Life Lessons From the Therapist’s Chair.Posted: May 9, 2011
This blog is about what sitting in the therapist chair over the years has taught me about life.
1. Lesson #1: Use avoidance when angry – the misogynistic male client. I was working at an agency at the time and had to work with whoever got assigned to me. The client in question was a middle aged male who hated women. He hated my age too. He didn’t hesitate to tell me so. He would say things like “women are dumb” or “you’re just a woman, what do you know?” or ‘women are equal to cows”. At any other job this would have been considered abuse and would have not been tolerated. However, since the invention of diagnosis and since Freud decided there was an analysis for everything, certain behaviors in my field of work get excused and analyzed. Eventually, I had to insist on transferring him to a therapist who didn’t feel like punching him in the face (it’s called counter-transference people and it’s completely “excusable” as long as you don’t act on it).
2. Lesson # 2: Don’t trust what people say, trust what they do – the liar client. Have you ever been lied to? How did it feel? Did you feel betrayed or taken advantage of? Did you feel like a fool for believing a lie? We are often shaken by the realization that we have been lied to all along. We tend to feel inadequate because we should have known better. In my field, there are excuses for lying too. Some call it denial, some lack of insight, some a defense mechanism. And we as professionals, are supposed to treat lying as a symptom and work with it. Almost always though what people do is closer to the truth.
3. Lesson # 3: Accept the things you can’t control – when your client dies. I thought about this as I was reading Steve Hauptman’s blog about control. As therapists we often want to fix things for our clients. I had a client who was having a tough time with accepting her HIV status and dealt with it by drugging heavily. I fought very hard to help her stay alive not realizing that that was not in my power or control. Once that didn’t work I got angry. She ended up overdosing leaving me with my anger and the unfinished business of not being able to say goodbye. Things happen. Life is cruel. Once I accepted that and accepted my own limitations I was able to move on.
4. Lesson # 4: Life sometimes doesn’t make sense– the child client. Children are born innocent. They didn’t ask to come into this world. Often times they don’t ask for much other than food and love. Yet children are neglected, abused, raped, drugged, prostituted, and even killed every day by the people who are supposed to take care of them. With all the systems we have put in place to help prevent this or intervene when abuse happens, children go from innocent to client.
5. Lesson # 5: You may be hated for doing the right thing – the suicidal client. In the midst of all the things I am not able to control or help, sometimes me being there when someone wants to kill themselves makes a difference in whether they live or die. For that day anyway. This is not to say they won’t try again next month. But for that one day, the universe lined up perfectly for me to intervene and change the course of events. Before you mistaken me for a hero get this: I am sometimes hated for intervening for different reasons including a parent refusing to accept their child’s mental illness or simply having the audacity to interfere with someone’s will to end their pain.
6. Lesson # 6: If you haven’t screwed up yet, you will – when clients pay for your mistakes. This was very early on in my work. I hadn’t quite conquered the art of challenging someone and my client was fragile and prone to anger outbursts. Long story short, he threatened to hurt me and burn the clinic down and got escorted out by the police. Yes it was his fault. And yes I screwed up (I can think of a million different ways I could have handled the situation). I’m only human. I live and learn.
7. Lesson # 7: Pride is useless – becoming the client. Therapists need supervision. It’s an avenue for us to work on our skills, work through counter-transference and be better at helping clients. At one point, I was going through so much of my own problems supervision wasn’t enough. I knew I had to swallow my pride, ask for professional help and go through my own therapy. I’m a better person and a more effective therapist for it.
8. Lesson #8: Make peace with yourself – the client who asks all the tough questions. Are you married? Do you have children? Do you want children? Are your parents still alive? Do you have a boyfriend? Where are you from? Are you happy? Have you ever done drugs? Do you drink? Are you religious?
I have learned peace means never having to apologize to anyone for who I am.