I realize I haven’t shared much about myself in my blogs or most of my content in general. This mostly has been due to believing I need to hide my personal life as part of the role of being a therapist. I also believed I would lose credibility if I shared more of my life, particularly my past and current struggles. However, I’m not a therapist 24/7, nor is it my identity. All that to say I’m a therapist who goes to therapy myself. In fact, over the last year it’s been on an almost weekly basis.
I knew I wanted to go into the field of psychology after my own intensive experience in 2011 when I went into treatment for anorexia. Part of my struggle at the time was feeling stuck in a career I believed I should be in rather than wanted. I continued participating in therapy on and off throughout the years, but I hadn’t yet realized that my ability to be vulnerable would pave the way for this decision.
Vulnerability — the courage to ask for help — isn’t always seen as strength within our culture, even within the field of psychotherapy. Surprisingly, stigma even prevents other clinicians from seeking their own psychotherapy out of fear of “professional repercussions.” For example, a doctoral dissertation from Antioch University of Seattle identified the prevalence, barriers, and suggested interventions for distress among psychologists. The researchers found that psychologists are prone to experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue. If not addressed appropriately and timely, the high level of distress can impact the effectiveness of our work, which is important, given we literally have other people’s mental health in our hands.
If anything reinforces the importance of practitioners going to therapy, it’s the nature of the profession and the demanding use of our mental energy to provide care for others. The intensive work we do has the potential to take an emotional toll on us. If we’re not at our best, how can we help others be at theirs? This question isn’t limited to therapists. Anyone providing services that impact a client’s wellbeing should consider their own personal development and self-care.
We’ve heard of doctors telling their patients to stop smoking, yet they’re hitting their vape as soon as they exit the building. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t be superb at their job. However, in my experience, the best therapists know what it’s like to be on the other side of couch, doing the work themselves.
I’ll admit that one of the reasons I entered this field was to understand myself on a deeper level. But what’s the use of having an intellectual understanding without practicing it? I cannot speak for all practitioners, but when I consistently practice and apply all of the skills I teach my clients, there is a noticeable shift in the way I show up in sessions and in the rates which my clients can successfully integrate healthier behaviors and process their experiences. Interestingly, I found doing the work myself has contributed to zapping my self-diagnosed imposter syndrome (for the most part).
Why the heck am I sharing this? Well first, I want to humanize therapists (coaches too!). News flash: we are fallible and struggle with our own issues. Simply existing is challenging enough to manage, add on social and cultural pressures/influences, as well as the demands of serving the community, and you can see why most practitioners are in for quite a ride.
This understanding was shocking for me after my first therapist, who at the time I idolized, brought me back down to earth immediately. Her simply disclosing, “I got problems too!” allowed me to experience less self-imposed expectations. Having, what I would call, a stellar history of perfectionism (sprinkled with negative self-beliefs), reducing my personal expectations was quite the feat.
Secondly, I want to hopefully reduce the expectation that we will reach a point in life where we are “fully healed” (ex. always being happy and positive, never reactive or defensive, having resolved all problems, never making poor judgment calls or mistakes, always feeling good about oneself, etc.). It can be a hard pill to swallow, but no one has healed themselves out of being human or transcended their humanity. It is not the goal.
Instead, what I teach my clients is to refocus their goals towards living an authentic life based on their values, to learn from mistakes and take accountability, accept that change and growth is constant, and to show up no matter what. This process takes time, can be difficult and messy, but you are worth it.
I think most of us value helping others in general, but as flight attendants tell you, “Place the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping small children and others who may need your assistance”. So, for those that struggle with self-care because it’s “selfish”, remember you can only help those around you as much as you help yourself. Being vulnerable can feel very exposing, yet it gets easier with practice. To form closer connections, we need to be vulnerable.
Starting therapy for the first time may seem quite terrifying. You discuss some of your deepest, sometimes darkest thoughts, to a total stranger. Further, with the widespread use of telehealth these days, there’s a chance you may never meet your therapist (or see if they have smol calves).
The truth is your therapist is just another fellow human; a fallible, complex being like you, who is sometimes a hot mess, trying to navigate this seemingly chaotic world. So, if you’re hesitant to seek help, remember that the person seated in front of you (on the couch or screen) is human too. Therapy is covertly a reciprocal process. As much as my clients learn from me, I learn from them. Yes, we are equipped to provide professional help, but ultimately “we’re all in this together” *cue High School Musical clip.
It is extremely rewarding and an absolute privilege being a therapist. I get to witness my clients’ most intimate parts of themselves and contribute to their growth. When appropriate, I share with my clients some of my process and what has helped me overcome challenges. I’ve found when I reflect my flawed humanity, engage in small talk, and even banter, it builds rapport in a more egalitarian, yet ethical, alliance.
If you are met with dismissal, judgment, or defensiveness by someone after being vulnerable, remove yourself from the situation and instead seek help where you feel safer. Some other resources include the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). There are also local resources in your area for mental health support, many of which are low-cost or free.
If you were looking for a sign to reach out to a therapist, this is it!
Now I want to encourage our community to be more vulnerable, because through that we become more united and dare I say…healed. 🙂
So, I’ll leave some questions you can answer to reflect on the last year. See how vulnerable you can be with yourself and others!
- What were the highlights of this year? Low points?
- What did you learn about yourself?
- What did you let go of that didn’t serve you this year?
- Did you make value-based decisions?
- Who were your most positive and influential relationships?
- How did you grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially this year?
- How did the relationship with yourself/self-perception change this year?
- What did you face head-on this year rather than avoid?
- What didn’t you do, but wanted to?
- What challenged you the most and what did you overcome?
- What was the most difficult thing to accept?
- What are you most proud of?
- When did you step out of your comfort zone?
- How did you provide help to others this year? How did you receive help from others?
- What was your best laugh of the year?
- What are you most grateful for?
- How do you want to move more intentionally through 2023?