10 Things Being a Therapist Has Taught Me About Being Human
In October 2016, after 2.5 years of graduate school, multiple training internships, 3,000 postgraduate clinical hours and two rigorous exams, I finally became a licensed marriage and family therapist.
It was a long, fulfilling and growthful journey and I’m so grateful to my community of friends and colleagues who have supported me over those years, but grateful most of all to my beloved clients who trusted me enough to support them even as I grew professionally alongside them, day after day, year after year.
Therapy is not for the faint of heart, nor is becoming a licensed therapist.
And yet, it’s the most fulfilling, rewarding, creative career I could possibly imagine doing and it’s a sincere honor for me to be able to make it my life’s work and to help my clients in any way I can.
So in honor of achieving this personal and professional milestone, I wanted to write a post about the top ten things I’ve learned as a therapist about this wild thing called being human.
1. Relationships wound, and they can also heal.
Most of our wounds, patterns and behaviors are usually put down early in a relationship and it’s through relationships that these wounds get mirrored back to us and, moreover, it’s also through a certain kind of caring, attuned and responsible relationship that the wounds may finally have a chance to heal.
The magic and the mystery of therapy is that whatever your wounds and patterns are in the outside world, they will ultimately show up in the therapy room and that’s actually great! It gives us a chance to safely and compassionately heal and work with these patterns in a way that you may have never experienced before.
That’s where the healing power of therapy lies; it’s not in the increased self-awareness (though that’s great); it’s in the actual experience of a healing relationship with your therapist.
2. No matter where you’re starting from, transformation is possible.
This has become the unofficial tagline of my business because I bone-deeply believe that it’s true: No matter where you’re starting from, transformation is possible.
A thing I’ve learned in my time as a therapist is that most of us, when given the right conditions, will thrive and flourish. What are these conditions? Most likely they include positive regard, acceptance, support, attunement, safety and constancy of relationship. And it may also look like removing yourself from dysfunctional or abusive people, or moving across the country to get away from your family of origin, or coming out, or rejecting the path you thought you were “supposed” to take. Etc., etc.
So, no matter where you are starting out from, no matter what your childhood was like, no matter how many disappointing relationships, bad jobs or unfulfilling life choices you’ve experienced, it’s still possible for you to experience something different, for transformation to happen within your life.
And you can set yourself up for success by getting clear on what the conditions you need for your growth and healing might be, and then giving them to yourself.
3. Most of us believe everyone else has their stuff more figured out. The reality is that they probably don’t.
So many times people in and out of my office have told me that they truly believe that they are the only ones who could possibly have a relationship that feels so empty, or a family that’s so uniquely messed up, or such a strong sense of anxiety and desperation when they wake up in the middle of the night, etc.
So many times people have told me that they imagine others they pass walking down the street must surely have their stuff more figured out than them.
The reality is that those other people we imagine are having easier experiences with life, who have their stuff more figured out, probably don’t.
Look, I say this not to diminish anyone’s experience, but as a therapist, I’ve been privileged to know and witness the inner lives of a lot of people. What I believe is that we’re all often having really tough times doing this whole humaning thing no matter what it may look like from the outside.
4. Because, being a human is really, really hard.
As a therapist, I want to go on record by saying that the daily stuff of our own individual lives – the adulting and humaning we’re all called upon to do each and every waking day – is often hard. Really hard.
Every day in my work, I see people shame and blame themselves for struggling with the daily, inevitable stuff of life, and this blaming can cause so much additional and unnecessary pain and suffering. The reality is, this whole adulting and humaning thing can be really hard sometimes. For most of us.
Not only do most of us have to figure out how to make a living, find a life partner, pay the mortgage and establish our careers, deal with commutes and clogged toilets, we also have to deal with the big existential givens of being human:
- Death: Death is inevitable for we are all mortal. This inherently causes some anxiety for all of us.
- Choice: We have freedom in our lives and are responsible for our choices and actions. And coming up against this can cause anxiety.
- Isolation: We long to be connected and yet are ultimately fundamentally separate and isolated from one another. And this can cause anxiety.
- Meaning: It is ultimately our responsibility to construct the meaning of our lives given life is inherently meaningless. And facing this can cause anxiety.
Now tell me, does this sound easy? Of course not! So, can we all please have some compassion for how hard it can be to be a human and to be doing this whole life thing?
5. We all mess up in our relationships. So it’s not the rupture that counts. It’s the willingness to repair.
Whenever you get two or more people together, conflict is inevitable at some point.
And if those two people are in a relationship where they were raised together as siblings, or are parent and child, or where they are partnered and sharing the same bed, sleepless nights and juggling work, commutes, kids, in-laws, sex, money and all the other difficult stuff of life, it’s sometimes going to get hard and challenging. You’re going to fight and have conflict and be your worst self with the people you love the most. And that’s OK; that’s actually “normal.”
The reality is that we all mess up in our relationships. None of us are perfect. (And we therapists are definitely not perfect either!) So it’s not the rupture, the breakdown or fight or conflict or misattunement in the relationship that counts – it’s the repair.
It’s the attempt at apologizing, fixing what happened, listening to the other person, being willing to take responsibility and reengage in the relationship — the repair — that really counts. That’s frankly a much more realistic goal to aim for then never getting mad or acting out in your relationships.
6. The healing power of simply sharing our story in front of a supportive, safe other cannot be underestimated.
Most of us, at some level, carry around shame about parts of who we are, where we come from or what we’ve done in our lives. But when we share our stories with others, including the deepest, most real, most unedited, raw, vulnerable parts of who we are with another human who can see you, accept you, and keep on loving you, the healing power of this — the sharing of our story, of ourselves — is profound.
I think that’s part of what I love most about being a therapist: It’s the opportunity to be that safe, witnessing person for my clients who may have never felt like they could safely share all parts of themselves with another person before and still be accepted.
It’s a sincere honor and a privilege to witness my client’s stories and to see the relief that can come for them in simply speaking their truth.
7. Self-love isn’t the goal — self-acceptance is.
I have to admit: I got pretty burned out and crabby with the last five years of the personal growth movement’s message of self-love. I think that, sometimes, this may be a pretty unrealistic goal for many of us.
Sometimes you just may not be able to love the fact that you come from an abusive family or love that, because of your choices, you ended up in a career you hate with $100,000 of student loan debt.
So, I don’t think that challenging my clients to love all the parts of themselves and their stories is that realistic or helpful.
I think what’s perhaps more realistic is to aim for accepting these parts of you or your story. You don’t have to love it all, but can you at least accept it? If we’re able to start from accepting our reality, change becomes possible.
8. Sometimes on the healing path, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
Sometimes, when we’re first beginning the work of therapy or healing, it’s akin to opening up and facing a closet in your house that’s been crammed full of stuff for the last seven years and never once touched or organized.
So you start cleaning that closet out, pulling the crap out bit by bit until soon, the whole floor of that room is covered with junk and you’re standing in a pile feeling exhausted, frustrated and more than a little hopeless that things won’t get better.
This is what it can feel like at a certain point in therapy; you’ve just made a bigger mess of things now that you started bringing your awareness to it all and you’re not sure how it’s going to get better and probably you’re even questioning and doubting why you started this all in the first place!
But you have to remember this: Sometimes on the healing path, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
So keep plugging along, sorting out piles, hauling stuff off to the Goodwill, putting items back one by one, tossing what you don’t want. In therapy, keep showing up to your sessions, keep tolerating the discomfort of the not-knowing, trust the process and realize that often, things will get worse before they get better.
But eventually, things will change. Change is the only constant, after all. You just have to keep going.
9. No one else is the expert of your experience. Only you are!
I tell my clients this all the time: I am not the expert of you. Your friends, your family, the gurus on TV — no one is the expert of you except for you. My job as a therapist is to be the expert in helping you access you and what you know to be best and true and most right for you.
Deep down, we all at some bone- and soul-deep level know what’s best for ourselves. But often dysfunctional messaging, cultural and family introjects, maladaptive patterns of behavior and other psychological accumulations of life obscure what we know to be best for ourselves.
Part of the beauty of therapy is that we get to clear away this unnecessary psychic debris and help you access what’s been there all along: Your core self, your own deep knowing, your internal sense of wisdom and your locus of control.
So remember: No one else is the expert of your experience. Only you are! But other people can definitely help you access your own expertise.
10. “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”
Credit goes to one of my favorite psychotherapy pen-and-paper mentors, Carl Gustav Jung, for this beauty of the above quote. And ever since I first heard it nearly 10 years ago, it resonated with me in every cell of my body.
I truly believe that the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are — who you truly, authentically are apart from what your family, friends, lovers or society wishes you would or could be. Discovering yourself, your likes and dislikes, what makes you tick and trigger, what delights your soul and what fulfills your own sense of life purpose and meaning. This is the ultimate end goal of therapy: to help you become more of who you truly are during this one lifetime you’re given.
It’s such a gift for me to help facilitate this for my clients.
Wrapping This Up
This post could have tripled or quadrupled in length because, quite honestly, there is so much more I could say about what I’ve learned in my work as a therapist. But I’ll leave that for other articles.
For now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: What are one or two of the top things you’ve learned from your own work in therapy (if you’ve been in therapy)? What would you share with someone considering beginning therapy for the first time? Leave a message in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.
Until next time, take very good care of yourself.
For more on Annie Wright Psychotherapy, check out her website.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash