10 things a year as a therapist taught me about life, work & growth

As of 6pm on Friday, I am no longer a therapist.

It’s a strange, bittersweet feeling. For over a year, being a therapist was more than just a job–it was part of my identity. Work didn’t get to stay at work; it was part of my life in a deeply profound way. My co-workers became my supporters in ways that were unlike anything I’d experienced at any other job; the concept of a “mental health day” took on an entirely new meaning, being present in my work became more important than ever.

Looking back on the past year, it’s hard to pick out the things that I learned from being a therapist as opposed to things I learned simply by getting another year older (and maybe a few months wiser). But that, I suppose, is why self-reflection has become such an important part of my growth process. I’ve written before about journaling and how daily reflective practice has changed the way I spend my time, but it really has made a huge difference–not just in my ability to look back at moments of gratitude, but to watch myself experience learning and growth. It’s also allowed me to read old entries and see the places where I learned hard lessons and received some painful reminders of my own limitations–limitations that, thanks in part to that active self-reflection, I was sometimes able to turn into strengths.

But not without challenges, and not without luck, and not without help.

For better or worse, I’m a lists person, and I do my best memory collection through organization. So, here we are:

10 Things a Year as a Therapist Taught Me about Life, Work & Growth

  1. Set goals, but let them be flexible.

    Unless you’re practicing psychoanalysis or you’re a private practice therapist making all your own rules, a major part of therapy is paperwork, and a major part of paperwork is treatment plans. Treatment plans–or “individualized action plans” as we called them–consist of one or more goals and objectives that the therapist and client or client system work toward. My agency had time restrictions on our plans, and encouraged us to use S.M.A.R.T. goals: goals that were Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. That said, most clients aren’t quite sure, especially when they first start out, what they can achieve in three or six months, and we often ended up re-visiting those goals and objectives when the three-month objectives began to expire.

    Often, clients would look at unachieved three-month objectives as a sign of failure, and it’s possible that insurance companies would feel the same (which could be a whole different post, but we’re trying to be positive tonight, so I’ll spare you). But for my part, I did my best to encourage my clients to look at those revisitations as an opportunity to see if their objective was still relevant for them. Were they exactly the same as they were three months ago, or was there some difference? Had they achieved a part of their goal or objective? Had circumstances caused us to look at a completely different objective as our main focus?

    Outside the world of therapy, we don’t set goals in treatment plans as much as we take opportunities to make them for ourselves, formally or informally. We make new year’s resolutions. We set down timelines with our partners. We make financial plans. But just like in therapy, circumstances change. People change. Families change. And goals need room to flex and grow just like individuals and families do. If you set a January goal to run a marathon in May but break your leg in March, you haven’t failed, you’ve experienced a change that requires an adjustment to your goal. By leaving room for flexibility, we allow ourselves to experience change without judgment.

  2. Listening, not talking, is the most important skill you can learn.

    Weird as it is for an introvert, I actually love talking. I think it’s the Leo in me–I have a lot to say, whether in my internal monologue or out loud, and (Leo again) tend to believe that the things I have to say are probably the most important, insightful things anyone has ever heard.
    (I’m kidding. Mostly.)

    But a therapist isn’t there to talk–a therapist is there, first and foremost, to listen. As much as my primary job function was to help my clients and their families to achieve their goals, I viewed listening to what my clients had to say as the most important part of my job. Children and adolescents spend the majority of their time being talked at and talked to, and relatively little time being the ones whose words are made the most important in the room. Girls especially are talked over, interrupted, and silenced; minority adolescents frequently misinterpreted and stereotyped. I found myself overwhelmed by the number of times a client thanked me simply for listening to them, even when I felt that all I had done was sit there uselessly while they cried or ranted.

    Learning active listening is difficult. We live in a world that is constantly talking, and to listen without planning what to say next can sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge. But when you achieve it, and see the expression on someone else’s face when they realize that you’re truly listening to them, not just waiting for a chance to talk, the reward is overwhelming. Being able to listen actively makes you a better partner, a better friend, a better parent, a better child, a better sibling or grandchild. It’s a deeply important skill, and probably the most important one I learned to take with me.

  3. Be present.

    This one pairs fairly well with active listening, but it’s a slightly different concept. Being present is part of the mindfulness practice I’ve been working to cultivate over the last months. To be present in a moment is to practice awareness of your body and your emotions. This is a critical aspect of being a therapist–clients, especially ones that have experienced trauma, are frequently hyper-aware of their therapists’ facial expressions, body language, and tone. I found myself learning to be open with my clients about when I felt worried about them, or when I was feeling tired, or when I was in a frustrated mood from a difficult earlier session. I noticed that when I began doing this, I started seeing them relax more easily even when I was in a difficult mood myself.

    It was an interesting experiment, but also taught me the importance of having that awareness of myself–not just for their benefit, but for my own. By being present in my body and with my emotions, I learned to advocate my needs both to myself and to others. I learned to ask for help, to take breaks, to acknowledge when something just couldn’t happen the way I originally planned. And that was okay.

    Being present also means paying attention to what happens around you. It’s sitting with a client and giving yourself space to hear what they’re saying without planning your response. It’s walking with your dog without feeling resentful about having to get up off your couch. It’s having story time with your nephew without worrying about your next blog post or what bills you have to pay and instead just taking that time to be there, perfectly present, in that moment.

  4. It’s okay to not be right.

    One of the first goals that I had to ditch very quickly when I became a therapist was the idea of finding the “perfect thing” to say. Being something of a perfectionist, I frequently look for the “right” answer in a situation, the perfect insightful phrase, the best response to a situation or story. But in therapy, there are no right answers. There’s no “perfect response” to a child telling you that their parent has been abusing them, or a teenager telling you that they don’t want to be alive anymore. There’s no perfect, insightful phrase that can make things all better, and to look for one misses the point altogether: therapy is not about the therapist being right. It’s about the process, and the growth of the client.

    Life is like this as well. When we spend all of our time looking for the right answer or the perfect response, we lose sight of the learning process. Every mistake becomes a catastrophe, rather than an opportunity for reflection and growth. Moments of confusion become personal failures. Letting go of the need to be right gives space for mistakes and hesitation and moments of challenge, and that’s where the real insight comes from anyway.

  5. Find room for fun.

    When I was fourteen, I went to Ben & Jerry’s and got a bumper sticker emblazoned with what I thought was the perfect life motto: “If it’s not fun, why do it?”Close to twelve years later, I now know that there are all sorts of reasons why we do things that aren’t fun. Bills have to get paid. Doctors have to give us shots. You have to pay your taxes. Sometimes you have to sit in traffic. It’s part of the whole adulthood gig.Therapy has its moments of being especially un-fun. Even putting aside the fact that there are very few things that are less fun than hearing horrific stories of child sexual abuse and psychological trauma, there are all the bits that are just boring–dealing with paperwork, playing phone tag with teachers and parents and child welfare workers, doing insurance authorizations, etc.

    But there needs to be room for fun. In therapy with kids, it’s doing arts and crafts, or playing feelings charades, or challenging your client to a game of office basketball, or helping them decorate a collage about their therapy experience. In a retail job, it might be the time you spend with your co-workers, or playing “absurd customer bingo” in your head. In traffic, it might be challenging yourself to find cars of a certain color, or having a singalong in your car.

    My bumper sticker challenged, “if it’s not fun, why do it?” I’d expand that one more step: “If it’s not fun, make it fun.”

  6. Self-acceptance is radical.

    The concept of radical self-acceptance originated from Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and lay Buddhist teacher who asks the question: what it would be like to accept ourselves as we are, without feelings of unworthiness or deficiency. Practicing radical self-acceptance is not to pretend perfection or to ignore inappropriate behaviors or absolve mistakes, but rather to step away from the shame that arises from comparing ourselves to unattainable ideals or getting stuck in loops of frustration or self-doubt.

    As a therapist, I taught my clients to practice self-acceptance as a way of working on building mindfulness and reducing the impact of depression, anxiety, anger, and trauma. But I’ve also tried to take that self-acceptance out of the office and into the rest of my life. Part of that has been building my own meditation practice (which, I’ll be honest, is still in its very rudimentary stages), but it’s also been in my work with my own therapist and through my journalling and self-reflection, all of those things coming together to help me build awareness of my thoughts (being present!) and recognizing when my thoughts are unfair to the type of love and kindness I want to show myself.

    In a society that seems almost feverishly determined to make us feel terrible about ourselves, practicing self-acceptance is by definition a radical act. And being radical can be frightening, especially when it’s often much easier to go with the flow–even when “going with the flow” results in ongoing feelings of shame, self-doubt, unworthiness, anxiety, etc. Accepting yourself as you are does not mean resigning never to change or grow, but gives you space to do so at a reasonable pace without shaming yourself for not making progress or changes at a speed that isn’t right for you. Just like making flexible goals, self-acceptance makes room for changes in circumstances, challenging moments, and reevaluation of thoughts or expectations. It gives you space to practice kindness toward yourself. That doesn’t make it easy, but it does make it worth it.

  7. Own your baggage.
    The first moment I realized that my personal baggage was coming to punch my therapeutic presence in the face in a big way, I had to do a double-take. What the hell? I asked myself. You’re supposed to be smarter than this! You know better than to let your ten-year-old feelings get in the way of being an awesome therapist!

    Yeah, that was naive. One of the things they actually tell us in “therapy school” is to “know your own shit”–not “know what you’re doing,” but “know what’s going to punch you in the face with your own unresolved issues”–but I don’t know if any of us actually realized how critical a part of our own self-knowledge this was going to be. I didn’t realize just how deeply I was impacted by some of the issues my clients were going through until I found myself crying in the bathroom between clients (which, when clients were scheduled completely back to back, was not a great thing for any number of reasons), overwhelmed with how much of my own emotional baggage was finding its way into my sessions.

    The emotional exhaustion got worse when I realized that I wasn’t actually dealing with any of my crap–I was just being more aware of it. And in some cases, this has to happen; going to therapy and spending months (or even years) examining and dealing with all your shit isn’t immediately doable for everyone. I was lucky enough to be able to spend a few months in therapy this year, and while I certainly haven’t solved any of my issues, I’m at least more aware of my triggers and responses so that I can recognize when my body and emotions are responding to something beyond the immediate moment, and, if necessary, can tell the person or people I’m with what’s going on (or make up a lie, if it’s not appropriate, as it often isn’t in therapy, to let the other person know that I’m having a reaction to my own issues).

    Even if you’re not a therapist, knowing–and owning–your baggage is important. Unacknowledged issues are like open wounds; left untreated, they fester and become infected, they can even be deadly. Take some time and reflect–with a friend or family member, if it will help–on your past experiences to determine if any of them are still impacting you in negative or hurtful ways, and see if there is anything that can be done to lessen–or at least acknowledge–that pain and weight. Even just recognizing your pain and giving it a name can make a huge difference in the way you carry it around. You might even find someone who can help you carry the load.

  8. If praise is an option, give praise.

    One of my very favorite quotes comes from Miranda July, from her book No One Belongs Here More than You. July writes,

    “Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it’s worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.”

    Too often, we look for opportunities to criticize or call out before we look for reasons to praise and acknowledge with positivity, and I think that this is one of the saddest things that we do–as parents, as partners, as friends, as supervisors, as co-workers. I’m not advocating for blind praise, but if there’s an opportunity to sandwich criticism between positive acknowledgment (or even to skip criticism altogether, such as with a child’s drawing or a partner’s attempt at a romantic surprise), take that opportunity. If you have the opportunity to light up someone’s face or to crush their smile, why would you choose the latter?

    It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to build people up. You never know when it might be the one thing that gets them through their day. Praise, praise, praise.

  9. Make room for quiet.

    Because sometimes there’s nothing to say.

    Making room for quiet is different from listening, and different from practicing awareness and knowing that there’s no perfect response. Making room for quiet is waiting one or two or five minutes for someone to answer a question. It’s teaching a client to practice mindful listening and allowing yourself to be comfortable in a quiet space until your ears begin to pick up the subtle sounds of a clock ticking, a fan humming, soft music playing in a co-worker’s office.

    We live our lives surrounded by noise, and some of us have grown to be uncomfortable with any kind of quiet, whether it’s the manufactured quiet of a partner’s silent treatment or the natural quiet of the early pre-dawn light. It’s easy to understand why quiet can be uncomfortable–when no one is talking, sometimes our own thoughts become overwhelmingly loud. Our hearts might start to race, and we might find ourselves back in the trap of looking for the perfect comment or phrase to prompt a response from someone else, especially if we’re waiting for them to talk.

    But being comfortable with quiet means being comfortable listening to your own inner monologue. Quiet isn’t the same as listening or awareness, but rather it makes room for both, clearing a path through the everyday chaos of noise and activity to allow space for meditation and mindfulness. Through that, mindfulness makes room for growth and calm, and everyone can use a little calm in their lives.

  10. Find ways to learn.One of the most popular phrases school mission statements toss around these days is “fostering life-long learning”–in other words, giving kids the skills to continue learning and growing even when they leave the educational system.

    (The point can be made that kids often do their best learning outside of the school system, but that’s a different post.)

    Therapy is the sort of job where constant learning isn’t just encouraged, it’s required. Licensing laws mandate staying up-to-date on best practices, which means attending training, learning new skills, and reading a ton of research. But as a therapist, I was also always learning about my clients and their families. An activity that worked with one teenage client with anxiety might not work with another teenage client with anxiety. One kid might be okay with me also seeing their sibling, one might not. Maintaining a large case load of clients also meant constant learning about time management, scheduling, balance, and limits.

    When people tell me that they don’t learn anymore, or they don’t like learning, it breaks my heart. I think that too many people associate “learning” with “school”, as if all learning ends the day you leave your last formal education program, whatever level it might be, or that learning only exists in a classroom setting. I learn things every day! Yesterday I learned that one of my three-year-old nephew’s favorite books is now considered a “modern classic,” in the same realm of Dr. Seuss. Today I learned new tricks for dealing with subway delays and construction.

    Learning never stops–in life, in work, in relationships. Our brains are designed to learn and grow, it’s one of the most fascinating things they do. No matter how “dead-end” your job, there are ways to learn new things. In our friendships and relationships, we are always learning new things about one another. In our social and leisure time, we have opportunities to grow our talents and hobbies through practice, allowing us to learn new skills and tricks.

    When we cease to learn, we cease to grow, and when we cease to grow, we stagnate. In theories of psycho-social development, stagnation, especially in adulthood, leads to increased depression and diminished cognitive capacity in old age. So, if nothing else, do your future brain a favor: make room for learning.

 

It feels strange to reflect back on this past year and see the ways that I’ve changed and what I’ve learned. I’m disappointed in myself (ah, self-acceptance, how difficult you are!) for leaving the world of therapy after so short a time, but this was easily one of the more profound experiences that I’ve had in my life.

If you find yourself leaving a job, spend some time reflecting on how it changed you. Take a moment to ask yourself: what have I learned? How can these skills or lessons come with me to other areas of my life? How have I grown?

It sounds cheesy, and it takes some time. But that’s what makes it worth it.

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4 thoughts on “10 things a year as a therapist taught me about life, work & growth

  1. Thank you for sharing. I am starting a master’s degree in September to work towards my goal of becoming a therapist. It’s so wonderful to read about your experiences in the field and all of the things that you’ve learned.
    If you don’t mind my asking, what prompted your decision to stop working as a therapist?
    Ayla

    • Thank you for reading and commenting!

      There were a lot of things that prompted my decision to leave. My organization was a mess from the top down, and in the place I was living, there weren’t really additional options for outpatient therapy work, and I don’t really have the constitution needed for in-home work. I was also getting very burned out by the systems that were in place socially to support my clients, as well as with the level of trauma I was addressing with my client (in my case load of an average of forty-ish clients at a time, as many as thirty-five had some type of significant trauma). Another big issue was that I was having some chronic health issues that were being exacerbated by the stress, and that was probably contributing to my burnout as well. There’s definitely a possibility that I might return to working as a therapist in the future, but for now, I’m taking a much-needed break to try something new.

      • That sounds fair enough. Your point about owning your own struggles really stuck with me. I’m currently undergoing an intense exposure therapy to deal with my own childhood trauma so your experiences with this as a therapist really highlighted how important it is for me to work on my own issues before I try to help other people work through theirs.
        This post was so compelling and interesting for me. Becoming a therapist is my dream job so I am beyond excited to start my master’s degree, but your experiences definitely serve as a helpful reminder that self-care is not optional; it’s mandatory.
        Thanks again for sharing!! I really enjoy reading your posts from the perspective of someone in the field!
        Ayla

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