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.”