Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On being a shrink

It's an odd thing, realizing that you are someone's therapist.

It's hard to reconcile that it is the very same me who drunkenly makes meals out of vending machine goods is also providing people with counseling services. I've been seeing clients for almost a year and a half now, and I still have a sense that I am two very different people, and I think I am quite good at being both of them.

People have a certain myth of mental health about their psychotherapists. It's funny, because previously, I would have endorsed that about many professionals. Now that my friends and myself fall within many of these areas, these myths are shattered. But I still wonder if those people I see professionally believe me to be this image I portray. It's funny to realize that I can provide help on such matters while being far from flawless in myself.

Providing therapy has also challenged me in a lot of ways.

It can be intensely difficult to balance being caring and empathic with becoming cold and jaded. The first time I did an intake interview with a profoundly suicidal woman, I went home and cried. My ex-boyfriend used to tell me I was going to have to harden myself up if I hoped to survive in the business. And it was true. I couldn't take every issue home with me-- it needed to remain somewhat separate from my personal life to prevent me from getting utterly overwhelmed. I have gotten better at separating myself from their troubles. But one doesn't want to fall too far on the other side of things, as I have seen a few more experienced therapists do. They are so cut off from the people they treat it is almost mechanistic. One individual didn't remember any personal details about members of the therapy group-- it was as if they were all the same. I don't know how you can treat people with any real conviction without genuine empathy for what they are going through, even if it does hurt a little and stay with you on your ride home.

The other difficulty also falls into the realm of letting work intrude into my personal life, but in an opposite fashion. It has become the cliche joke for everyone who meets me to say that they want to get in on my therapy waiting list. But some friends do genuinely ask me to bring my professional life into our personal relationship. They try to enlist diagnoses from me. I have become the go to person for any psychological issues that may emerge in family members. I've even had acquaintances ask me if I can give them "free counselling". While I like to provide help and even some advice where I can, and my interpersonal interactions are probably coloured by my training, I try my damndest not to let my psychology skills enter into my personal relationships. I don't want to be constantly scanning my friends for symptoms or thinking about what interventions would benefit them, whether they requested it or even in my own head. That's not fair to me or them.

All the same, it is so hard to watch loved ones go through hard times, and know that it is not my place to bring these skills into play. I am to be there as a friend, and to slip into a therapist role would be patronizing. Still, it can be a struggle to know that I am formally helping someone via one hour a week of my time, while I can't offer the same thing to others.


Ant said...

A mate of mine works as a doctor and initially found the same thing - he became too emotionally involved in situations, would take it home and cry in what he described as a very un-manly way. Now he lives by a maxim of "empathise don't sympathise", and that seems to work for him (just like you're describing with the fine balance).

As for giving out advice - I do that all the time! :o) (You should read some of the comments I leave on the blogs that I list...) But I think that tends to be the man/woman-mars/venus thing - sometimes it's appreciated, other times I just come off as a patronising prick. Or the lady (and it does tend to be to ladies) doesn't really want advice - she just wants to sound off...

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...


I can't pretend to understand what that's like. Bringing my skill set into play during interactions in my personal life would probably involve filing away their bills and photocopying.

Traumatic in the extreme, as you can probably imagine.

It saddens me to think that your job can still be performed by somebody else in a 'mechanistic' manner, because it indicates that, to a certain degree, we can all be categorised under common behavioural traits.

But collectiveness is the new individualism, right?

Princess Pointful said...

Ant- Empathize, don't sympathize is exactly the distinction I am trying to make!
It is a hard distinction to make, however, between advice as a friend, and advice as an almost-psychologist. People hold your advice to a lot higher of a standard when they think it is coming from a more professional level. Plus, I think I feel the need to lay down such a boundary between the personal and professional because much of the general public has this weird apprehension about socializing with psychologists because of their perceived magic powers of mind reading and psychologizing!

Ultra- At this point, I could very much use your skills in my personal life *Princess cringes at the pile of papers on her desk*
Although I think that there may be some symptom relief possible by treating people in a more mechanistic manner, I am of the opinion that really getting at underlying issues is impossible, and needs a little more personal attention.
Or maybe that's just how I justify going to school for ten years to develop such "skills".