Therapists hold space like no one else. In recent decades, psychotherapy has sought to model itself after the medical profession, and like doctors trained to exude clinical calm, we’ve been encouraged to draw a curtain around our own challenges.
During sessions with even our most distraught clients, we can seem so at ease with the messy truths of human existence that we risk seeming as if we’re above it. At its best, our professional equanimity can be a healing balm for people in pain, giving them the freedom to express themselves without the fear of overwhelming someone else.
But we also know another truth, of course: therapists suffer plenty. Just like our clients, we deal with a cauldron of feelings, navigate imperfect relationships, suffer illnesses, and endure calamities. We grieve. We rage. We exult. We’re subject to stubborn bouts of ennui, even severe, relentless depression. Yes, we have years of training and can access specialized knowledge and a community of expert colleagues willing to help us accelerate positive changes in our lives. But our professional expertise doesn’t always mean we have the answers. Our out-of-the-office days can be rich with discovery and love, and they can be riven with fear, frustration, mortification, and grief.
Sometimes a focus on our meaningful work can buoy us when the pain in our own lives is pulling us down. But at other times, we might feel that what’s working to create meaning for our clients hasn’t shifted what’s stuck in ourselves. This is especially true for the vast number of us who enter the field seeking clarity and healing from our own traumas.
In the last few years, the once anathematic idea of self-disclosing to clients has gained ground in the therapy world. Clients have reported that when therapists self-disclose judiciously, it’s increased their sense of normalcy and belonging. But what happens when it all becomes too much? How do things go when, despite our best intentions, life seeps in, and the clinical curtain begins to fray? Or how about when our problems grow so big that they slam into our work and send that curtain crashing to the floor? What do we do then?
In the pages that follow, we feature the voices of four therapists who’ve disclosed on an even larger scale, sharing their stories with Networker readers. These are stories of therapists figuring out how to survive being shaken to their emotional core. In some cases, their clients were witness to the shaking. In others, they took time away from work. Sometimes, they drew on their professional expertise; sometimes, they ran from it.
We present these voices as an acknowledgement of what we all know but may not always like to admit—that therapists, even those with their own therapists, have struggled to cope in life, and sometimes that struggling has shaped their practice in surprising and valuable ways.
Learning the Art of Being by Janina Fisher
Talking about the Nightmare by George Faller
Surviving the Post-Partum Storm by Claudette Mestayer
Leaning Into Grief by Sabrina N’Diaye
Illustration © Illustrator Source/Fanatic Studio