It’s not exactly a state secret: most of us become therapists because we want to help people. We want to help them feel less alone with their pain and find ways to transform their problems, however weighty or seemingly intractable they may be, into workable challenges. This is what keeps our professional juices flowing—the experience of making a significant difference to the struggling people we see in our therapy offices.
Yet we’re not miracle workers. When we’re slow to help a client get back on her feet (and this happens more often than we might like to admit), it’s not always easy to maintain our enthusiasm and confidence about our work. For instance, a therapist named Sally recently told me the story of seeing a 34-year-old woman who’d fallen into a deep depression after being rejected by her boyfriend. As the client slouched into the therapy room for her 10th visit, she reenacted the opening scene of every appointment thus far: lowering herself heavily onto a chair, she sighed, gazed down at the rug, and announced tonelessly, “I’m still depressed.”
“So why don’t you try to make some of the changes we’ve been talking about?” Sally retorted sharply.
As she watched her client go pale, Sally was aghast. Where had that impatient tone of voice, so tinged with judgment, come from? It seemed this fed-up discouragement had been building in her for several weeks with this client. Worse, Sally’s feelings of ineptitude were beginning to leak into sessions with…