Dinner parties when you’re a psychologist can be a trip. I am invariably asked, “What do you do?” and when I reply, eyes grow wide, a follow-on question hanging in the air: “You aren’t going to psychoanalyze me, are you?” “Nope,” I say with a smile. “I’m off the clock.”
Here’s the thing about what I get to do—essentially sit behind closed doors and have courageous conversations with incredibly bright, talented people that they aren’t having with anyone else in their lives—I get to be a part of a process that creates better leaders and better lovers. I am entrusted with truths that most people are not. It’s an honor and a privilege. It’s an art and a science. The six years I spent in graduate school, and the ones that have followed helped me learn how to best be human with another person in a room.
There a lot of assumptions made about therapy. The phrases “psychological health” and “mental illness” conjure and stir up all kinds associations and images in peoples’ minds: Let me assure you, modern day mental health treatment looks nothing like anything you watched on “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Next.” My clients haven’t fainted on a Freudian chaise while I mine the depths of their dreams, scribbling notes while I nod in silence save for the occasional “mmmmm…. say more.”
Sometimes they take off their shoes. I tell them if they have spinach in their teeth from lunch. They usually find their favorite spot to sit but may play a few weeks of musical chairs to decide where they prefer to sink back and breathe. The settle in. They get comfortable. They see my apologetic chagrin when we discover someone else used the last tissue from the box. They practice having uncomfortable conversations with me so that they can become more relationally adept with other people in their world. Sometimes they throw pillows across the room. I occasionally throw one back. I let them know if their mascara is smeared down their cheeks before they step back into their life.
Here’s a secret from the shrink: the people who talk with me each week probably sound and look a lot more like you than you think.
I’m going to pull back the curtain and share what I am privy to as a psychologist. Here’s a real picture of what is happening behind my closed door while the white noise machine whirrs.
Who sits on the couch?
They are physicians, attorneys, executives, and people you watch on the nightly news. They are electricians and engineers. They are professors, parents, and project managers. They are politicians (perhaps therapy should be a requirement for everyone holding public office). They are top military leaders, therapists, and teachers.
They are me. They are you.
Why are these people in therapy?
They struggle with boundaries and have difficulty saying no.
They have hit a ceiling they don’t understand.
They are stuck.
They are talking about the people in their lives who are not in therapy.
They are underemployed and financially pressed.
They aren’t sleeping.
They are drinking too much wine.
They have been swallowed by grief.
They are overwhelmed by becoming new parents.
They are having difficulties starting families.
Their relationships are breaking down.
They can’t remember the last time they had mind-blowing sex with their spouse.
They abhor their bodies.
They are diagnosed with autoimmune conditions.
They have cancer.
They don’t have a clear sense of who they are.
They are burned out.
They are trying to figure out how to date and find a non-creep in a swipe-left-or-right world.
They believe they are imposters and worry someone will find out what is behind the insecure façade.
They fear what is next.
They fear what may not be possible.
My clients prioritize and protect a fifty-minute hour in their schedule each week not because they are broken. They sit with me because they want to be better. They are highly motivated to bring the best versions of themselves to their work and their relationships so that they can reach a tier of success that seldom can be achieved without strong self-awareness.
People are not their symptoms. They are humans wired for survival who developed ways of moving through the world that were at some point adaptive, but no longer work.
I don’t treat “anxious” people. I come alongside of people who are frightened, exhausted, on edge and can’t turn the volume down on their fears about the future. I don’t treat anorexics. I meet with people who use food as emotional currency and spend it in a way that is leaving their bodies, minds, relationships, and souls bankrupt. I don’t treat depressed people. I strategize and share with people struggling with energy and motivation who have been temporarily disconnected from hope.
As a psychologist, I have had the experience of watching many different people turn the doorknob and cross a threshold to sit on my couch. My office is a place where someone pays them very close attention. A space where they are carefully listened to and more fully seen. Symptoms may be the same and stories may be similar but each person provides me with a powerful view of the unique way in which they are experienced by the world outside of my office.
My work has made me laugh. It has made me cry. It has taught me. It has transformed me. I believe truth is truly stranger than fiction. I know the tremendous, breathtaking beauty that can come from ashes. I have bore witness to the resilience and strength of the human spirit.
I could top any dinner party story, but instead I sip my sparking water and lime politely and smile. In my life, I’ve learned to speak less, observe more, and listen closely (especially for what is not being spoken out loud). All the while I know deep in my heart that somehow I have the crazy good fortune of spending my days sitting in a chair that gives me the grandest glimpse into mankind that anyone could dream.