The Secret Life of Psychotherapists
By Sean Grover
Every day, therapists are bombarded with feelings from their patients: love, hate, rage, yearning, despair. Session after session, people share their secrets, dreams, and fantasies; they confess disappointments, expose painful memories, unearth fears, ambitions, and passions; all while their therapist sits and listens.
Have you ever wondered how your therapist feels during your sessions?
Therapists in Therapy
Masterful therapists spend years in their own therapy, often two or three times a week. They scrutinize their personal history, analyze and dissect every major and minor life event, and pore over the intricacies of their relationships, for starters. They become skilled at experiencing, investigating, and analyzing their own feelings. The reason is simple: the better they understand themselves, the better they can understand their patients.
After all, feelings are at the root of everything we do. Whether we’re conscious of them or not, they wield massive influence over every moment of our lives. For therapists to be effective, they must become experts in empathic attunement and connoisseurs at decoding, deciphering, and understanding conscious and unconscious feelings.
How Therapists Process Feelings
Feelings generally fall into three categories: subjective, objective, and induced. Subjective emotions spring primarily from our personal history (our families, previous relationships, and experiences); objective emotions are a consequence of the patient’s history (their families, previous relationships, and experiences), and induced feelings are the pure emotional sensations we experience in the “now” when we come in contact with others.
Skillful therapists constantly observe their subjective, objective, and induced feelings during sessions. In fact, a patient’s entire emotional history can be perceived by processing such feelings.
Sandra is a dedicated optimist. As a skilled ballet dancer, she enjoys the adoration of her teachers and colleagues, and has no difficulty attracting new suitors.
So why does Sandra have such a terrible time maintaining relationships? Every new person she meets starts out promising, but sooner or later they lose interest in her and move on. It’s a repetition that leaves her heartbroken.
“Wow, I love that tapestry!”
Sandra enters my office with a burst of youthful enthusiasm.
“You must be really good. You have amazing reviews on Yelp.”
My subjective feelings are overwhelmingly upbeat; she radiates positivity and childlike energy. It’s hard to believe she has trouble with relationships. She reminds me of an old friend from high school. As she starts to talk, however, I discover that my subjective and induced feelings are far less sunny.
As she speaks, I start to notice tension building in my body. I have trouble focusing on what she’s saying. I sense that there is a conflict between what she feels and what she reveals. I also have the overwhelming impulse to move away from her, a clear enactment of what other people probably experience in her company.
I can see that she’s working hard at being liked and not at being herself; this constant fervor for approval puts pressure on both of us and is a likely outcome of her masked low self-esteem. As she chats on and on, I start to feel infected by her anxiety and begin to disassociate. Soon, I’m not listening at all.
Since relating to others is so complicated for Sandra, I decide to place her in a group. This will give me a chance to study her in action, observe how she relates to others, and see how others respond to her.
Almost immediately, the group members have the same confused reaction to Sandra. They like her at first, but then quickly grow frustrated with her. Something about her seems inauthentic. What’s more, she’s an abysmal listener, forever giving unsolicited advice or trying to cheer people up. She’s caretaking rather than relating.
As the group members start to voice their frustration with her, Sandra becomes tearful.
“No one here likes me. I knew this would happen.”
A member ventures a response.
“I like you. But you’re always giving advice. It’s stressful.”
“I like helping people.”
“But you’re hiding behind that. You never share your real feelings with us.”
It was true. Sandra is so busy trying to please that she never lets anyone get close to her; she hides behind a persona. To open a new pathway in relating and disrupt this pattern, I needed to shake things up a bit; take her in an entirely new direction.
“Sandra, tell us about an unhappy time in your life.”
“Why? Who wants to hear something like that?”
“Tell us an unhappy story about you. Any that comes to mind.”
Sandra relates a childhood memory. She can’t remember how old she is, but she’s in bed. It’s late at night and her parents are arguing in the kitchen. Her father’s booming voice frightens her. This happens when he’s drunk. Sandra often defends her mom, but is too afraid to leave her room. She curls up in bed shaking and crying.
The yelling stops. Suddenly Sandra’s father bursts into her bedroom:
“Stop it! You’ve got nothing to cry about.”
Sandra wails. He pulls her out of bed and into the hallway, opens the front door of the house and pushes her out onto the porch.
“You can’t come in until you stop crying. Crying makes you ugly!”
He slams the door and locks it.
Everyone is stunned by Sandra’s story.
“What a nightmare for a child to have to go through!”
“This is the first time I feel like I’m seeing the real you.”
“Your father was a monster. You deserve better.”
It’s the first time Sandra’s shared this story with anyone. Receiving such support and understanding from others is a rare experience for Sandra. She cries openly; her tears are accepted by all.
Overtime, as Sandra’s anxiety dissipates, she discovers she doesn’t have to work hard to be liked. She begins to listen better and shares her genuine responses to others. She no longer masks her insecurities.
Most importantly, the group became the family Sandra never had; accepting, loving, and patient. As she internalizes the positive feelings of the group members, she begins to evict her father’s critical voice. Being true to herself lowered her anxiety and enabled her to develop much healthier and rewarding relationships.
A Living Therapy
Every profession has its share of wackos, and unfortunately, the world of mental health is no different. When therapists stop attending their own therapy, they put themselves and their patients at risk. They are more likely to act in destructive or counterproductive ways. They may become inappropriately impatient, even rejecting of their patients. To fend off the intense feelings aroused in sessions, they may relate robotically or treat patients with cold indifference.
Psychotherapy is a living art. Therapists that maintain the thrill of self-discovery in their own lives have a lot to offer their patients. Like good parents, they model how to live with an open heart and mind and, above all, to keep growing. www.seangrover.com