media has changed the landscape of mental healthcare just as it has changed the landscape of virtually every other industry one could possibly work in. As such, there are several big name therapy accounts, many of which do amazing work to make an understanding of therapy, mental health, and the ways in which social justice and inequality impact these subjects, more widely accessible than ever before. But being a therapist online, with a following of people who might include folks who want to enter a therapeutic relationship with you, complicates the question of self-disclosure somewhat, too. More than ever, it’s easier to get an idea of who your therapist is – or at least how they present themselves online. It’s less easy to get a read on how your therapist thinks about you and the relationship between the two of you – especially if you’re shy, cautious, or concerned with not offending them or crossing any unspoken boundaries.
I can’t speak for all therapists, of course, but over the past few years I’ve gotten to know a decent amount of us, so to put you at ease, here are some of the things I’ve gleaned about how we most often feel about our clients.
We’re just human, and we don’t have all the answers
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a break between sessions, met a colleague in the break room, and one of us has just sighed and wondered at how anyone lets us do this job. When I was in school, it had a lot to do with imposter syndrome – having another human being, a stranger, trust you with the events of their life, the things that make them feel sad, or lonely, or vulnerable, or angry, at times felt overwhelming. The desire to help, to comfort, to fix things or make them better, is an urge that I feel quite strongly when working with my clients. I want things to go well for them, I want them to feel happy and loved, to not have to work so hard, to make sure they have time to rest, and relax, and enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. A lot of my time in supervision and my own therapy is spent processing feelings of helplessness and wishing that I could just make things better. The difficulty of sitting with someone’s pain or grief, unable to just fix it, is a reminder of our own fallibility and humanity and the ways in which therapists, too, need to be mindful that we will also never reach the bottom of our potential to practice and grow.
…but we have faith that you have the ability to uncover the answers you seek
A few months ago, in one of my frenetic cycles of reading everything I could get my hands on about psychotherapy theory (fueled by my own anxious need to do a good job), I read about one of the most important things a therapist can do for a client. It’s a lesson that has also been repeated to me by my supervisor, and also my own therapist, especially during sessions where I feel totally overwhelmed and when I’m working to process vicarious trauma. The role of the therapist, especially when things seem darkest for our clients, is to hold onto hope in the moments that our clients can’t.
It’s a reminder that grounds me when I feel most at a loss for what to do or say, and it softens the sting of feeling helpless. I may not have any concrete ability to make things better for my clients – and also, I shouldn’t have that power, because that would lead to some of the harmful, paternal power dynamics that made the early beginnings of therapy so problematic in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe fully in my clients’ abilities to accomplish the goals they come to therapy seeking to fulfill, as well as in their strength, resilience, and ability to persevere, especially when they themselves feel like those qualities are totally out of their reach.
Most of the time, we genuinely like you
I haven’t been working as a therapist for very long, but in the time that I have so far, I can’t remember a single client who I’ve genuinely disliked. Sure, some personalities are stronger than others; some folks are more sarcastic; some are more blunt and domineering; some are so shy and reserved that I spend a lot of the session fretting about all the ways I’m clearly fucking up and alienating them. But upon reflection, one of the best things I’ve learned from practicing therapy for the past three years is that beneath all this, people are actually quite easy to like, most of the time. Maybe it’s that, while it may be expressed differently from person to person, most of my clients come to therapy with the understanding that they will sooner or later be vulnerable, and I find vulnerability engaging. Maybe it’s just that the practice of being truly present with another person – with their pain, with their joy, with their unmistakable human-ness – and making the choice to mirror their vulnerability by extending empathy, curiosity, and openness, rather than creating distance by opting into judgment, makes the practice of unconditional positive regard feel that much more natural. But in general, I genuinely like my clients, and even in the moments that I don’t, I find that curiosity is often the way in.
If we don’t like you, it’s probably about us
You know that saying, that the way a person treats you reflects what’s going on with them, and shouldn’t be taken as a comment on who you are as a person? Maybe your mom told it to you, or a particularly wise friend. Maybe you read it in an Instagram post. It’s a central point that Dr. Nicole LePera makes, as well as something that Bunny Michael uses as a way of illustrating what it means to be viewing the world from a non-attached and compassionate Higher Self rather than acting from our ego, which exists, primarily, to protect us from harm by telling us familiar stories – whether true or not – to make sense of the world. It’s the hardest lesson to learn, and, once you’ve learned it, one of the most challenging to remember – our egos are always so hard at work – but working as a therapist continues to drive this lesson home for me again and again.
As an example: Some of my strongest reactions are to clients who seem to want my approval, not just for the choices they make, but for who they are at their core. Sometimes I leave these sessions feeling grumpy, disdainful, or very stressed; sometimes I go into those sessions dreading the forty-five minutes and forcing myself not to watch the clock. It took some exploration to figure out why, and I realized that most of my discomfort with the dynamic is – surprise – because I recognize and strongly dislike this same quality in myself: the need for approval, for someone – or, preferably, literally everyone on this planet – to tell me that I’m okay, that I’m doing a good job at being a person (or, at the very least, I am not doing the worst job ever in the history of humans), that I am a good and lovable person, and that the little voice in me that insists that I’m actually a human garbage can who everyone hates (hi, anxiety!) is a nasty and pathological liar. Just writing all that out made me wince. It’s a lot of pressure to put on someone, and I think probably a lot of us are guilty of it, every now and then. And, sadly, those of us who have experienced trauma have often gone on so long without someone helping us provide a counter-narrative in a language that we can understand. So, as I learned, some gentleness is in order here.
Your therapist will probably never tell you the intricate personal details of what their work with you sets off in them, but you may get a glimpse into it from time to time in some of their reactions to you. If the two of you are very brave, you may even get a chance to talk about it. One of the things I love most about being a therapist is that being in the room with someone is like each of us holding up a mirror to the other, revealing depth, and more depth, and more depth, as time goes on. While the relationship is ostensibly a tool for you to better understand yourself, please don’t doubt that we learn just as much about what it means to be a human by working with you.