Fun fact, my husband is an avid podcast connoisseur. He’s got a diverse palate of interests, much of which he was able to pursue during his work-related travels. During our shared car rides, he’s slowly gotten me hooked on a few shows, one in particular is titled ‘Dear Therapist’. It captures the dialogue of two well-known therapists and their pursuits of literal therapizing with a real life human. It’s captivating, regardless of one’s profession.
Over this past weekend during one of our mini adventures, we listened to a woman’s experiences with her childbearing journey. As we listened along, I couldn’t help but pick up on the theme of idealistic expectations this woman seemed to have woven within her narrative. From having a detail-saturated birthing plan, to expecting nothing but experiencing labor all-natural, to “breast is best”, to hyper focused tunnel vision of wanting four children to seek fulfillment. It was exhausting to listen to.
How often do we get sidetracked by our idealistic expectations that we forget to invest in the hear-and-now of realistic expectations?
More often than not, it’s an unhelpful amount of the time.
I mean systemically, it’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of ‘ideals’. We grow up mesmerized by Disney-inspired fairy tales of dreamy characters and happy endings. Media is dedicated to the portrayal of easily attainable ‘ideals’ from parenting, to Halloween costumes, to food prep. Social media rarely embraces the humanness of others, so we are surrounded by mostly happy or successful moments.
It’s quite easy to forget we are human beings.
While idealistic ideas have their perks, realistic expectations leave room for our humanness. Here, there’s freedom to flex when life has its unpredictable splash, when our personhood shows its vulnerability, and when the “mold” is not the best fit. Realism grants permission for outcomes that are an individual kind of turnout, while leaving room for acceptance and peace. When we get caught up in the idealistic ways of thinking, suddenly this line of thought can bleed into the lens of which we experience our worlds. Rarely is anything “enough” when we are fixated on the ideals.
I want to encourage you (and myself) to routinely take a step back and reexamine the expectations that color our experiences. Leave the idealistic ways of being to the Disney princesses and celebrate the multidimensional soul that we are. Leave room for the messy, the unplanned, and the rough edges by adjusting those pesky expectations to ebb and flow that follow the melodies of living an authentic life.
The peculiarities of this profession extend outside the office walls, as does any job. Yet, sometimes I think others dismiss the professionalism we mental health therapists uphold, which means it’s vital to take off our therapeutic hats once we lock up our therapy rooms. As the world becomes more chaotic, I am noticing that more people are busting at the seams, desperate to be heard. Like a hiccup that cannot help but erupt from our chests, hopping over boundaries and expelling their stories in rushed and impulsive monologues.
That happened today. Someone caught a case of the vulnerability hiccups once they caught wind that I was a therapist. I was at a place where I readily seek asylum from the mayhem of work and the outside world, where I collided paths with a stranger. The interaction hopped from “Hi I’m Yada Yada. I hear you’re a therapist. Good, I need to talk to you,” to a sudden plop into a chair. Next thing I know I am learning about deeply carried wounds and emotional turmoil, the hiccups suddenly turning into word vomit escaping this person’s lips like a waterfall, rushing to find a landing place.
You can imagine my discomfort as the word vomit splashed around me.
I had hardly had time to cough out my own name. The conformational nod to my profession seemed to be enough of a trust-fall for this person to plunge into the nitty-gritty about their internal demons.
I think it’s about time to create my back-up plan ‘job’ business cards to start handing out to those whom I first meet. On difficult therapy days, I daydream about becoming a janitor. Yep, ladies and gents. A full-blown, navy-blue jumpsuit covered janitor. These are the days where sitting with tangible ‘crap’ seems more enticing than sitting with the ‘crap’ that haunts people in their every waking moments.
It’s disheartening when people are aching so deeply for a safe space for their internal distress that they pop at the mention of a therapist. Like the very word is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I wonder if it’s uncomfortable for others to read about this side of the therapist’s chair.
If it is, please know I won’t be offended if you cease reading.
Because I get it. Sitting with someone else’s vulnerability is tough. When someone sheds light into their own exposed ‘stuff’, it begs for the listener to resonate with something inside themselves. This requires empathy, and empathy requires a certain level of attendance and energy. We have to be ready to receive someone’s ‘stuff’ in order to foster helpful spaces for vulnerability.
Just because I work as a mental health clinician does not mean I am a mental health clinician 24/7. Yikes, I would be a walking shell of a person if that were the case.
When I throw on my therapist hat, I prime myself to cultivate safe and empathetic spaces. I fixate on the person or persons sitting in front of me, shoving my ‘stuff’ to the side. I cast away my human reflex of judgement, and I replace this with unconditional positive regard. I feel with you. I hold the space for you, so you can catch your breath, explore, process, cry, scream, whatever it is that is necessary for you and your pursuit of healing.
This is heavy, heavy work for a person.
That’s why it’s pounded into our schooling to set hard boundaries around our work, so we don’t lose ourselves in the process. It’s way too easy to lose sight of yourself when you’re surrounded by tragedies, obstacles, traumas, and open emotional wounds for a living. It’s fulfilling and beautiful, but it’s heavy.
So, here is some friendly advice to those who encounter a therapist or two along the way. Recognize that the therapist in front of them is also a feeling, thinking, and breathing human being just like yourself. Unless I am meeting you in the office, I would like to make small talk before any deep, dark secrets are revealed. Asking for support on an issue is absolutely welcomed after we get to know one another, and I will happily send some referrals your way for outpatient therapy locations. Friendships are still as vital to my well-being as yours. Being seen for more than just my job is revitalizing, refreshing, and so deeply cherished. Although I am a counselor, I am also horrified of the dentist and cockroaches. I live with mostly managed anxiety. I am wholeheartedly human and flawed. Riding horses and chocolate cake bring me joy. You catch my drift.
I wish I could shed light on the gravity of the weight I am carrying silently on my back as my clients proceed on their healing journeys. Sometimes I wish I could get one of those magnets you see for dishwashers that signal when the dishes are clean or dirty. My magnet would read “Open for deep conversations” or “empathy burnout proceed with compassion”.
I patiently bared witness to the menagerie of difficult stories this stranger poured out, knowing this expulsion was not about me at all. I sat with them, tears and all. I expressed how I admired their strength and encouraged them to lean on their resiliency. I silently wished them well on their journey as we parted ways, willing the universe to be kind to them.
I will continue to do so for every soul that I have the honor of meeting.
Just next time, I’ll hand out my janitor cards first.