Does it hurt you to listen to sad stories all day long?
Three times in the past week, I have been asked by friends and acquaintances whether it hurts me to listen to my clients' pain all week long. They were shocked to hear that it does not. But I realized during one of these conversations that I had to explain more. Two of the three people who asked this took my answer at face value but one said, "so I guess you're just numb to it after awhile huh?" No, no, no!! I am not numb to the pain my clients experiences at all. It's just that I am processing them differently than you might process similar stories told by friends or family.
I will try to explain because I think the idea of a "numb therapist" is just terrible and depressing. Let me give you a little peek into what I might be looking for when someone is telling me a really difficult story about their life:
- Do they know when, where, and who they are and why we're here?
- How would I describe their behavior, attitude, motor activity, thought processes, thought content, judgment, insight, safety, and memory?
- How does their reported mood match with how they seem in the room?
- How congruent are their words with their body language and non-verbal clues?
- What ways of remembering or experiencing events in the past, present, and future might be increasing their suffering?
- What is the best evidence-based method to help them right now? How about over the next few weeks?
- How do I dose or pace this treatment in a way that fits the particular client in the room with me right now?
For better and worse, as a responsible, professional therapist, I cannot get completely glued to the content of the story that the client is telling me because my job is to help. In order to help, I have to think about how to help the client change their process around their story to alleviate suffering. Sometimes at the end of the day, I think back to a story I was told and marvel at the resilience of the incredible people who trust me with their stories. But perhaps because I'm so busy trying to do my job or perhaps because I simply have so much hope and admiration for the people I work with, I do not feel burdened by even the worst stories.