We all have good and bad days; that is a given. Some magical days, everything seems to align itself perfectly and things go just as planned. Other days, we need a little extra shot of caffeine and inspiration to carry us through our work. The questions I find myself constantly asking are: must I always maintain a somewhat maniacal focus on work in between sessions with clients? How about during sessions? Does it make me an incompetent therapist if my mind wanders from time to time and I mentally step away from my role as a therapist? How will I always put my personal troubles aside and regain emotional composure just in time for sessions the following hour, day, or week?
In fact, doubt creeps into my conscience while just writing about it. Is it possible to be 'on' your game for approximately 240 days of the year (with only weekends for relaxation)? Or is it okay to have plenty of ‘off ‘ days in this profession?
Being that I have yet to earn the title of "seasoned therapist" in this field, my energy and enthusiasm continue to run high. Just as I'm sure most of you do, I want to feel shielded from burnout and compassion fatigue and be mentally fresh each workday. While I pride myself for having consistent diligence, meticulous preparation and an infatuation for what I do, despite strong wishes and efforts, I too have felt disheveled and distracted at work. Life's noises and turbulences are often too hard to ignore; even more so when the patients in front of you remind you of that very fact.
So what is the answer? Must we pretend to be superhuman in face of other's pains and uncertainties, or must we be more honest with ourselves and accept our personal vulnerabilities and limits? I believe that there isn’t one right answer; it ultimately depends on the situation. Being that everything we do, say, or don't say, is for the benefit and best interest of our clients, we must always be cautious professionals. We mustn’t appear unhinged or unprepared. However, with that said, it is sometimes necessary and equally therapeutic for both parties if we let our guards down. Whether we like it or not, we are emotional beings; our training (be it rigorous or not) does not exempt us from that fact. Its perfectly okay to tell a patient that you are tired after he comments on the puffiness of your eyes, or that you need to reschedule a session due to personal matters. It does not make you any less of a therapist. It’s okay to get tearful alongside a mother mourning the loss of her child; in fact, it shows you truly understand her pain. It’s okay to admit that you don’t have all the answers but that you are determined and confident that you will find them. It’s okay to not want to go into work today and "help people”; it most likely means you need a break or a moment to free your mind of responsibility. It’s even okay if that break is five minutes between patients where you go outside, soak in the sun, and think of the bubble bath you will be taking later.
It’s all more than okay. C'est la vie (of a therapist); it’s all part of the job. There is no need to be invincible or put pressure on yourself to be flawless--not in life nor in sessions. Instead, take those breaks your mind is asking for, practice what you preach so diligently in sessions, believe in your competence, and remember that the most important factor for therapeutic change to occur is the patient-therapist connection. By demonstrating your humanness rather than a herculean ideal, you create a warm environment and the therapeutic alliance you hope for in your work together.
Stephanie Dargoltz is a bilingual counselor who works at a private practice in South Florida with children, adolescents, and adults. Her interests include Sport Psychology/Counseling and plans to pursue these careers in the near future.