Confessions of a Shrink
Sometimes a client of mine bemoans the fact that they’re 25 or 35 or 45 and have not yet “made it” or figured out what to do with their lives. I then tell them the story of how I became a therapist.
I was turning 40 and was in the throes of a midlife crisis. My marriage had storm clouds gathering on the horizon, and my job as an executive recruiter (for the financial services industry) was paying me well but leaving me empty. I knew I needed a change, but to what? Go back to writing? To radio? To sales? Become a psychotherapist? Magazine or book editor? I remember the night I met with my men’s team about it, and rolled out all my options. They just listened, and none had a strong opinion, although one of them said, “When you spoke about becoming a therapist, your whole face lit up.”
That night, walking back home along Prospect Park West, I considered what it would actually feel like to be a therapist, and it all hit me – not from above, but below: Something arose from my gut like an awakening, and suddenly in tears, I knew:
At that moment it all came together: I could use my talents: my people skills; my marketing skills; but most of all, my life. Because suddenly I realized that all the shit I’d been through (no more than most others, perhaps, but shit nonetheless) was now fertilizer. All the grief; all the crises; all the – oh my God, all the therapy! For I’d spent (and continue to spend) most of my adult years in therapy: Freudian; primal; cognitive/behavioral; marriage counseling; group therapy; you name it. It had always been my major conduit to personal growth.
In other words, suddenly everything I’d gone through became of use.
That fall I enrolled at the Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy (affectionately known as the GAP) and I never looked back.
During that summer, wondering what life as a therapist would be like, I asked the advice of the best therapists I knew. The one with the best advice was Arthur Egendorf, who said to me, “Expect that you’re going to feel like a complete klutz the first 10 years.” This was quite helpful, although his number was off by about 5 (I’ll let you guess in which direction).
Over the years I’ve come to develop a few interesting beliefs:
- One shouldn’t be in therapy with one who isn’t.
- A therapist can most effectively take you through only what they’ve been through themselves.
- The quality of the relationship and connection between client and therapist trumps any modality or technique.
- Fritz Perls was right: Most people enter therapy to become comfortable with their neuroses.
- Being a therapist is like being alive: Life will throw at you what you need to deal with. This occurred early on for me when my first client, (we’ll call her Leslie) after 2 years of hard work, left a voicemail 20 minutes before her session: “I’m not coming in today, and I need to stop. Please don’t call me.” Period. Besides being as stunned as most therapists would be, this gave me another (albeit unwelcomed) opportunity to deal with my abandonment issues, which stem from suddenly losing all meaningful contact with my mother. Leslie’s phone message was what Ram Dass calls “grist for the mill”. Being a therapist provides plenty of that, and like life it can be a pain in the ass.
But I did something completely right for myself. At mid-way on my life journey, I did a 180 and made my career align with my soul, and this pays me daily dividends.
For one thing, when someone enters my office and says, “…and I’m twenty eight! And I still don’t have it all together!” I can offer them a little perspective.
Nevertheless there are still those times when I find myself at a complete loss with a client or a couple. Then I feel embarrassed or ashamed, thinking they’re paying me good money to help them, and the best I can do at such a time is hang out with them in their darkness. (And sometimes that’s enough, but not always).
Another thing I deal with is that sometimes it’s hard to know when to keep a client from acting self-defeatingly. and when to bite my tongue and let them learn the hard way like I did and most do. I’ve come to realize that the right thing said at the wrong time is the wrong thing to say. It’s not what I tell a client but when and how.
Indeed, one part of my job is to determine with each individual exactly how much to be myself. Because some people come for the connection; some come for the information.
Speaking of being myself, a frustration of mine is due to the fact that I’m a touchy-feely kind of guy, and am naturally inclined to hug a client at the end of a session – at least many of them. But living at this time (and on this coast) I generally don’t. Between the guys who would be too embarrassed, and the women – well, these days one misperceived move and I’ll be buying a one-way ticket to Weinerville.
So I err on the side of caution. And speaking of caution, most therapists are as fretful of running into a client in public as most clients are. (Some Freudian analysts have been known to shut themselves off from the outside world for decades at a time for just this reason.) But what if a young couple, say, who are coming to me for wise and sober counsel, spot me at an all night rave? (“Hey Chelsea, look at the old guy dancing his ass off in that crazy outf– oh my God! That’s our marriage counselor!”)
Actually if – when – it ever happens, I hope I won’t be too thrown, and turn to them and say, “Yes it’s me! And this woman dancing with me, also in a wild get-up? That’s my wife! My advice to you two? If you want to keep staying together, keep playing together!”
Who knows how I’d really react. But in my heart of hearts, I can’t wait!