Self-disclosed

Part of being a therapist is being absolutely elastic. Clients come in with different motivations, some of them outwardly stated and some silent and under the surface. They are paying for a service (or sometimes their insurance, or some benefactor is paying for them) and they want to receive that service in a unique way. The most difficult part of the job is knowing how to meet that for each person. This can wind up leaving me feeling like I am auditioning over and over for people, trying to convince clients that I’m a valuable practitioner, who is worth their time and money. It can be an uncomfortable reality in my field. A lot of clients want a particular result without having to put much effort in. It can be exhausting.

I often meet new clients with some sort of introduction that can prove my worth. “Hi, I’m Chad. I’ve been doing therapy for this many years, and I specialize in these types of services. I try to utilize an approach that meets clients where they are, validates their pain, and also pushes them into positive growth, but this can often take time. The therapeutic relationship forms over a period of weeks. I’m here for you. Now tell me what brings you in?”

I like to think that I’m an effective therapist in most situations, and I think most of my clients would agree. I continually ask myself what my role in a given situation is, and in these situations I have to remind myself that my job is to be the therapist my client needs me to be during the time that I’m with them. They live their entire lives before and after our sessions, and there are no quick solutions. I have to listen, be attentive and consistent, and push hard, but not too hard.

I’ve had a number of clients complain about me over the years. These are isolated experiences, but they do happen. And I’m human, so every time, the negative feedback leaves me sad, frustrated, self-critical, or vulnerable.

self

“I felt you weren’t listening.”

“You were too tough on me.”

“You weren’t tough enough on me.”

“I told you I was suicidal and you didn’t take me seriously.”

“You should have realized I was suicidal even though I didn’t say anything.”

“You were too critical of my life choices.”

“You told my wife to find a safe place for the night after I hit her, but you didn’t even hear my side of the story.”

“You aren’t competent enough in _____.”

“You shared too much about yourself.”

“You are too closed off.”

And on and on.

On days where I see many clients in a row, I feel different parts of myself being challenged each time. Some need a coach, some need a best friend, some need a kid brother, some need a confidant, some need an emotional sponge, and some need a parent. Clients may come in and willfully withhold information, testing to see if I can sense that they are hiding something. They may come in aggressive and take out that aggression on me, their nearest target. They may come in silent, or sleepy, or in pain, and expect comfort, or nurturance, or challenge. And they expect the therapist to be fully present and adaptable to those needs, spoken or unspoken, no matter what the therapist is going through personally. (And trust me, therapists get headaches, and get sad, and have family problems, and…)

On top of that, the therapist has to be able to manage time. Sessions last for fifty minutes. Clients need a balance of reporting HOW they are doing, while being kept on a continuum of working toward their goals. (And some clients have VERY specific goals, while others have NO goals).

Most clients expect some kind of therapist who has life experience with struggle. They want to know their therapist has an understanding of depression, and anxiety, and addiction, somewhere in their personal lives, but they also don’t want the therapists to have ANY problems currently. And so self-disclosure becomes necessary. I use self-disclosure sporadically with clients. I use it to demonstrate understanding of a particular issue, to create a bit of a personal bond with a client, or to increase empathy between us. Self-disclosure is expected by most, if not all, clients, at least to a degree, but it has to be brief while also being frequent.

These interactions with clients get extremely complicated given three basic facts: 1. I am a human, who has human problems and human emotions. 2. I genuinely care about my clients, each and every one of them, even when they get on my nerves. 3. I have feelings, and I won’t always do everything right, even when expected to.

A few examples of self-disclosure follow.

“I know what that feels like. Before I came out of the closet, I went through a period of deep depression. It can be so hard to do the work it takes to get out of it, but it is so worth it. It’s the difference between hope and despair. What do you think would help you move forward?”

Or “I hear you! Being in a relationship is so hard! My partner and I fight over the stupidest things sometimes, and we see things completely differently. Communication means compromise, though. Meeting in the middle. The other day we argued about ___, and then we got through it by ___. Tell me about your last fight.”

Or “Maybe taking a break from church is a good idea for a while. You are talking about how conflicted you feel when you attend every week. I wouldn’t recommend quitting all together, but taking a few weeks off so you can get some clarity. When I was in my faith crisis years ago, I needed room to breathe, and it helped immensely.”

Self-disclosure in therapy can become tricky. It builds bonds, but those bonds have to be kept within certain boundaries. The client can’t feel like the therapist is over- or under-sharing. There needs to be a friendship without the two being friends. Co-dependency can form, as can romantic attraction, or emotional distance, or overstepping bounds. In fact, because these are human interactions, not only can they happen, but they will happen, and then they have to be managed along the way.

After 16 years in this field, I’ve learned a few things, but above all else, I’ve learned that I have to be organic. My job requires me to be knowledgeable, competent, kind, and consistent, to manage time and goals, to be accepting of everyone, to be both soft and hard in approach, to keep clear boundaries, to be human, and to be adaptable. And despite all of that, I have to realize that I’m human, that I’ll make mistakes, that I can’t help everyone always, and I certainly can’t please everyone always. I also need to know that it’s okay to say sorry, to receive criticism, and to trust myself all while doing my best to help those in front of me.

I love helping others, which is why I do what I do. It’s a calling. But it is also a job, and just a job. And I have to leave work at work and then go home. And so, like every other day, I’ll do my very best, one client, one hour at a time.

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the power of Jealousy

jealousy

This morning I yawned widely, waking up at five am and, like most Americans, I grabbed my phone and checked Facebook status updates. The first image to pop up was of a close friend announcing his new relationship status, making he and his boyfriend “Facebook Official”. I had a moment of pure joy for them, good people who fought the odds and found each other. And then I had one brief stabbing moment of bitter jealousy.

I had the same experience yesterday having coffee with a good friend, as I was genuinely happy for him telling stories of skiing with his boyfriend and preparing for an upcoming epic vacation, yet I had that bitter flavor in my mouth again, envious at the good things in his life.

Every human gets jealous of other humans, it’s the way of things. Jealousy is a complex emotion rooted, a complicated mix of shame, fear, and sadness. When we experience jealousy, we are feeling our own shame at not having the thing we want in conjunction with worrying we aren’t good enough to have that thing, while we are at the same time sad about not having it and scared we won’t ever have it.

Jealousy isn’t necessarily an unhealthy emotion–it is rooted in the idea of human want and need, and we always have things we want and need. Jealousy can become ugly when it dictates thoughts and interactions. Jealousy can complicate human relationships and can facilitate setbacks that can last for years, and jealousy is almost always accompanied by deep internal pain.

At its essence, jealousy is always understandable.

My mother has a stomach condition that prohibits her from eating most foods. And she loves eating. So our family gathers for meals in a restaurant and we order fresh fruits and deep fried cheeses and crunchy breads, and she eats saltine crackers.

One of my sisters tried for years to get pregnant, and was unsuccessful, while the sister closest to her in age had six successful pregnancies and deliveries during the same time frame.

A dear friend of mine lost his father when he was young and has spent his entire life grieving him, and he’s married to a woman who has a close relationship with her father, constantly causing him internal pain.

Jealousy is often accompanied by being genuinely happy for someone at the same time.

Sometimes jealousy is irrational as well, as people envy what they see in others but refuse to work on in themselves. John is obese and is jealous of Sam being fit but John doesn’t want to eat right or exercise; Sally hates her job and is jealous of Jane’s great job but Sally doesn’t want to spend four years in college.

Like any human, I grow jealous of other humans frequently. And like any human, others grow jealous of me. I frequently have friends say they are jealous of my relationship with my children, my recent travels, or my self-employment. I don’t like hearing this information, and I sometimes feel the need to justify and explain away why they shouldn’t be jealous by emphasizing how expensive the kids are, how unsteady self-employment can be, or how long I had to wait in my life to be able to travel. But instead of growing frustrated, I focus on the positive. When someone says I’m lucky to have children, I nod and agree that I am lucky, for indeed I am.

When I grow jealous, I do my best to break it apart into smaller emotions. What am I experiencing shame over? What am I sad about? And what am I scared of? I let myself feel the feelings and then process them (the same kind of work I would do with a client, I do with myself).

This morning, for example, seeing two people celebrate their relationship on Facebook, I processed silently to myself. What am I experiencing shame over? Well, I date and I haven’t found a lasting healthy relationship, and though I’m very happy being single, I still have the idea somewhere deep down that being in a relationship is the desired thing, and it is something that I want. What am I sad about? I’m happy for them, and sad that my own efforts haven’t resulted in a happy and lasting relationship. And I sometimes find myself lonely. And what am I scared of? I’m scared that I won’t find that.

There, jealousy dissected. I can then focus on the happiness I feel toward the other person and go about my day.

Like all complex human feelings, jealousy is one of the feelings in recent years that I have learned to be grateful for, it is a powerful and rich emotion that comes to the surface when my heart has a message that my brain needs to hear. I can be jealous of and happy for someone all at the same time, and I can be secure in my own life and still want more.