"Right now, if I do my job badly, I will mildly annoy someone who paid five bucks for a book of mine. If I were a therapist and I messed up, the consequences could be far worse. That's a concern I don't think anyone could really take lightly.
I certainly couldn't."
I recently told my therapist that another therapist had told me I would make a good therapist. I'm not sure what reaction I really expected, but whatever it was, it wasn't the one I got. My therapist laughed. A lot. Like, a lot, a lot. I'm talking a really long time.
At that moment I didn't know whether the laughter was because he agreed I would make a good therapist, or if the idea was so ludicrous he could barely stay in his seat. I was leaning toward the latter reason.
When we did eventually clarify his thoughts on the matter, it turned out that I was wrong. The same thought had occurred to him at some point and he figured I might make a good therapist too. And that surprised me. Mostly because I've told him all sorts of utterly unrepeatable things, many of which do not cast me in the best of lights. I've also, at times, had moments in therapy of which I'm less than totally proud. I have often not made his life easy. Not by a long shot.
It's quite heartening when somebody who knows where the bodies are buried seems to think you can be trusted among the living. I'm not sure myself. On the positive side, I am very interested in therapy, and I do seem to have the kind of temperament and demeanor which encourages people to share things with me, almost in a pseudo-therapist kind of way. I've gotten used to the fact that near strangers will tell me dark secrets and then sort of wander off satisfied at being unburdened. I enjoy listening to people in that way, and I'm pretty practiced at sharing in the pain or the sadness or the guilt or the fear of others. I enjoy connecting with people and sharing those deeper moments with them.
I've even accidentally therapisted a therapist before. During a session with a previous therapist, I quite nonchalantly, and without any thought at all looked at her during a lull in the conversation and asked her “what feels most useful to talk about?”
She just stared at me, probably wondering if I was mocking her, and then we both cracked up laughing. I wasn't mocking her at all, I'd just kind of slipped into feeling as though I were the one who should be asking the questions, and that was the question she always asked, so it was the one that first came to mind while I was on auto-pilot.
I have also played therapist with my cats and my dogs. I have asked how our relationship feels between us. I have inquired as to whether or not they are feeling anxious. I have suggested we explore their feelings on a deeper level through mindfulness. Most of the time they fall asleep during our sessions, but I'm okay with that.
Seriously though, being a good therapist is more than just being a good listener and memorizing a series of handy phrases to nudge the session toward its inevitable conclusion. It carries with it responsibilities, ethics, practicalities and other baggage which you don't have when you're just being there for friends and passersby.
I've thought about what sort of therapist I'd like to be, if I were to be one. In my many whining sessions about the structure, paradigm, and underlying principles of therapy, I have managed to form opinions as to how I would do it 'better'. (I spent at least the first six months of my therapy questioning the very nature of therapy itself, which is apparently abnormal.)
If I were a therapist, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to see more than a handful of clients. (Which is no real way to run a business.) But I think a lot of people need more support than they can often access from their therapists, and because of the sometimes destabilizing nature of therapy (dancing with the skeletons in your closet can really fuck up your day) it's very possible that people will need more attention than a therapist seeing 30-40 clients a week could possibly spare. I'm of the opinion that while some of the structures in therapy are in place for client well-being (like the rules around therapists not sleeping with clients, etc) a lot of them are really in place for therapist sanity. They're a way of managing the emotional chaos which must ensue if you attempt to immerse yourself in the woes of half a dozen people every working day.
Also, I seriously doubt that anyone can genuinely care about more than say, ten people at a time. And I think that most good therapy comes down to care and connection. It would be a challenge to care and connect with a revolving door of people in a truly meaningful way, I think. Our monkey brains just aren't wired that way.
The limitations of therapy are just hard all round. If someone is sharing the deepest and perhaps most traumatic parts of their life, I wouldn't want to kick them out when sixty minutes are up and wish them good luck for a week. I'd feel like the worst person in the universe if I did that. That, to me, isn't what caring is about. But if you're a therapist, that's effectively what you have to do to people. Some therapists are far more skilled about it than others, and some offer more contact between sessions than others, but still, there's no avoiding that sixty minute mark, is there? It sucks enough as a client. I don't think it would feel any better on the other side of the clock, so to speak.
And then there's the sheer responsibility of being a therapist. It's a big deal to put yourself out there as a partner along the road of someone's emotional journey of healing, and some people are trying to heal from very serious wounds. It's absolutely possible for a therapist to do damage, perhaps even inadvertently. What if you had an off day and as a result of saying something dumb, someone hurt themselves or worse? That would be awful. Or even if you did absolutely everything right and still had negative outcomes. That would be hard to live with.
Right now, if I do my job badly, I will mildly annoy someone who paid five bucks for a book of mine. If I were a therapist and I fucked up, the consequences could be far worse. That's a concern I don't think anyone could really take lightly. I certainly couldn't.
"As far as I can work out, you can potentially become a therapist by doing twenty hours a week at a volunteer helpline and then sacrificing an artichoke beneath a full moon before getting two references and applying for a post grad diploma at a small college operating out of a disused postbox somewhere on Lambton Quay."
How To Become A Therapist?
Is It Better To Stay A Client?
And then there's the actual process of becoming a therapist, which seems fairly convoluted and a mixture of academic book learning and inflicting yourself on unsuspecting people in a half-cocked untrained manner. Even though I've looked into it a little, I've actually still got no firm idea how one actually becomes a therapist in New Zealand, because it seems to be somewhat arcane and potentially possible through all manner of avenues, some of which are well lit and paved, like just going to Auckland and doing a course there, and others which seem all overgrown and brambly and underfunded and rife with acronyms and references to Jung. As far as I can work out, you can potentially become a therapist by doing twenty hours a week at a volunteer helpline and then sacrificing an artichoke beneath a full moon before getting two references and applying for a post grad diploma at a small college operating out of a disused postbox somewhere on Lambton Quay.
The qualifications jungle aside, there are ramifications to studying in these kinds of fields. As a client, I can (and do) have all sorts of strong opinions about various therapeutic modalities and theories etc. As a student I'm pretty sure 'this is fucking stupid, Yalom is a smug hat rack' won't cut it.
Suffice to say, the idea of formal study does not appeal strongly, although of course it is necessary. We can't have people running around doing therapy at things without an acronym to their name. Anything could happen!
It is true that I find therapy fascinating and in many respects am drawn to the field. It is also true that I am in therapy because I need therapy, and some of the traits which might make me a 'good therapist' are actually things I'm in therapy for. Being a natural at removing ones own thoughts and agendas, and investing in what another person has to say for the duration of a conversation might be an acquired skill for some people, but I learned that by the time I was three years old. It's second nature for me to behave that way.
For me, therapy has been the first place where any relationship really is focused on me – because my therapist makes sure it is. And that's not easy for him or me. It's hard to keep me on the topic of me. It's not uncommon for me to simply go kind of blank or empty when I have to speak to my own internal experiences, rather than talk about external things.
Though it is often challenging and uncomfortable, part of me is enjoying the experience of being the client, of letting someone in a little, even if it's only for a few minutes of an hour. I think I fear the loss of that if I were to become a therapist. Obviously I could remain a client, but would it be the same? I don't know.
More importantly than that, though, I think clients deserve therapists who are really well put together mentally and emotionally. They don't have to be perfect, but they should be able to model the sort of healthy state the client is striving for. If I'm totally honest with myself, I don't think I'm where I would want to be in order to take on that kind of responsibility. I'm not a mess by any means, I'm a fully functional adult who owns several different items of cookware. But I do hold therapists to a pretty high standard, and I'd hold myself to that same standard if I were to become one.
I guess, for the moment, my answer to the question should I become a therapist is: maybe, but not yet.
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