Today's blog post is intended for folks who rely on therapists/helpers/healers for support, and those who ARE the therapists/helpers/healers.
I practiced as a psychologist from 2011-2018 and am now a transformational coach for women. (The reason for the title change is so that I have the freedom to weave in the spiritual tools that have had a huge impact on my own healing journey, and as a psychologist, we are bound by whatever scope of practice is identified on our licenses. Using Reiki, Tarot, and the other spiritual modialities I now weave into my work was NOT part of my scope of practice as a psychologist.)
I knew ten years ago when I transitioned from the field of advertising into the field of psychology that helping others was part of the reason I was placed on this planet. I continue to believe that, and although my title and tools may shift over time, my mission to support others stays strong.
I wanted to let you into my inner world of what a psychologist "should" be. Because I don't hear this spoken about often, and we certainly didn't discuss this in graduate school. To put it simply, I thought that being a psychologist meant that I had to have EVERYTHING figured out. I needed to have all the answers, I needed to solve all the problems, and I certainly needed to have a bright and shiny life of my own, having put all of the necessary psychological principles into action to address my own challenges.
Now, this notion is pretty commonplace amongst those of us whose job it is to help others. There is this idea that we need to be fully healed and perfect before we can do our work. I have spoken openly about this with other psychologists, coaches, and a variety of therapists, and they all resonate with this.
And although it IS finally becoming more acceptable to speak openly about this, what I felt the need to do for years was hide my true self from the world and suppress anything that was not working - to shift from being a human to attempting to be a superhuman.
My life during 2014-2016 was filled with darkness and pain. I won't rehash the details here, as I've already written about it on my website, but it was truly my dark night of the soul. My marriage (a relationship of 15 years) was burning to the ground. To put it mildly, it brought up ALL THE THINGS. We diligently tried to make things work, but ended up separating, and then divorcing, and that whole two year period of time drained me to my core - especially as I was ALSO trying to be a mom to my young son and deal with a very challenging role of working as a psychologist with extremely high needs students in the public schools of South Central LA. Many of these students were intensely depressed and suicidal.
When I showed up to work everyday I wanted to shut my door and never come out. And some days I actually DID have to shut my door so that my students didn't see me crying. It was really, really rough. Most days, though, I somehow had to step into a new persona and be everybody's helper - and the only way I could do that was to deeply suppress my own pain.
It didn't always work out nicely. Because I was suffering quite intensely, it leaked out of me as irritability, extreme burnout, anxiety, apathy, and/or a number of other unhelpful attributes. I also looked exhausted, was carrying around extra weight, and was definitely not physically well.
I became hyperaware of others' reactions to me as I moved through all of this - because while I was most definitely placing this notion of "psychologist as a perfect human" on myself, the truth is that many people DO expect psychologists to show up that way. There is an expectation that you fix people and you don't bring your own stuff into it (if, God forbid, you have any "stuff").
I also worked for a highly respected charter school organization that had a "do whatever it takes" mentality for our students, because we served marginalized communities. Burnout and lack of self-care ran rampant in the organization as we all rallied around our mission of social justice and positive outcomes for our students. So, the pressure I felt was even greater because of this.
I'm writing this post because I want to remind everyone that folks who work in the field of helping others (no matter what their title is) are HUMAN beings. We have our good days and bad days. We go through all of life's ups and downs like everyone does. Although I'm in a much better place in my life, I still have rough spots and need my own support. I've gotten way better at being kind to myself when this occurs, but it's honestly something I have to be consciously aware of checking whenever I slip back into the mentality of needing to be perfect.
It always hits me hard when I see colleagues and other first responders in action after school shootings and other crises. The expecation is that the helpers will show up and serve. They will put all their own stuff to the side and get to work. And while we can do that for a certain period of time, it only lasts for so long before we collapse. And unfortunately, a lot of people who aren't in this profession simply do not understand this - so it's our job to speak about it openly. We cannot and should not reinforce the expectation that folks in our profession are limitless in our capacity to serve. This is why I'm passionate about helping my colleagues realize the importance of self-care, valuing their work appropriately, and allowing themselves to be human.
I think we all know that people who are drawn to the professions of psychology, coaching, healing, etc. tend to be more selfless than most. We have tendencies to suppress our own needs and put others first. We are often extraordinarily empathic and feel the pain of others deeply. We undercharge for our services. Because of all of these things, burnout is very real. And ironically, our tendencies to serve others so intensely end up hurting us and the people we want to help in the end if we feel completely spent - that is, unless we practice radical self-care and boundary setting.
Because I know what it's like to be in this profession, I am now very aware of remembering this when I seek help from my own therapist and other support people. I do believe that it is our responsibility, as the seekers of help, to remember that we never really know what somebody else is going through, even if it is their job to help us. And they may be really good at that job, and be doing all they can to take care of themselves despite whatever is happening in their own lives, but they still remain human beings.
Of course, we as helpers/healers/therapists do need to take responsibility for our own stuff. We need to work with our own therapists and support people. We need to practice exquisite self-care and boundary setting. We need to know our limits and when to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that we are bringing the best version of ourselves possible.
(One thing that troubles me is that I was not trained in any of this during grad school. There was a very brief lesson on self-care at the very end of my three year program, but it was extremely superficial. We never spoke about boundaries. There was a lot that I had to learn on my own, and my colleagues say the same.)
I am not expecting pity from the folks who read this. I am hyperaware of the dangers of slipping into victim mode and take responsibility, as many in my field do, for self-care. But it is a two way street, and those of us who rely on others for support should never forget that they are humans too. They are not doormats.
In the end, it's all about having compassion for one another. In speaking with a friend the other day, she reminded me that nowadays, people LIKE to work with helpers/healers/therapists who are imperfect. Who've been through some stuff. It makes us more relatable. It lessens the old school hierarchy of therapist on a pedestal and client as a needy victim. I love this paradigm shift. I strive to empower others with the work that I do, and have found that the best way I can do that is to be as human as possible with my own stories and challenges, while offering up the tools and practices that have helped me through. It is my greatest honor to be able to serve in this way.
Today, I wanted to shed some light into the inner world of being a psychologist so that those of you who are unfamiliar can have a greater understanding, and bring greater compassion, to those of us who do this work. And I hope that everyone reading this who does work in this capacity remembers that it's 100% OKAY to be human.
Now I want to hear from you:
Please let me know in the comments below.