I had a really tough session last night and I can’t stop thinking about how our strengths and our weaknesses are the opposite sides of the same coin.
Something we are continuously doing as therapists is building our identity. Who are we, as a therapist? Are we going to be tranquil and wise, like Becca Jorgensen? Surgically precise, like Gail Palmer? Or a reflective pixie genius, like Lorrie Brubacher? And we have to work with our own personalities, to find out who we are going to be in the room. If this is not your struggle, and you’re reading this thinking, “I just am who I am!” then that is wonderful, and this post is probably not for you.
There are two aspects of my self (as a self and as a therapist) I’m struggling with today. I get some great things from these two parts, and man do they bite me in the ass sometimes.
1) I am a little intense, and I have a fervent cheerleader energy for your relationship. I can’t help myself. Even in the first session, I am immediately invested in wanting your marriage to get better.
2) I’m a do-er/fixer. If you stayed at my apartment, I’d get you blankets, I’d make you pancakes, I’d wash your clothes. My energy of caring immediately springs into action. With couples, this means it is very hard for me to just leave things at reflection, and I weigh in in micro ways frequently. This might look like small snippets of psychoeducation about trauma, or addiction, or self-care.
There are some undeniable good things with these traits. With my intense investment, I genuinely care a lot for my couples. And I think they can feel it, that I am in this with them. I think they can feel that I am working as hard as I possibly can in the room for them. The dark side of this intense caring is that I can’t leave well enough alone. I think I’m helping (when I die whatever celestial being I meet first is going to say, “Wesley Little, STOP THINKING THAT YOU ARE HELPING!!”). When I hear one partner in distress I immediately go into fix and repair mode, without pausing to really assess if both partners are in distress about the rupture they are experiencing. This can shift the dynamic in the room and subtly set a norm that I want this to work more than they do, and I have signed up for the role of convincing them to work on their marriage.
When I go too far into this space, I can start to feel pretty yucky. Then I realize I need to pull back and go into simply reflecting that each partner really might be wanting something different from the session. This is hard, because I know the other partner is really suffering to hear and see this. But I know I need to just let them sit with that. I'm still figuring out how to do that when there is one partner who isn't sure yet if they want to be continuing in the relationship.
The do-er/fixer part can really get me into trouble even more. When I weigh in with psychoeducation or validation or anything, really, it can happen that the client comes back in the next session with, "YOU SAID …" and whatever didn't happen well. When this happens I get so mad at myself. I say, “Wesley, WHY did you weigh in like that?? It’s so much safer never to weigh in!” I know, I know it is. It really is much safer not to weigh in, and let these choices play out and let everyone just suffer the consequences. At times, it can feel like there is no upside to this part of myself, because it really gets me into trouble the most.
However, there might be a tiny upside. This part of me is also the part that takes risks. To bring myself, my opinion, my internal thought process into any situation is a risk. To write a public blog is a risk. To see couples is a risk. To be a therapist at all is a risky profession. And it’s a risk to weigh in, even gently, in the therapy room. Sometimes my risks, like any risks, end up in failure. But I think they help me go much further than if I never risked at all.
If a magic genie came down this morning and said, “Wesley, I can make you be Lorrie Brubacher/Becca Jorgensen/Gail Palmer in the room, if that’s your wish,” 95% of me would want to take that deal right now. Then I wouldn’t have to sit here, tortured about what I said, and where I went wrong, and how I’m going to correct these really ingrained parts of me. But, 5% of me kind of likes my intense, cheerleady, risky, weird self. It would be so nice to be bulletproof - SO NICE - and perfection is the ultimate Kevlar, but maybe there are advantages to the transparent and raw caring I bring into the room. It just might not feel like that today.