When someone asks me, “what is it like being a therapist?” I struggle. I always pause to think of a palatable and short-enough answer. As a trauma therapist, the stories I hear can be horrifying and complicated. Yet, I also get to witness and participate in the joys and high points in people’s lives.
Here is what I wish I could say to people when they ask me the big question…
As unsurprising as this may seem, therapists are human. We come with our own family histories and our own baggage. It should be known that most therapists, are under some level of supervision early in their careers and we are encouraged to unpack our baggage early on.
What happens, though, to the clinicians in private practice who don’t have supervisors? What happens to the therapist who grows older and gathers new life experiences– new baggage?
We continue to work and grow as professionals. After all, the ultimate goal is to improve continually; be better clinicians for our clients. We attain this by completing tens of thousands of hours of counseling and therapy over the years. We get our continuing education credits, go to conferences, and attend
After surveying some therapists, here are some of their answers about the cost of being a therapist:
“Feeling too tired when I get home to engage with my own family.”
“Gaining weight from sitting all day.”
“Feeling like I want to quit the profession altogether.”
“Worrying about clients while I’m driving or when I’m at home.”
“Feeling unsafe and suspicious of people in my life.”
“Getting mad about the legal system, our whole system, the status of our country and our world.”
“It’s important to understand that being a therapist is a difficult job. To be completely honest, it’s not just a job. It’s actually a lifestyle. We can’t just simply “turn off.”
As I watch movies, as I people watch, as I observe interactions between children and parents in grocery stores, I can’t help but conceptualize what is happening. I can’t help but diagnose Iron Man with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and PTSD.
Being a therapist is a complex role because we witness pain, but also growth. We help our clients navigate through hardships and crappy circumstances. We hear stories of abuse, neglect, and trauma. But something we also hear about is the human spirit and resilience. Just like there is vicarious trauma, there is vicarious resilience. This is the concept of gaining strength and empowerment from our clients own strengths and victories.
Evidence of resilience and positive change can be difficult to detect sometimes. It can be as simple as a client having the energy to shower and clean up that day, whereas before they couldn’t even get out of bed. It can be merely showing up to a session when they really didn’t feel up to it. Clients who make small strides week by week give me hope that I too can progress…that I also can overcome my personal challenges and that I don’t need to run a marathon every weekend. Sometimes, the evidence is very apparent, like when a client tells you they have been sober for 2 years or when they leave their abusive partner. These obvious wins are like treats. They merely make therapists want to keep on going.
The same therapists who were surveyed about the cost of being a therapist also went on to tell their experiences with vicarious resilience. Here’s what they said:
“It’s a great feeling when a client thanks you for changing their life trajectory.”
“Seeing parents get along with their kids again gives me hope.”
“My batteries recharge when clients say they like coming to therapy.”
“When a client forgives their perpetrator, it’s encouraging and reminds me to have mercy too.”
“Getting a goodbye from a client that is done with therapy is like seeing a baby bird fly from the nest.”
“Clients showing emotions after being flat and numb for so long reminds me of being human.”
Treating individuals and families is like riding waves. You never know what the size of the wave will be when it comes at you. You must be prepared to skillfully and safely ride each one and make it to shore. This process with each client, hour by hour, day by day, can be exhausting yet rewarding. This position comes with a lot of privilege and responsibility. Therapy is serious but can at times be lighthearted. You get to witness joy, pride, accomplishment, but also pain and sorrow.
Cristal Martinez Acosta has been serving as a mental health clinician in the El Paso, Texas Borderland area since 2011. Cristal is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Approved Supervisor (LPC-S) in the state of Texas and a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) through the National Board of Certified Counselors. She graduated with honors from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Sociology. Then she attended New Mexico State University, where she earned a Master of Arts in Counseling and Guidance with a 4.0 GPA.
Cristal has experience working with youth and adults who have been affected by traumatic events. Her areas of interest are parenting support, childhood abuse, domestic violence, anxiety, high-risk youth, depression, Reality Therapy, and immigration issues. She is certified in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and the region’s only Level One Trainer in Parent Child Interaction Therapy (via PCIT International). She is also trained, and pursuing certification, in EMDR. She has taught licensed professionals, school counselors, and other community members in the areas of Trauma Informed Care, PCIT, and TF-CBT. She also supervises developing counseling professionals and students and is currently accepting applications for LPC-Interns. To learn more about Cristal, or to listen to her free mental health podcast, please visit www.throughtheeyesofatherapist.org.