There are a lot of different responses you get when you tell people you're a professional counselor. While there's an overall shift toward more positive attitudes about mental health care, people's comments and questions reveal a lot about how intimidating most of us find it to hold space for the unpacking of our inner lives.
Sometimes a client will even apologize for whatever topic they needed to bring up in session, as if they had just sat next to an unsuspecting stranger on the bus and decided to unload. My typical response to such an apology is to just shrug and say, "Therapist."
We so rarely get to be in a space where we aren't expected to edit ourselves. So it's not surprising that the opportunity to sit and be real with a counselor might feel like an indulgence.
Big Boxes of Stuff
I'm sometimes asked what it's like to listen to people's "stuff" all day. I get the feeling people imagine it's like being stuck on the bus next to that over-sharing stranger.
To be fair, empathy is a finite energy--even for therapists. It's one of many inner resources all humans are tasked with managing. For teen clients (and some adults), I liken it to a video game where your character has some sort of energy reserve that's drawn from when you use abilities, cast spells, etc. You've got to be mindful how much you have, how much you're using, and when and how to replenish it.
But it's also about understanding the task differently. I wouldn't say I love depression, anxious rumination, or stories of deep shame any more than an archaeologist loves dirt. Although perhaps what he sees when he gazes over a wide strata of barren earth are the treasures his unique instinct tells him are there.
See, I know that it was this kind of messy excavation that brought me to a place of peace and purpose with my own story. The secret to understanding where we've come from and how we got here is buried down there. And every good thing we grow starts in the dirt.
Most clients in their first session don't know where to begin. I tell them it's like when you're moving or Spring cleaning and you come across that big box of everything that has been tucked out of sight for years. All the stuff you didn't know what to do with, but you also didn't want out in the open. There's not really a system to it at first. We have no idea how to sort it out. That comes later.
Sometimes the best first step is just finally tipping the box. And through the process of sorting through it all, maybe the way you see your stuff will change, too.
Mike Ensley, LPC is a professional counselor and runs Comeback Story Counseling in Loveland, Colorado.
Crystal Photo by Jene Yeo.