A therapist in therapy
Updated: Aug 5
Why would I want to see a therapist who needs their own therapist?
Once upon a time, years ago, I was conversing with a close relative about some emotional problems I was experiencing towards the end of grad school. I was away from home, juggling multiple balls in the air while doubting myself every second of every damn day. This relative said to me "you're training to be a psychologist, can't you just do the psychology on yourself?" Ah...I bet most of us mental health professionals have gotten the same naïve, borderline tone-deaf comment. "Be your own therapist!" No one ever says to an oral surgeon "remove your own wisdom teeth!" See how ridiculous that sounds?
To be fair, after years of practice I do believe I've gotten better at putting into practice many of the strategies that I recommend to my clients (#IMeditatedTodayMotherfucker!). But I sincerely think I wouldn't be where I am today without the support of my own therapist. So here are some highlights from my experience to emphasize why a therapist might be in therapy.
1. Therapists are at risk for vicarious trauma.
Trauma is prevalent across socioeconomic spaces, and even the most well insulated therapists are likely to be exposed to one tragedy after another. And we are often overworked, underpaid, and taken for granted. This is a recipe for burnout or verbal diarrhea to coworkers if said therapist does not have an organized, safe space to process the experience of serving others who have been marginalized and mistreated.
Before I had my therapist, I found myself spilling my guts to any coworker who would hear me (while maintaining confidentiality of course). One of the first little victories I noticed after a few months of therapy was that I no longer felt the urge to constantly vent about what my clients were going through. I knew I could put a pin in whatever emotional shitshow I was experiencing and hold it in until Friday afternoons when I would see my therapist.
2. Therapists experience grief and loss too.
I put off finding a therapist until I hit an emotional wall. My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in March of 2016. A year later she was in a nursing home and rapidly deteriorating. By June of 2017 I was meeting my therapist for the first time, and I have been going with relative consistency since then. Although I had been supporting several clients through emotional hardship at that point, the mere thought of losing my grandma was enough to break the core of my being. She died in September of 2017 and I was so glad that by then I had established a trusting relationship with a therapist who really got me.
Losing my grandmother-- one of the people who raised me--could have absolutely destroyed me psychologically. But it didn't. I had the space to cry, to process, to heal. It wasn't perfect, and I still experienced emotional ups and downs in the year after her death, but I have no doubt that the grief I felt could have cost me everything I worked so hard to build.
3. Therapists have imperfect families too
I knew it was time to see a therapist when I found myself disclosing to my supervisor that I was having constant fights with my father. To be clear, my father and I have healed since that dark period in our relationship...but I digress. My point is, I noticed that my personal life was leaking into my professional life in a way that was no longer appropriate. Supervision time was a sacred space to become the best possible professional and analyze the needs of my clients. It was not the space to agonize over a texting battle with my father.
Enter, my therapist. Over the years I have come to understand therapy as a place for me to process what's happening for me on a personal and emotional level as I engage in a very deeply personal and emotional profession. Does that make sense? When I have a clinical issue (e.g., "might this be bipolar disorder?" or "should this client see a specialist who's trained in EMDR?") I am more emotionally available to focus these questions with my supervisor. When it's a deeper personal issue (e.g., "OMG I am such a failure because I don't know bipolar disorder when I see it…my dad was right, this profession is bullshit!" or "Why the fuck didn't I learn EMDR? Am I so dumb that I can't figure out WTF EMDR is?! My dad was right, this profession is bullshit!"). My therapist is there to help me break down the fact that my father is an imperfect being who has learned how to love in a very complicated way, and sometimes I hear him in the back of my head telling me that my profession is bullshit. This is my therapist's job, not my supervisor's job. It's my job to know the difference.
4. Therapists have their own genetic shit too
Would you question the credentials of an orthopedist if they had a genetic predisposition to arthritis? Probably not, because no one is to blame for their own genetic makeup. But you might judge said orthopedist if they suffered from arthritis and never took care of it. Although the genetics of mental health disorders are not entirely well known, we do know that it often runs in families. Both my mother and her mother have endured a lifetime of Anxiety and Depression that affected everyone around them. Several members of my family have Alcoholism. There are even a few suspected cases of Bipolar Disorder, but it's not my job to diagnose my relatives.
This is part of my genetic story. It is but one piece of who I am. Having this information, I am responsible for organizing and supporting my own mental health so that my lingering self-doubt doesn't turn into a major depressive episode. So that my delight in the occasional beer doesn't turn into drinking to get through the day. So that my enthusiasm for my own work doesn't turn into mania. This is a big responsibility and I refuse to do it alone. But just like it's not my job to diagnose and treat my relatives, it's not my relatives' job or my partner's job to keep my mental health in check. It's mine. So I see a therapist. Almost every week.
TL;DR: I'm a therapist and I have my own therapist. I love my profession. I love myself. And I love my family. I do them all a favor by seeing a therapist. I see a therapist because I believe in my profession. Also, find a therapist who is working on their own shit.
Note: This blog post was originally published on September 18, 2020 and was republished with minor revisions on May 7, 2021.