One of the more enjoyable aspects of being a therapist is sitting with those cherished clients who think you are just the most wonderful person on the earth. Let’s be honest—we all love the adoration and affirmation, deserved or not, that occasionally comes our way. This also happens to be one of the most dangerous situations we face.
That danger comes in two forms. First, we might become afraid that our clients will learn that we less than they hope perhaps becoming disillusioned or even hostile. If I am guided by the fear of being found out, I may become timid and afraid. I will spend my energy on image management.
But even more dangerous is the possibility that we fool ourselves into believing that our clients’ view of us is more accurate than the others at home or work. And if I fall into this trap, I might just be tempted to believe that my clients view of me. And this may feed an irritation and increase our discontent that others are not treating us in that special way our clients are.
When guided by either of these feelings, we will make mistakes. We will act in ways other than who we really are. We will not be our authentic selves.
So how do we avoid this inauthenticity? It begins with recognition that whenever we walk into the therapy room we leave parts of ourselves outside. Feeling grumpy? I leave it outside. An argument with my spouse or child? I leave it outside. Worried about finances or what my boss is up to? I leave it outside. The role of the therapist requires us to bring our best selves—our undistracted selves, our edited selves—into the room. Nothing wrong with that.
Therapy as performance art
The role of a therapist is in some ways performance art, not exactly like theater but not entirely different either. On an hourly basis our clients correctly expect us to be fully engaged in their lives. Our own lives and our reactions to our lives must be kept at the margins if not out of the room altogether. It’s not that we are pretending exactly. Rather we are editing and containing the moods and emotions that might interfere with our focus on the client. That is the right way for a therapist to behave in a session and that is what we are paid to do. It is part of the emotional labor that we carry each day.
But we must remember that all parts, including the grumpy, irritated, and anxious parts, are really part of who I am. My therapy self expresses a limited subset of who I rally am. My people I live with see more of the whole of me than anyone else.
And that is exactly how, if we allow it, we can get confused. We have many hours of sessions where we are performing as this “best version of ourselves”. And it is possible to not notice how our perception of who we really are is being altered. And we’re in serious trouble if we begin to believe that the in-the-therapy-room version is the whole of us. Frankly, I wish that in my real life with the people I live with saw more of the understanding, giving, and fully engaged person as I am as a therapist. But I must stay clear about who is the “real me.”
Confusion about who is the “real me” can at a minimum lead to an annoying arrogance. Or at it’s worst may put one’s career in jeopardy because of the poor choices and ethical lapses that emerge. I believe it is this process more than any other that causes otherwise good and decent therapists to have affairs with clients. They fall in love with the adoration of a client who “appreciates them more than others”. They get confused about which is the real self. The fall in love with the version of the self that the client sees not seeing the distortions of my client’s perceptions.
The remedy? We need to monitor for those dangerous self-delusions and self-distortions. What do I mean?
I think most therapists have enough self awareness to be at least semi-conscious of the self-delusions and self-distortions that seduce us. These, of course, come out of the yearning and desires we develop as we try to compensate for our injuries in our past. Those who rarely felt special are tempted by words of praise and adoration. Those who usually felt anonymous are drawn to those who notice us. We need to know where we are vulnerable and keep our guard up.
But even failing that, we need to listen for the honest feedback from the relational world around us. It is our friends, family, and colleagues who will attempt to give us the honest information we need. At first, they will usually offer us nonverbal feedback. If we can perceive it, we can self-correct. But even if we miss those signals, there are usually some who will attempt to verbally offer their insights. We need to invite that feedback and take it to heart.
The challenge, of course, is accepting the feedback. We will be tempted to minimize it, defend against it, and fight it off as on some level unfair. And yet even in those cases where the delivery is not the best, there may be some truth in it that might help us correct. We need to stay open.
In the end, you are the only one who can hold yourself accountable to maintaining an accurate view of yourself. To be authentic. No one else has enough insight into your internal conversations floating in and out of awareness. You must do it or pay the price that those self-delusions extract from your life.
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