Whenever I go to a neighborhood block party or some other social event where my usual safety net of friends is absent, I often find myself dreading an inevitable question-- "What is it that you do for a living?" I can’t count the number of times that someone has responded “I hope you’re not analyzing ME!” after I’ve disclosed that I’m a psychologist. In the moment, I feel shutdown, defensive, and at a loss. I want to say that my hope in working with clients is that they feel deeply understood, connected with someone else, and not analyzed as some kind of science project. I want to say that their seeming discomfort with therapy might be adding to the stigma of mental health issues in subtle and potentially toxic ways. I want to say that I’m also a person and I like to make friends and talk about the latest podcasts and my kid at neighborhood block parties. What I usually end up saying is something equally if not more inane like “You’d have to pay me for that first!.” I confirm people’s preexisting beliefs about psychologists as cold money-seekers rather than seizing an opportunity for both of us to leave feeling a little more understood.
I’ve been sitting on this idea of our collective ambivalence toward therapists for a long time. It started when I saw a psychologist as a graduate student. At the time, I was already seeing my own clients, and I was surprised by my conflicting emotions toward my therapist. I felt grateful for my therapist’s listening ear, his non-judgmental and accepting perspective, his objective advice, but I also kind of hated him. I resented how he unilaterally got to sit and listen to my darkest thoughts and deepest vulnerabilities. I felt like implicit in this arrangement was the idea that he was all-knowing and I was “less than”. Julie Schumacher, author of the Black Box, captured my feelings perfectly when she wrote:
“Talking to a therapist, I thought, was like taking your clothes off and then taking your skin off, and then having the other person say, "Would you mind opening up your rib cage so that we can start?”
I wish I had brought up my own ambivalence years ago in therapy so we could name a tension that was assuredly in the room and possibly getting in the way of our work together. I hope my own clients feel comfortable and bold enough to name challenging feelings that are present in our work together. I’m sure if you asked my therapist, he would have told you the same thing I tell my own clients—that it’s a deep honor and privilege to be a psychologist and that the therapeutic process is a vehicle toward a client making changes for themselves. Rather than a therapist being “all knowing” or “mind readers”, we have a specific expertise in helping clients navigate the therapeutic process-- the same therapeutic process therapists seek when they find themselves in crisis. We learn how to ask questions so that people can more deeply understand themselves and in turn be understood by others. The therapeutic process necessitates a certain one sidedness—the beauty of therapy is that it’s a space to focus only on what the client needs in their own life apart from everyone else’s’ expectations and demands. Ultimately, allowing myself to be vulnerable in therapy in front of someone else was painful and challenging and deeply rewarding.
It’s fair to feel ambivalent about psychologists as it speaks to the core of our ambivalence about intimacy and being vulnerable. We want to be known and accepted for being our flawed selves and at the same time it feels risky and uncomfortable to let the darker parts of ourselves be known by others. What if I’m judged or rejected for the very things I judge and reject in myself?
The next time I’m told in mildly horrified tones “I hope you’re not analyzing me!!!”, I’ll respond “I hope I’m not analyzing anyone… Now let me tell you about my new favorite podcast”.