Navigating the Intersection of Work and Mental Health
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Working Better and Stressing Less

Ideas on work and mental health

The imperfect therapist

A moment on a recent walk where I found myself struggling with shame around how difficult the workout had been...

A moment on a recent walk where I found myself struggling with shame around how difficult the workout had been...

Today, a colleague shared an open letter from a therapist to his clients in which the author wrote about how he wished he could more thoroughly answer a common question therapists are asked; "Is it hard listening to clients' problems all day?"  

First, he wrote about what an honor it is to witness clients' stories - how his clients had restored his faith in humanity. I agreed with all of it. But another part of his letter also captured my attention. 

The author noted that therapists often maintain unrealistic facades of perfection and polish to protect their clients from thinking about the therapist's personal issues. When we therapists do this, we are trying to protect the client's therapy time - to keep it focused on the client's concerns and to not burden CLIENTS with further concern about our wellbeing. The unintended consequence of maintaining this boundary can be that clients don't see their therapists as the imperfect people they are. Clients may start feeling more broken because their therapists appear to be perfect. 

Therapists are not perfect. All of the education, study, training, supervision, and licensing requirements don't protect us from our humanness. It's not easy for us to reconcile. How do you counsel someone who's anxious when you are also feeling anxious? How do you help people make lifestyle changes when you struggle yourself?

The key, I think, is for therapists and clients to understand that there is a difference between a therapist bringing personal learning into the room and telling a client every last detail of a personal experience. I often struggle with this and my colleagues have told me they struggle too. Sometimes I want to yell, "Yes - OH MY GOSH practicing mindfulness/working out/getting older/dealing with jerks/having anxiety/feeling low/improving myself/being in pain is AWFUL not only because I see it through your eyes but also because I live it in my life... maybe even right now. I am struggling so much..." But I usually can't. Going down that road ends up in a conversation about me and not about my client. 

Instead, clients might hear me repeat their story with a little more color - a color that could only have come about from me walking that path before or with them. And once in awhile, when I'm pretty sure I either can't avoid disclosing something personal (like a sick child I must care for) or if I'm quite sure an anecdote will be helpful, I'll carefully share an imperfection I think that person needs to see. Rest assured, there's a lot more where that came from. Clients, I want you to know I'm not perfect but I also want to respect that it's you we're working on during our hour together and not me. 

Katie Playfair