A question that I often get asked when people find out what I do is, “What is it like to be a therapist?” Most of us have preconceived notions about everything – ideas that are shaped by society, pop culture, or the people closest to us – and therapy is no exception. In fact, because a therapist is legally and ethically bound to maintain confidentiality so that all that’s said behind closed doors stays there, a lot of what happens inside a therapy-session is kept a secret intentionally. As a therapist, yes, I am a keeper of secrets and I cannot exactly trade stories about what happened with a client of mine during a session the way others enjoy the liberty of swapping stories about client-meetings with one another. Also, this path of confidentiality as far as therapy is concerned is a one-way street. While I can never share what my client told me in the session, a client has full liberty to share what transpired in the session with anyone they want should they wish. However, most people who visit a therapist keep it to themselves. They are scared of being judged by others, or being viewed as ‘crazy’ or ‘weak’ even though the reality is that asking for help and seeking support is the most courageous and humble act a person can do, for it means they are willing to take the plunge and do what needs to be done to better their life.
There is a general idea of how therapy works, but because of the secrecy, shame, and inherent mystery of therapy, most people, unfortunately, derive their ideas of what a therapist is and does from depictions in books, movies or television, almost all of which are either sensationalized or wildly distorted. Most therapists are not like Dr. Charlie Goodson (Anger Management), Dr. Jehangir Khan (Dear Zindagi), Luke Rhinehart (The Dice Man) or any other sadistic, seductive, magical, or inept therapist who may have seemed incredible characters, but make very poor, inaccurate representations of the profession.
Some days ago, on my Instagram account, I invited people to ask me any question they had about me as a therapist, or the profession in general, and in this post, I am going to answer some of the questions that were posed my way.
“Have you ever bumped into a client at a mall or a restaurant? Was that encounter awkward?”
In order to maintain confidentiality, even if I bumped into a client at a party, restaurant, or mall, I would never make the first move of going up to them and saying ‘hello’. In fact, the very first time a client visits me, I let them know this piece of information, and add that they have full liberty of ignoring me if they happen to bump into me outside the therapy setting, and I shall not take it personally. Clients are free to share their darkest fears with their therapists or even their craziest dreams, but if they bumped into each other at a grocery store or a movie-theatre, it would be perfectly appropriate to not even acknowledge that encounter.
“How do you stay unaffected after hearing all the tragic and sad stories of your clients? Do you not feel depressed? How do you feel at the end of a work-day?”
This is a question that I get asked a LOT of times. Before I answer, I would like to clarify some points: (1) not all stories that clients share are tragic or sad, sometimes clients are just under a lot of stress at work and they come for sessions to reduce stress-levels; (2) Tragic stories, or any experience a client shares for that matter, are simply springboards for incredible healing; (3) I am not sure if I can say that I am not affected. I think the very essence of what I do keeps me going…it drives me. I do not think I am negatively affected by stories that my clients share. In fact, most of the time I am in awe of their openness and the courage they display, as well as the commitment they have to their own healing. It is very inspiring to see someone go from feeling stuck, overwhelmed or vulnerable to feeling empowered, clear and feeling in charge of their life.
Also, therapists implement professional boundaries and practice self-care, and they have also been trained to manage their emotional responses to client stories in order to remain effective at their jobs. It is possible for us to understand the pain an individual is going through without taking on that pain and suffering.
However, there are days when I do have some bit of compassion fatigue or experience a burn out. There are times when I want some days off and feel the need to recharge. Sometimes, I crave to hear good news. All of this, however, is not exclusive to the field of counselling and psychotherapy alone; most people in different career-paths also experience these very symptoms in varying intensities day-to-day.
“Are therapists genuinely interested in their client’s wellbeing, or are they doing it for the money?”
So far, therapists I have had have genuinely seemed interested in me, or, perhaps, they were so good at acting that I never thought otherwise. People I have studied with and trained with chose psychotherapy as a vocation because they genuinely care about other people and want to help. Till date, I do not know anyone who chose to become a therapist in order to get rich – there are far better career prospects if acquiring wealth is a motivation; if someone chose to become a therapist in order to get rich, that person needed to have undergone better career counselling at their time!
“I went for three sessions of therapy where the therapist had started a #PayWhatYouWant campaign, but I did not like the therapist. Why are affordable therapists not good, and why are good therapists charging so much for their services? Therapy is expensive.”
Deciding to try therapy and acting on it is a brave beginning, and first, I would like to congratulate you for taking that step. Having said that, I am sorry to hear you did not have a good experience with your therapist. Finding a good therapist is very much like trying to shop for the perfect pair of jeans – not every therapist will be the right fit for you, and that’s alright. Feel free to explore more options. Second, I am aware of a lot of organizations running #PayWhatYouWant campaigns, and I am not in any position to comment on the quality of the professionals they hire or recruit. At a personal level, I believe in having a transparency in pricing and I charge what I feel I deserve to be paid because I have invested enough resources in building my set of skills. At the same time, I have flexible pricing options with my fee set to a sliding scale to ensure therapy is accessible for all, and I would recommend people to opt for counsellors and therapists who are adequately qualified to state their professional charges as is, rather than accepting “love-donations” or offering services completely free of charge.
Addressing your next point about therapy being expensive, unfortunately, I do not subscribe to this viewpoint and let me elaborate why – a word of caution: what I am sharing is from my own, direct experience and it’s alright if you don’t subscribe to these views. First, different therapists have different charges depending on their skill set and experience-level, so it is possible for a person to find someone that fits their budget. Second, therapists are people who have heavily invested in training, and if you are going to a good therapist who stays updated with all the latest happenings in the field of mental health, they may be charging what is fair based on their level of expertise. To put things further into perspective, if you visit a doctor, you are in the doctor’s chamber for a maximum of ten to fifteen minutes where there is a quick examination and then you are sent to do additional tests, purchase medicines and book another consultation after the reports are generated. A therapist will usually give you a minimum of forty-five minutes. Similarly, if you consult a lawyer for a legal issue, most have hourly rates, with costs increasing for every additional minute you take. When doctors and lawyers can charge by the minute for dealing with issues related to physical health or in the legal realm, why is mental health not an issue worth paying for, and why are therapists expected to charge nominal rates? Therapists who have their own private practice charge more than a therapist who works from home or with an organization because the former have overhead expenses like paying rent for office-space, utilities, amenities, advertising, licensing and supervision costs; the same applies to doctors who consult in hospitals versus those who have their own private practice.
Also, (and I don’t know how to put this delicately or sugar-coat), I have met people who go to a fine-dine restaurant at least once a week, order out frequently, shop from branded stores often, go on at least one international trip a year, spend on gym memberships (and they may not even be regular), watch a movie in a multiplex every other weekend, yet feel spending on therapy is unreasonable.
The first step to seeking therapy is to make those shifts in your lifestyle and spending patterns to ensure that therapy does not feel like an expensive burden. I love working with clients who see therapy as something valuable enough for them to invest in rather than an additional, unnecessary expense. If you are really committed to your transformation, it will be easier for you to cut back on the eating out, the drinks, the movie-date, and truly give that time to yourself and your healing journey.
“Do you feel life is easier for therapists because you can analyse the people around you and their behaviours? Also, when you say you don’t read minds, you are joking, right?”
Ever since I was a student of Psychology, everyone around me just assumed that, suddenly, I developed this magical ability to read minds. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I am no Spectre or Charles Xavier. You are, however, free to elevate me to that superhero position if you desire!
Also, therapists do not get kicks from analysing people and just like surgeons don’t go about cutting random people they meet and patching them up, we don’t sit and analyse every person we meet. In fact, this very popular misconception often inhibits clients from seeking therapy because they fear therapists will not only predict what they are really thinking and breakdown their issues in a Sherlock-Holmes style demonstration of analytical prowess. People do not seek help in order to be analysed, and no good therapist will treat you as a specimen.
Also, as a therapist I have been trained to be observant, so, I may notice things that others outside the field may not be aware of, but I don’t generally focus on these things and try picking them out unless they are blatantly obvious. Also, generally, I do not ponder much on the “meanings”. If you, however, still want to know if I can read your thoughts and analyze your behaviour, book a professional session with me and we can explore the motivations behind asking this question.
“I have been in therapy for two months now, and I can see positive shifts in my life. However, I am still waiting for that “big” moment of revelation that just makes everything fall into place. How long does that usually take?”
I think in your case, your therapist would be the best person to answer this question. It’s a very common question though that I get asked as well. People have a lot of misconceptions about what therapy is all about, and this one – finding that one piece that completely solves the puzzle – is another one that’s very popular especially because of the way mainstream media has depicted therapy in movies and television.
Good Will Hunting is one such movie. It has this beautiful scene where Robin William plays a therapist and his character hugs Will and tells him “It’s not your fault” until the point where Will just breaks down and cries for the first time. After that, suddenly, Will just turns his life around and seems to have magically overcome his attachment disorder. The first time I saw this movie, I had tears in my eyes at that “It’s not your fault” scene. However, there is no big, eureka moment in therapy where you just overcome all your issues with one big cry. Therapy is more like a series of small breakthroughs. Of course, there are moments where there is a huge realization and the client may experience a catharsis, but it won’t immediately change all behaviours and beliefs to the point that there is no issue anymore.
Like you mentioned, you are already noticing positive shifts in your life, so, yes, therapy seems to be working for you and it will continue to do so. Just relax your expectations and enjoy the journey! Celebrate the small shifts.
“Why do you tell people to not go to a therapist who does not have a therapist?”
I genuinely believe that if a therapist has not been in therapy, then, they have no idea what it feels like to be completely vulnerable, and so, it is difficult for them to have the deep level of empathy that’s required for the job. Any therapist worth their salt will gladly acknowledge this. Never hesitate to ask your therapist if they’ve been in therapy. If the therapist’s response is “no” or defensive in any way, please just run! Every individual in life has issues, and while a therapist is there to help you solve your issues, it does not mean they’ve never had issues themselves. If they have not undertaken some serious work to sort them out, they are in no position to counsel you. Always remember that all good therapists have been in therapy (and if they haven’t, you should not be working with them).
“Does it not feel weird that people are actually paying you to be their friend?”
First, I would like to clarify that a client does not pay a therapist to be their friend. When a client books a session, they are paying to get our psychological expertise, our unbiased (or less biased than anyone they know) feedback, and for the opportunity to sit in a room where they can freely express themselves in a safe, confidential, non-judgmental space without the guilt of being selfish. A therapy-session, in a fancy way, is a “corrective emotional experience” where the client experiences a healthy relationship based on trust, honesty, and respecting of boundaries (a first for many clients) and becomes open to the possibility for this kind of growth that could completely transform their life in a significantly positive manner.
Second, the fact that money is exchanged does not invalidate the relationship – in fact, it gives the client complete permission to be as self-centered as they need to be, and complete permission to the therapist to be acknowledged as the thorough professional they are required to be.
“How do you feel when a client gets better and realizes that he or she does not require therapy anymore? Are the good-byes painful?”
The goal of therapy is always to ensure the client reaches a state where they don’t need their therapist anymore, where they feel they are equipped enough to take charge of their own life, however, the termination need not be forever. My door is always open for check-ins and if there are new goals a client wishes to work toward. Having said that, people usually come to a therapist when they are dealing with difficult emotions or thoughts, and it is our job to help clean out the gunk from their hearts and minds, like a filtration system, perhaps.
I usually see clients once a week, over an hour or two, though I have had clients who’ve been in therapy for a year or longer. It’s incredible when they feel they are healed enough to take charge of their life on their own, and yes, there are times I wonder what happened to them and what are they up to, yet, I need to let go without a word, except for those check-ins mutually agreed on at the time of termination.
Good-byes are not painful or hard, but yes, there are times when I do wonder about the ironical peripheral yet central position a therapist occupies in a client’s life – for example, we are discouraged from attending client’s funerals if they pass over, and we usually never meet the people closest to the client (unless it’s family therapy or group-work) – people we actually know a lot about. Our clients inform and colour our daily lives, yet we cannot discuss them with anyone, except, possibly, another professional. We are eternal secret-keepers. And although we are all these things, we may still be a mystery to you. So, here are some other things that I would like you to know about us:
Your issues are not that special. While it may seem that way to you, as a client, your issues, actually, are not that unusual. While every client is unique and interesting in their own way, all of us struggle with fear, abandonment, shame, anger, issues related to self-esteem, or all of the above, and each client that comes our way just presents a different depiction of life’s challenges. However, not everyone tries to mend those broken pieces, so every client that comes our way, as therapists, we always celebrate them for their willingness to try and heal.
Every human being employs defences against fear and pain, and we are trying to understand your patterns. All of us employ anger, avoidance, compulsion, denial, perfectionism or any other standard defence to protect ourselves from all the challenges life hurls our way, and many a times, these defences lead us to employing more defences that lead to further problems. As therapists, we are trying to pluck as many leaves as we need to from your set of defences to try and reach the core of your issues. However, we do not secretly have all the answers. There is an image which even I have had when I’ve gone for therapy that I am in the presence of this inscrutable therapist who is just sitting there, watching me silently, as I ramble on about every stupid thing I can possibly say, and while I am doing this, the counsellor in their head has already made an assessment, has all the answers, but is just waiting for me to finish, gasping in her head at my slow pace of understanding and wondering how soon will I catch up to her thoughts. So, if any of you have ever thought this way, know that you are not alone! While it may be true that sometimes we know the answers (or, at least, think we know them) before you do, if we are not saying anything about it, it is because we just know how much more powerful it is for you to arrive at the answer on your own. Most of the time, thought, we are with you totally, holding your hand in the dark, trying to shine a light here and there, hoping to find something that makes sense. I would also like to add here that we feel insecure too when we are not able to come up with helpful ideas; don’t let our stoic, composed faces fool you!
We get excited when clients tell the truth (to the best of their ability). A therapeutic relationship is based on trust and one of the most miraculous time in therapy is when the client just drops all defences and start expressing the true nature of their thoughts and feelings. In the initial sessions, as we are still getting to know each other, clients do tend to limit the information they share or are trying hard to get the therapist to like them – we see through all that. However, when they start communicating from the place of truth – even if it is momentary – there is a simplicity and elegance to that, even when there is pain, sadness or fear, something beautiful just opens up, and that’s when the true shift starts happening.
Most of us come to love our clients in a way that is difficult to explain. As therapists, we operate from the space of fully accepting you as you are without needing anything from you in return. We are in awe of you – flawed though you may be, you are also fascinating, and we want nothing more than for you to become that best version of yourself. There are days therapists wish they had a magic wand to just wave all your suffering and stuckness away, to just make your pain go away, because, and this is the most important thing that I, as a therapist, would want you to know: we are forever changed by knowing you. Even if you come for one session or have worked with us for a period of a few weeks or months, every human being we meet changes our understanding of the human experience. Every client of mine has broadened my perspective on human behaviour, deepened it, and by doing so, encouraged me to be a more effective therapist.
Even though it is not your job to make us better, you inevitable do that just by showing up in front of us to better yourself. I will end this post here, on this note, that I genuinely believe that everyone can benefit from therapy.
You, your mother, your father, your son, your daughter, your friend, your uncle, your aunt, your colleague, your boss, even your dog (though not every therapist is trained or qualified to work with animals). If you or someone you know is feeling stuck, confused, sad, or lonely, there are plenty of therapists waiting patiently to help.
Reach out. Things get better.
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