The two questions I’m most commonly asked when people find out I used to be a therapist are: “What made you go into that field?” and “What made you leave it?” Both totally answerable in 10 words or less, right?
As for the first one, the embarrassing truth I almost never say out loud is that I wanted to help people. I know, I know, what a saint, huh? That’s what I feel like when I tell people that.
But it’s boringly, naively true. You certainly don’t go into it for the money. Accordingly to my highly scientific Google search, the average salary for those with the degree I have (Master's in Social Work) is a whopping $40,000 a year.
Why did I leave? That gets more complicated. Because I wasn’t really helping anyone? Because my days were filled with paperwork, bickering with insurance companies, and questioning the sanity of my fellow “professionals?" I don’t know. I got laid off and couldn’t make myself go back. I meant to, I just never did.
That might sound strange. All those years of grad school. And student loans (!). And unpaid field practica. It’s tempting to be bitter and pissed off at myself for making the wrong choice and “wasting” all that time and money, but I’m usually not. I learned a ton in that field, and what you learn about people can be useful wherever you go. As can the ability to diagnose people you don’t like (trust me).
In the interest of sharing what I gained from life as a therapist, here are six of the things I picked up about the world:
1. We’re all afraid of the same things: being alone, unloved, ignored, made fun of, considered ugly, etc.
That’s the human condition, and we pretty much only differ in how well we cover it up. Nearly everyone who walked in my office door talked about some variation of these themes -- from the professional woman in a business suit to the guy who was living in a group home trying to get his life together. Once I realized that, I felt much better about humanity in a weird way. We’re all in this together. If you think you’re the only terrified, neurotic person in the room, I can assure you that you're not.
2. And speaking of terrified -- you would be astounded by how many people have anxiety disorders or, at the very least, several symptoms thereof.
Between Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the prevalence is pretty surprising. I don’t know what the most recent stats say, but I bet the numbers are even higher. As someone who suffers from Panic Disorder, I find this reassuring.
Now, when I’m sitting in a business meeting fighting off a panic attack, I look around the room and know many of the people there have gone through exactly the same thing. We all feel weird about it and hope no one finds out we have it. Again, we’re all in this together. I like that.
3. We all just want to be heard.
One of my field practica took place in an acute inpatient psychiatric ward. Every once in a while you’d hear “Code Green, [location]” over the PA system and staff would rush over to help. Code Green meant a patient was acting out physically and had to be restrained and taken to the “Quiet Room."
It soon became apparent that there were many more Code Greens when certain nurses were in charge, and other nurses referred to them as “Code Happy." One of the nurses -- I’ll call her Maureen -- almost never called codes. In fact, some patients would ask for her specifically when they felt agitated. I was fascinated by that, and asked her about it one day. I’ve never forgotten what she said.
“People just want to be heard," she said. Nine times out of 10, if you just sit down and listen to someone who’s upset, they’ll calm down. And a lot of the time, she told me, “They have a goddamn valid complaint.”
Obviously that wouldn't always work in an acute psychiatric situation, but it helped more than it hurt from what I could see. I've tried to apply Maureen’s advice in my life and it’s sometimes been successful there, too.
4. The genders are a million times more alike than we think -- or more alike than I thought, anyway.
This goes back to my previous points. We’re all worried about the same things and we all face a certain amount of fear day-to-day. That’s a pretty significant commonality, isn’t it? We’ve read so much of that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus crap that it’s poisoned us to see each other mainly in terms of our differences. I'm pretty sure that’s a bad thing. I try to think about that when I get pissed off at a guy for some super bro-ey display. It doesn’t always help, but it’s worth a shot.
5. Most of us have personality disorders.
Not really, I'm just seeing if you’re paying attention. But in truth, many of us do have several elements of a personality disorder or two (and I include myself in this). Don’t believe me? Look at the diagnostic criteria. See what I mean?
A mentor of mine from one of my field practica was at a meeting once where professionals were expressing annoyance about a few patients diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. It can be pretty challenging to deal (and, certainly, live) with and it’s one you hear about a lot. My mentor spoke up and said, “I totally understand where she [the patient] is coming from.” People gave her some side-eye and she said, “I understand Borderlines because I am one. Are you?” It got pretty quiet.
Meanwhile, here’s a terrible but therapeutic game to play at work: if you’re annoyed in a business meeting and feeling particularly passive-aggressive, start mentally diagnosing your colleagues and clients with personality disorders. It may amuse you and keep you from saying something career limiting.
6. Patterns are the bastard boyfriends we never break up with (or girlfriends, or whatever you’re into).
We fall in love with them early and stick with them even though they screw us over. Many of them we learned in childhood so they’re familiar, like a big mug of warm cocoa…laced with cyanide. We make the same mistakes again and again, and they feel good-bad or bad-good (depending on the stage of the disaster you’re in). They’re familiar, and familiar feels good. But cut that shit out, and (as soon as you do) please tell me how because I do the same thing.
This is very frustrating for therapists. We’re so excited when our clients start identifying negative patterns and we hope that means those patterns will end. Ha ha! It’s never that simple for people, but it sure can feel simple from the other side of the therapy office.
These are a few of the reasons I don’t regret all of the time and money I spent learning, and then practicing therapy. It was hard, sad, scary, and amazing, and I thank every person who ever sat down in my office and told me about their lives. I hope I helped. That’s all we’ve got, as therapists, and I hold onto it. I really hope I helped someone.