(I know that some of my readers are people with a personal interest in mental health and Eating Disorders, and some are professionals. That can make it really difficult for me to judge how best to tailor what I write. However, a really important topic keeps popping up, not only in my practice, but also with my supervisees, in my training, online….in fact, just about everywhere!… so that I think it needs to be addressed for the benefit of both parties.)
Therapists are human too.
That sounds like an obvious statement – of course we are human. However, there seems to be some sort of ‘super human’ projection of who or what a therapist is, or is supposed to be. I experience it too.
So, lets first paint a picture of the issue; clients often perceive that their therapist is ‘sorted’, i.e. that they are completely and permanently in emotionally and situationally ‘good places’ in their lives. Therapists on the other hand often believe that this should be true: for example, that they are failing if they experience depression, take a mental health medication, or have something (often anything!) in their lives that might not be in keeping with this notion of a ‘perfect’ person. Often, even those individuals who tell me they don’t believe these statements are subconsciously living them in some way (and, again, this sometimes includes myself).
I think there is some complex “therapeutic theory meets social world and mental health process” going on. I want to try to unpick it – or at least, what little of it I can in the course of a blog post!
Some therapeutic theories suggest that the therapist should be a blank slate; leaving themselves and their personal ‘stuff’ at the door in order to produce the condition of being entirely available to the client in the therapy session. Technically, I agree with this: therapy is about the client. In that hour, you are working to provide what the client needs at that moment in time in order to work towards healing. For that hour, you are totally focused on that client.
Over time though, I can see how this has resulted in therapists’ being portrayed as ‘sorted’, because when with the client all their own woes and troubles are put to one side. To some clients, this action of ‘putting aside’ wrongly present therapists as ‘super human’. Clients’ (naturally) imagine who their therapist might be as a person, beyond the therapy room, based upon the experience they have of them. This means that clients’ see therapists’ as calm, capable, un-judging, ‘sorted’ individuals. Clients (rightly) are not privy to the therapist’s personal details, which have been ‘put to one side’ in the name of the vocation, and thus they simply imagine that therapists’ simply don’t have any personal issues, ever. Or that, at least if they did, that they would know exactly how to handle them – and, what’s more – get it right first time.
As a therapist I’m here to say – this is all just one great big miss-communication!
It boggles my mind really; I’ve known therapists’ to feel guilty for taking a sick day (despite the fact they could barely get out of bed), to feel they had to hide any vulnerability, and to feel as if they ‘failed’ because something in their life took priority for a day.
Of course, I’m not immune either. When I first began my life as a therapist, I thought that meant that I had to stop using my own experience of mental health recovery at public speaking events. I felt a pressure – that appears to run deep in the profession – to erase from my dialogue the very thing that gave me the passion for the role in the first place. For a while I felt silenced. I felt I was only valid as a therapist if I presented in a particular way.
Much more recently even, when I had emergency surgery, I had fellow therapists ask how would I handle this? What would I tell my client? How could I possible take the needed three weeks off? What would my clients do?
For the record my clients were told the truth – I’d unexpectedly had an appendectomy, and I’d be back to work as soon as I was well enough to do so. All my clients are informed at their first session as to how this type of situation might be handled and what temporary or alternative support might be available. I took three weeks off and did a phased return as I got back on my feet. No one was negatively impacted, or thought anything of it. I was modelling to my clients exactly what I often tell them; that you have to look after yourself in order to be available to others.
I cannot prevent ill health (physical or mental) just because I want to or because I feel a responsibility to be available to my clients as expected. I’ll say it again – I’m human.
The projection of ‘perfection’ is so unhealthy – for therapists’ and for clients’. If we as a profession (even accidentally) project ‘perfect’ lives and perfect health, we are communicating that to be attainable. And I don’t think it is.
Mental health affects us all. We might not all experience mental health illness, but we do all experience happiness, and sadness, joy, and grief. Recovering from a mental health illness does not mean always being happy, always being calm, or always making the right choices in our lives. Struggle is part of living.
I want any clients’ reading this to know that therapists’ experience just as much of life’s upheavals as anyone else. We do get things wrong, make bad choices, experience physical and mental health illness and occasionally forget to do the things we preach as important. However, we also have our own support systems – they are in place, so that we can in turn be there for you. So please don’t feel you have to worry about us. That’s not your job.
I want fellow therapists to remember that your counselling diploma was not meant to bestow on you some magic powers. It’s okay for you to need a sick a day, have all your emotions, make mistakes, and even to struggle. It’s okay to use those support structures you have in place (personal therapy, supervision, your family or friends). In fact, I’d strongly advise that you do. You can’t really be there for your clients, if you are not also getting your own needs met first.
Mental health is not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing; the ‘healthy’ treating the ‘unhealthy’ is some hierarchy of coping. We are, each of us, just one human being, reaching out in support of others.