When people find out I’m a therapist, they usually assume I chose my profession because I want to help others. While I derive a deep sense of satisfaction from doing just that, I mostly chose to become a therapist because it was the only line of work I could envision that would support me and a family, while at the same time holding my interest for a lifetime. Human beings are deeply intriguing to me, at least once (if) you get past the veneer, and I can’t imagine a more fascinating job. During my last vacation, I thought more deeply about the work I do and the ways it satisfies me. I came to some new insights about myself and how I feel about my clients which didn’t entirely surprise me, but that shed some new light on the way the practice of psychotherapy “feeds” me. I believe many therapists feel the same way.
For the most part, I find social conversation and even many friendships to be a less-than-satisfying experience. If you’ve read my post on narcissistic behavior, you already know how I feel: most people regard parties and the making of a new acquaintance as another opportunity for self-display, to talk about their own amazing experiences, success stories, etc., to elicit admiration from other people and make themselves feel good. Because I’m deeply curious about other people, I’m often eager to hear those stories; but when the narcissistic self-absorption feels too intense, I get tired. It also feels very lonely when the other person shows absolutely no interest in getting to know anything about me.
Among my closer acquaintances, too, people seem to look at me as if I don’t need much in the way of support or interest from others. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t “invite” idealization; I talk freely about the difficulties I’ve gone through, and although my children are high achievers (the sort of kids whose accomplishments parents like to brag about — and I do), I also take pains to discuss our difficulties and keep it “real”. Somehow none of this makes much of a difference in the way people apparently view me. When I talk about myself, the sort of questions I always ask of other people rarely come back to me. I’m not the sort of person who can continue talking on and on about himself; when others don’t express interest in hearing more by asking a question, I change the subject.
In other words, I often feel lonely as far as my social life goes. (It doesn’t help that my very best friends live far away, most of them on the West Coast.) Most people don’t like to discuss politics or ideas in a way that satisfies me, so we usually end up trading stories. To a degree, that’s fine — keeping abreast of the minutiae of my friends’ lives is quite satisfying, but only up to a point. When it doesn’t go deeper, when I feel a lack of interest from others in my own personal details, when attempts to steer the conversation in a different direction go nowhere, I sometimes feel frustrated. It doesn’t help that I often “hear things” in what other people are saying; I can’t suddenly turn off the therapist side of my mind, so in the middle of social conversations, I notice the sort of emotional dynamics or psychological issues that, in a session with a client, I might address. Of course I never do that with my friends. Well, almost never. There have been a few times …
In session with clients, I don’t ever feel that way. Setting aside the initial greetings — How are you? Fine, thanks. — we never make small talk. It’s never superficial, and if it seems that way, I’ll often make an interpretation — about the way a client wants to keep me at an emotional distance, for example, or how he seems completely cut off from any real feeling this week, in contrast to our last session. Virtually every exchange feels meaningful. Intensely emotional exchanges, and even hurtful ones, feel meaningful to me; maybe I’m weird that way, but at least it’s not superficial. My experience growing up with a narcissistic mother — developing a hyperactive sort of empathy as a survival mechanism — undoubtedly influenced my choice of profession, but that doesn’t make it entirely pathological. To connect with other human beings and feel deeply with them — this provides a major source of satisfaction in my life.
While ostensibly, we don’t talk about me and my own stories, feelings, issues, etc., on another level, my ability to understand my clients comes from recognizing their struggles within myself and my own past or present conflicts; in that sense, so much of what I say to my clients is personal. It’s about them and it’s about me. I know how you feel because I have felt that way, too. To wax philosophic for a moment: to me, the meaning of the word meaning is to be found in the discovery that you are not alone, that others have perceived or felt the same thing as you. Yours is not a solipsistic experience that leaves you isolated, but one that links you to other people and their experience. For me, I can’t imagine a more personally meaningful endeavor than the work I do.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I look to my clients to fill an emptiness in my life. Here in North Carolina, I have my writer’s group — deeply satisfying relationships of many years — as well as my piano teacher, a few important friends as well as my family. I’m also looking forward to my summer in Colorado, when many of my dearest friends come to visit and we’ll have wonderful evenings on the deck with good food, wine and deep conversation. But in addition to all that, working with my clients and entering into their worlds fills an important place in my life, even more important than I had thought. In the end, connecting to their emotional experience keeps me more firmly rooted in my own feelings, deepening the sense of personal and interpersonal meaning that defines “me”.