At least a couple of times every week I get asked, “How do you listen to
people all day and not be a wreck about it?”
In fact, it was one of the things I worried about the most when I was
studying to become a psychologist. Earlier
in my career, I wasn’t totally sure WHY I wasn’t “bringing my work home with
me,” but I was pretty grateful that it wasn’t happening. It really is this strange thing about working
in my field—being exposed to traumatic material and not being traumatized by it. After more than 15 years in the industry, I
think I finally have some good answers.
For starters, I feel really lucky to have my job. Every day, people work up the courage to come
and see me and share with me some of the worst, most painful parts of their
lives. They don’t do that with just
anyone. I am rewarded daily with this
kind of trust and respect. It really blows
me away to get to be a meaningful part of someone’s struggles. Feeling lucky to be in this position helps,
as it keeps me wanting to do things that will allow me to work forever.
I also discovered pretty early on that if I don’t fill my outside-of-therapy
life with something interesting, I’m going to end up making the people that see
me the centre of my universe. This may
sound like a good thing on the surface, but what inevitably happens to
therapists who make their patients their entire world is that they end up—inadvertently—using
their patients to meet their own emotional needs. Yuck. That’s
the opposite of what we sign up for as therapists, and certainly isn’t good
care. So having a full social life and
good connections of my own lets me really focus when I’m at work.
Most importantly, and perhaps the centre of really what lets me be good
at what I do, is the recognition that while folks come to see me and unburden
their worst memories and experiences, I can be totally immersed in it during
our work together, but I get a break from it when my patient leaves the office.
Patients don’t get the same kind of
breaks. When people come to see me, they
struggle not only during our therapeutic hour, but at all kinds of other times,
too. And their difficulties impact them
in other areas of their lives, creating further problems. So it’s much easier for me to focus on
something for a therapeutic hour, because in the end, I know I can be helpful,
and the impact on me is peripheral, whereas the impact on my patient is
enormous. Being able to have a different
perspective frees me up to connect emotionally with the people I see, as well
as help them figure out what might be helpful.
Every now and again I do get a bit stuck—something someone says lingers
with me a little longer than usual. It’s
not common, but it happens. I’ve come to
discover over time that the good news about this is that I have time—therapy is
a relationship, and in therapeutic relationships there tends to be trust and
usually another scheduled appointment in the not-too-distant future. Knowing that it isn’t possible for me to have
everything figured out right away allows me to use more of my skills and
experiences in service to my patients.
Knowing that there is usually at least a little more time, I can spend
my outside-of-therapy time on other things.
There are lots of reasons why people don’t always share some of the
worst things in therapy—they aren’t ready yet, they aren’t sure if it’s REALLY
safe to trust, they are distracted by more pressing concerns. The thing I find the most surprising,
however, is when people tell me that they don’t want to tell me things out of a
sense of trying to protect me. This is
the great thing about perspective and having time—I don’t need protecting from
the horrific stuff. And so while I’m
touched that a patient is connected enough to think about whether or not their
story will pollute my brain, I feel like I need a t-shirt with “No, I GOT
this!” emblazoned on the front. Because
I love my job, because I have a full life, because I didn’t live what you’re
living and because I know I have time, you can’t really hurt me with what
you’re sharing. I don’t take it home
with me. I hold on to your stuff very
lovingly, and leave it where it belongs until you’re ready to take some of it
back—I leave it in my office. In my
office with my Freud doll and my emotional landscape art, and where we can look
at it together. I have a job where I get
to care for and about people, so I can hear and hold on to your very heavy
burdens because they are not weighing me down.
They don’t weigh the same on my shoulders as they do yours.
Obviously, saying all of this to someone who is casually asking, “How do
you do this all day?” is not realistic or even a reasonable use of our time. The answer I usually give, which is much less
elaborate but certainly still true is, “I absolutely love what I do. That makes it easier.”