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How I’m Embracing My ‘Superpower’ as a Therapist Who Struggles With Mental Illness

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There is a palpable irony that comes with being a therapist who struggles with mental illness. Our services are sought for our expertise: We identify mental health issues and we treat them. When it comes to qualifications and competence, we are no different than the mechanics, the chefs, the tailors or the medical doctors of the world. There is however, one major difference as a therapist: Our humanity seeps into our work and, if you’re effective at what you do, that’s what makes the work transformative.

I am a good therapist for many reasons. I am intellectual and studied hard to understand the theory behind effective psychotherapy. I am an empath who is naturally inclined to attune to the emotions of others. I have worked in a variety of settings with drastically different populations. I am also a person with mental illness.

I have suffered from depression and anxiety since early adolescence and developed an eating disorder at the age of 17. When it comes to therapy, I have sat on both sides of the couch.

Sometimes, my experiences with mental illness act as a superpower in my sessions with clients. I can read between the lines (and the bullshit answers my clients will sometimes feed me). I can draw on my own experiences and emotions and provide a safe holding environment for my clients. I can carry the loads my clients need to put down, even if it’s just for the 45 minutes they are in my office.

As a result of my personality and the things I’ve been through, oftentimes my clients can feel I really get them without me having to explain why or how. I have always been told by mentors, friends and family that because of my own mental health issues, I am that much more relatable and in tune with what clients may need.

Being able to connect with clients on a deep level can be such a blessing and an empowering experience. Sometimes though, it can be exhausting — even terrifying.

There are moments when I sit with a client whose narrative sounds so much like my own, I have to stop and remind myself it’s not. In these snapshots of deep connection and understanding, I must rely on my ability to ground myself and separate the experience when my body begins to swell with emotion and physical sensations — whether it be the heaviness of depression, the hopelessness of suicidality or the uncontrollable hunger that accompanies my eating disordered clients and the pain of their needs that were never met. Sometimes this is hard to do. Sometimes I would like to throw in the towel and say, “Not today.”

And I will let you in on a secret: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I have to reschedule a client. Sometimes I have to have a session that is more reflective and supportive, allowing me to create some distance for myself. Sometimes I need to process in supervision the parallels that are occurring in my sessions and the countertransference being activated in me. Sometimes I even have to take a day off because there is only so much I can give.

The truth is, some days my superpower feels more like a kryptonite. I have learned to assess how full my cup is because as a person and a therapist, you cannot pour from an empty cup.

I am a very green therapist. I have been in the field for four years and am finishing up my doctorate  degree in clinical psychology. These four years however, have felt like a lifetime. I have discovered my strengths and identified my growing edges. I have learned the populations I love to work with and the ones I am not best suited for. Most importantly, I have learned my limits.

In my experience, there is so much shame that comes with being a mentally ill therapist. We are expected to be the experts. And we are, but we are also expected to “have it all together.” People outside of the field have the preconception that therapists are immune to human struggle. They believe our lectures on Freudian theory and cognitive behavioral therapy serve as buffers from emotional turmoil and maladaptive coping skills.

The truth is, we are no different than anyone else. Perhaps we have more insight as a result of the work we do, but it doesn’t take away from the pain we experience and the burdens we carry. The outside world does not see that as a therapist with mental illness, we not only carry our own burdens, but those of our clients. 

To be honest, sometimes I hate it. There are days when I want to say, “Screw it” and stop being a therapist because I feel like a fraud. I have moments where I don’t want to sit with the hopelessness and panic of others because I live with it myself and am exhausted. As a person, it is my job to take care of myself. As a therapist, it is also my job to take care of myself to ensure I am the best and healthiest version of myself for my clients.

I feel incredibly anxious writing and submitting this piece for the world to see. I am terrified I will be viewed as a fraud or someone not meant to be in the mental health field because I sometimes struggle to emotionally, mentally and physically keep myself afloat. At the same time, I feel invigorated. I am incredibly proud of myself because I have learned to accept and embrace who I am and how it affects me personally and professionally.

I am challenging the idea that therapists have to have it all together all the time. There are days when it is so hard to separate being a therapist and being someone who struggles with mental illness, but then there are days when I am reminded just how much my experiences allow me to connect and be present with the person sitting across from me. I am not a good therapist despite my mental health  struggles — I am a good therapist because of them.

Getty Images: lorenzoantonucci

Originally published: November 13, 2019
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