Our attitudes about what we are doing in therapy can set us up. Mistaken ideas can lead to self-criticism and doubt, or they can guide our thinking toward more achievable and satisfying ends. I began as a therapist with many mistaken ideas about the way the world, people, and even how I worked.
Mistaken idea # 1: Saving the world
When I was first out of college, I wanted to save the world, and I thought I knew how to do it. It took about six months of throwing myself into my work with teens to lose faith in my superpowers. Over the next two years, I burned out pretty severely. I became depressed and angry at others for their uncooperativeness and unresponsiveness to what I considered, my brilliance. Others did not seem as interested in change as I was.
I took that experience and eventually completed a master’s thesis called “Emotional Burnout in Youth Workers.” I ultimately decided on a slightly more realistic goal. Maybe the most I could offer others was the opportunity to change themselves. That has worked much better for them and me. “Providing opportunities” was something I could do.
A better way, Part 1
Since those days, I focus on something more within my control. Now my goal is to offer my clients a useful conversation or experience that might help them with whatever is troubling them. And even that is only partly in my control. Some do not come to counseling of their own will. For example, many teens, some spouses, and all court-mandated clients come under duress. My goal then is to do my part to make the session helpful.
This change from “saving” others to offering them helpful conversations and experiences has set me up to be more successful and content with what I am doing in each session. I can measure each session by a more achievable expectation. Now I am looking at whether I was able to offer them a helpful conversation or experience today. When sessions are seen this way, it opens up the possibility of doing or saying useful things. I can be less demanding of myself. And I can be more creative in each session.
Mistaken Idea # 2: Obsessing is not helping
Another attitude change is a diminishing eagerness to obsess about my clients’ problems in my off-hours. This tendency did not change because I have lost my passion or compassion. Instead, I found that my over-focus on solving clients’ problems was not helpful for them. Nor was it beneficial for me. It just wore me out without helping my client. Our work can be so engaging that we need to learn how to set some limits around our obsession with helping our clients with their problems.
A better way, Part 2
I learned that I was most effective in each session when I could fully be with my clients. My goal is to be fully emotionally present. It took me years to learn that the trick to being fully present in the sessions. I needed to develop a “discipline of mind” that limited those consuming thoughts about my clients between sessions. Paradoxically, my in-session ability to be fully present improved in proportion to my success in containing my clients’ out-of-session overthinking.
I was glad to think about my clients to develop a therapeutic strategy. But over-thinking about my clients was counterproductive. Repeatedly go over my clients’ troubles did not make me better at being with them. This emotional boundary-setting process was necessary for both the therapy I provided and my clients’ welfare. I was a better person and therapist when I was able to keep this discipline-of-mind boundary firmly in place. I could not let my drive to help my clients fill up the free moments of my non-therapy time.
Furthermore, I found I was not very good at predicting the surprising things that spontaneously would come up in a client’s life between sessions. I found I was much better off and a better therapist when I focused on being in the best emotional, relational, and spiritual condition for each session I had with the client. My clients always seemed in a different place than I had predicted they would be anyway. Better to save my energy for the real conversation than an imagined one I obsessed about between sessions.
I talk about this further in “It’s a marathon and not a sprint”