10 Jun The “Secret” Lives of Therapists
Therapeutic relationships have many similarities to other relationships that individuals have in their lives. They work best if they are built on a foundation of trust and caring, they benefit from good communication and ideally they are full of warmth and empathy and perhaps even a few laughs along the way. That being said, therapeutic relationships are also significantly different than the relationships one has with friends, family, partners, colleagues, etc. Probably the most striking difference is the fact that therapeutic relationships do not involve two equivalent parties who carry identical roles and responsibilities in the relationship. At the end of the day a therapist is there to help and a client or patient is there to be helped (or assisted, supported, etc.).
Therapists have an array of therapeutic styles and orientations and also are entitled and encouraged to maintain therapeutic boundaries that feel right to them and are fitting with who they are as a person and how they see themselves as a therapist. The variance in therapeutic boundaries can influence factors such as how sessions begin and end and how therapists interact with their patients/clients outside of sessions. Therapeutic boundaries also impact how comfortable therapists are in sharing details about their own lives and experiences. Almost any approach is fine when it comes to therapeutic boundaries as long as it feels appropriate to the patient, as well as the therapist, and keeps the focus primarily on the patient. In my experience, regardless of whether a therapist shares a lot of information about their family, their hobbies and their life outside of the therapy office or very little of this information, there is often more that patients want to know about their therapist and their thoughts/experiences/lives. As such, below are (very much generalized) responses to the frequently asked or considered questions patients often seem to have about their therapists.
Yes, we really care. Don’t get me wrong. There are always going to be days that we are feeling a little less attentive, a little more stressed, etc when we won’t be as present or as connected. We are humans, after all (see the next bullet point). And at the end of the day, every therapist I know (and I know a lot!) genuinely cares about the people with whom they work. Many of us went to graduate school with stars in our eyes and rather naïve ideas about how much we were going to help people. And yet we went to graduate school because helping people and assisting in improving lives was something we really wanted to do and we wanted to learn to be as effective as we could possibly be in doing this. And everyday (okay…most days) when we go to work, that is what we get to do. Lucky us! Since we care, that means that we generally delight in your triumphs and it hurts us to see you hurt. We want the best for you and we think about you outside of therapy sessions. Our caring and our concern does not generally end the minute the therapy hour is over. Don’t worry though, we are also careful about taking care of ourselves so all that caring and concern doesn’t burn us out!
Therapists are people too. Duh, right? Except I think this can be forgotten at times. We’re not robots which means, yes, we have bad days too. Please don’t judge us too harshly. We will do our best to pull it together in time for your next session. Given that we are people too, that also means simple courtesies are still appreciated in the therapeutic relationship. If we were able to say something insightful or point out a problematic pattern in your life, we’d love to know that we were helpful. You don’t even have to say thank you; you can just tell us if we hit the nail on the head and that will help us to feel good about our work and also be even more helpful to you if we know when we are on the right track. Conversely, that also means that when you are having a rough time, we would prefer to not be your punching bag or doormat. Therapists generally have thick skin and at the same time our feelings can be hurt if we’re attacked or excessively criticized.
We’re not perfect. Believe us, we know. Being a therapist is not about living a perfect life and then giving “advice.” We have difficult moments in our lives as well. And most of us are well aware that it is easier to see problematic patterns, as well as solutions, when there is a little objectivity and distance. Given that, we also screw up just like anyone else in our relationships, interactions and behaviors. And that’s okay. Since we’re not in the business of giving advice based on our “perfect” lives, our imperfect moments shouldn’t make us any less effective as your therapist. If anything, it will likely give us empathy for your situation and experience.
We’re not here to judge. Within a few years of being a therapist, most of us have “heard it all,” so to speak. We have heard plenty of accounts of embarrassing moments, imperfect behaviors, mistakes, etc. That’s not to say we don’t care about your difficult moments, but it also means we’re not laughing at you behind your back and no matter how bad you think this thing is that you need to tell us/just spilled, we’ve likely heard something very similar before, we’re not judging and we will still be able to see your strengths. So, just tell it like it is, and we’ll do our best to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
For those that have ever wondered about that person sitting across the therapy office from you or have been curious about how therapists approach the therapeutic relationship, hopefully this offers a few insights!
-CCC Associate, Hartstein Psychological Services