Saturday, September 11, 2010
From the Other Chair
I write a lot of stories that are motivated by my life and experience as a therapist. It’s an odd job. It occurs to me that unless you are a therapist, you might not know that. The work has an impact not only on the client, but on the therapist; there are dual relationship issues, lack of anonymity in a small town, secondary traumatization, something called compassion fatigue, as well as larger-than-life projections on who we are as people. The following is reprinted from an article I wrote for Psychology Today in February, 2003.
I live in a community where it is likely that several times a week I will cross paths with current or past clients from my psychotherapy practice. They show up at choir practice, the local organic grocery, next to me in line at the bank or the post office on a Saturday morning, often when I’m wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, my favorite mud-stained tennies, no make-up and my hair in errand-running disarray. Processing the client’s social discomfort of such meetings can take up space in therapy for two or three weeks. Processing my own discomfort focuses on not becoming hyper vigilant about leaving the house.
At the grocery I worry about a quart of Ben and Jerry’s and a cut of steak in my shopping cart offending a bulimic, vegetarian client in line behind me, or a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc losing me credibility with a client in recovery who just got promoted from stock boy to cashier.
There are few guidelines for managing the ambiguities and oddities that occur within the therapeutic relationship.
Last winter, I joined the local women’s gym to offset the sedate lifestyle of daily therapy. I gave up my membership when I passed a towel-clad client on my way to the shower.
Back in my office, parades of psyches sit for the fifty-minute hour on the couch across from me.
They tell me things they wouldn’t tell another living soul: tales of humiliation, pain, psychic torture, irrational beliefs, fears, ruined hopes and dashed dreams. I remember the story of the sin eaters of ancient days, the nomads who would wander the countryside and absorb the pain of the villagers only to be chased away, taking with them the pain and sorrow, leaving the village purged.
There’s something sacred about the process of accompanying someone on their descent to the underworld of their soul-journey, holding the belief that they can return healed, and witnessing their struggles along the way. James Bugental, in The Art of the Psychotherapist, writes, “We are privileged, more than most, to peer into the well of life’s mystery.” Privileged—yes. And, there’s something burdensome about it as well.
In addition to the secondary traumatization of hearing hour upon hour of human misery, there are expectations that come with that intimate sharing.
Clients often expect that I will retain the details of their lives and hold them in this sacred space for years to come. My menopausal mind is greatly challenged by this expectation.
There’s a closeness and trust that forms in the confines of the therapy office. Because we’ve been through so much together, the assumption of friendship seems natural.
It is true that I attend to them and hold them in highest regard, as would a good friend. I believe in them and nurture the unfolding of their potential. I mirror for them the wonderful person they are underneath life’s circumstances. I share their highs and lows, and hold the knowledge that without a doubt, they have a place and a purpose in the universe. And, I remind them that they are unique and valuable, and no one else can be as good a them as they can.
What they don’t have to do in return, is listen to my problems. We can’t meet for tea, go to a movie or a walk on the beach to continue our conversation after the therapy hour. The container of our time together remains my little 8’ x 12’ office.
How do we as therapists show up, day after day, year after year, in intimate and authentic relationship to another where our needs are not addressed?
And how do we handle those growth experiences called negative transference, where emotionally charged verbal tirades at the unfaithful partner, the acting out child, the abusive parent, are hurled at us as though we’ve suddenly shape-shifted into the offending party right before their eyes?
Stress-related disorders, insomnia, anxiety, depression, addictions, and a variety of neuroses are common among therapists.
In consultation groups, small informal social gatherings of peers, and therapy groups for those in the helping professions, my colleagues and I share our stress reduction tricks.
I often use an imaginary shield (or psychic wet suit) that allows me to hear and feel with compassion, to be affected without being infected by psychically assaultive energy.
Having friends who understand, working with a good therapist, and developing your connection to Spirit helps. Give yourself plenty of creative and expressive outlets, read, and spend time alone. Create peer support, laugh, eat healthy food, and make your home a nurturing environment. Play, listen to music that moves you, exercise, and dare to dream. Most importantly, remember why you’ve chosen this particular path.
I marvel at what a strange profession this is. But, is there anything else I’d rather do? Absolutely not.