originally posted March 02, 2010
Psychoanalysis and Freud, though somewhat archaic, continue to have a hold on the American psyche. When I ask people what they expect the process of therapy to be like, I hear a lot of comments about they’re going to come in and vent, talk about the past, blame their parents for their current problems, and figure out why things are the way they are, as if the therapist has some magic insight into their clients' lives. I also hear quite a few notions about therapists- that therapists are crazier than everyone else, that we get off on other peoples’ pain, that we need to be needed, etc.
Ladies and gentlemen- therapists are people. Human, fallible people. We think and feel and behave, just like everyone else- sometimes in self-defeating, irrational ways, and sometimes not. In the human drive for self-actualization, we hope that we can learn from those self-defeating, irrational times in order to apply new goals in our lives and be able to use this experience to aid our clients. While the therapist is not there to be your friend, we are not just blank slates. It’s wonderful to work out the relationship challenges that come up in the therapy room, but it really goes back to what Albert Ellis calls consistently and vigorously challenging your way of thinking so that you will not only feel better, but get better. It’s a lifelong job, and is hard work that even therapists aren’t able to do ALL of the time.
At any rate, you don’t have to know the intimate details of your therapist’s life. It’s not their session, it’s yours, so don’t feel like you have to ask. At the same time, accept that they have lives and as a person who is charged with helping people live their lives to the fullest, sometimes your interpretation of the therapist’s life may cause conflict. My mom has often told me about an elementary school teacher of hers that she once saw at the skating rink smoking a cigarette! (Horror of horrors!) She was totally disillusioned that her teacher had feet, let alone that she wore poodle skirts while roller skating and smoking.
I can tell you I quit smoking, but as a specialist in human sexuality, my life would probably seem pretty shocking if I came to therapy telling my clients every detail. But the goal of therapy is to work on the irrational beliefs (aka cognitive distortions) that you have- in a very tangible, non-magical sort of way, with the goal of teaching you how to be relatively un-upset and not should-ing all over yourself. That has little to do with whether I have tattoos or with my wild and crazy nights wearing poodle skirts at the roller rink. In other words, we might find we have some things in common during out work together, and we might find that other things we don't- but the process of therapy is to see how the story you're telling yourself in your life is or isn't working for you. That work doesn't work doesn't change because you saw me buy junk food at the bodega or because you saw me come out of a shitty movie and realized that I'm as human as everyone else.