Being a therapist is hard work. We establish and maintain boundaries, intently listen to the experiences of others and constantly check in with our countertransference lest it impact the therapeutic process. All the while we are to be relatively even-keel, grounded and insightful.
As we go through our own life struggles and processes, we are expected to have excellent coping skills to handle anything life throws at us. After all, this is what we teach others to do all day. We are supposed to be the strongest communicators, the healthiest in our relationships, the most self-aware people there are.
Beyond having own own therapy, there is a disconnect between what we might tell our patients and what we listen to ourselves. Self-care, for example, is something we might preach in hundreds of various ways to our patients and something that gets completely forgotten as therapists.
Even more than implementing these coping mechanisms for ourselves, there is a greater divide in acknowledging when we really need help. Admitting that we are struggling and need more than we can give ourselves might be as taboo as saying we have a favorite patient. And yet both of these things happen.
There is an expectation that exists that looks something like this = therapists struggling emotionally = shouldn’t be helping other people. It is akin to doctor smoking:hypocrite. I cannot pinpoint exactly when this became true or if it has always been this way, but there is a clear distinction between what type of therapy is reasonable for therapists to engage in.
Supervision is looked highly upon and even required in some instances. Seeking therapy to heal old wounds is seen as a positive thing before beginning to work with clients. Gaining help for fresh wounds gets a little murkier in the acceptability rating.
So what happens when we get knocked upside down by some unexpected life event, something tragic, or otherwise unexpected? Like most human beings, we are entitled to fall off center. The problem is we often do not allow ourselves to admit that we have been impacted or give ourselves the permission to struggle, so opposite from what we might tell our clients.
The issue then becomes a question of authenticity. How are we to advise our patients to feel their feelings and experience their pain and not take heed ourselves?
Through experiencing my own pain and loss, I have come back to the hard realization that I need to listen to myself and that I am human. After suffering the traumatic loss of my beloved dog last fall, I “should” on myself a lot. I told myself I should not be having this hard of a time. I should be able to get through this on my own. I should not need someone else to help me through it.
After “working through” the grief on my own, otherwise known as avoiding it and hoping it would go away, I reached out for help. I worked through the icky feelings and began taking my own advice. I reached out to a grief and loss specialist and began confronting my emotions head-on.
Recognizing our humanity is difficult as it requires us to say “I don’t have this whole thing figured out.” It challenges us beyond the limits we thought we reached long ago, perhaps when we began supervision and training and worked through all of our own personal stuff. It challenges us to revisit asking for help and allowing another to help us.
There is something particularly raw and vulnerable about reaching out for help as a therapist. In living this experience now, it has helped me to connect with my clients in a deeper way. I am acutely aware of what that first outreach call is like and what it feels like to be in those intake sessions.
I have learned through my own healing that it does not make me an inadequate therapist, but a stronger one. When we can recognize our limitations and seek help from others in any form, we can integrate that vulnerability into our compassion and connection with clients making our work even more powerful. Taking our own advice does not have to symbolize weakness, rather a more profound understand of what it means to help others by first helping ourselves.
Leslie A. Jay, LMHC is a therapist, wellness consultant and shameless self-care advocate who helps busy professionals thrive with mindfulness, movement and balance. Learn how to feel less weighed down by stress without changing your whole lifestyle by signing up for her 3-Day De-Stressing Challenge here.