Secret Lives of Therapists
All of the things therapists wish you knew about their work, their lives, and those precious 45 minutes a week behind the scenes in their session room.
Even though nearly 48 million people in the United States have experienced mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health, more than half of those adults do not receive treatment. We’re sure you can guess why there’s such a huge discrepancy. Revealing our innermost feelings to a stranger—what are they writing on that clipboard, anyways?!—can be a hard pill to swallow. But if there’s one thing that therapists wish you knew, it’s that asking for help is far from admitting defeat. Just the opposite. “I see seeking therapy as an act of courage and strength,” says Penelope Fanbourg, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New Jersey. “The ability to really look at yourself in a clear-eyed way—that’s a brave act.”
People who seek counseling are your neighbors, your friends, your doctor, your gym instructor. “People can look fine and function very well in the world, but internally there may be pain and struggle,” explains New York psychologist Alex Miller, Ph.D. “Things aren't what they seem—ever.” To prove it, we’re revealing some of the main things real-life therapists and psychologists (some names have been changed) wish you knew about them and their practice.
We Won't Judge You
“A lot of clients assume that they’re coming to the principal’s office, that they’ll be judged and scolded,” Dr. Fanbourg says. “What’s so powerful about the session room is that you really are able to say anything and everything.” That may be why therapists and clients develop such a deep bond. “I have deep, deep feelings of attachment and connection to my clients,” Dr. Fanbourg adds. “They’re sharing profound stuff, profound vulnerability. The human connection goes both ways.”
We Go to Therapy, Too
Counseling is actually a required part of the training to become a mental health professional, and many people continue for years. “I have gotten so many benefits from therapy, from helping me through difficult times to normalizing my experience, undoing a sense of being alone, and generally helping me get perspective on my life,” says Greg Carson, L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist from Montclair, NJ. The main benefits, Dr. Miller adds, are “getting to know myself, and at the end of the day—in my opinion, you can really only do deep work if you are able to know who you are.”
We Have Least Favorite Clients—But It's Not About Personality
It’s about attitude. “It’s difficult to work with people who think everything is everybody else’s fault and won’t look at their own role in things,” Dr. Fanbourg says. “That’s not therapy because I’m not here to change everybody else—I’m here to help you.” She also isn’t a fan of people using their session to just vent about their problems without taking steps to solve them. While you may feel helpless in your situation—that may be why you’re seeking therapy in the first place—Dr. Fanbourg says it’s important to try to not attach yourself to your suffering because that’s not who you are.
There's a Simple Secret to Being Our Favorite Client
It’s wanting to be there! “You can be as messed up as anybody, but if you really want to be there, that means we can have a meaningful conversation,” Dr. Fanbourg says. “There is desire to talk, to reflect, to change. You don’t have to know how to do it; it’s the fact that you want to do it.”
You Know We've Been Daydreaming if We Say, "Can You Tell Me More?"
Therapists are laser-focused on your conversation more often than not, but even the most dedicated minds can stray. “If I’m bored, for example, I check in with what’s happening with myself,” Carson says. “I say, ‘Why am I bored?’ and I realize that a client may be talking and talking but not connecting to their emotions. In that case I might say, ‘Those are the facts, but what are the feelings?’ And that usually gets us back on track.” If he really needs to buy time to figure out what he missed he’ll say, “Can you tell me more about that?”
We're Not Going to Google You
Ethical guidelines prohibit Googling patients, according to Dr. Miller, so don’t worry that they’re checking up on you via Facebook or Twitter. “I go with the assumption that patients are telling the truth to whatever extent they are capable,” Dr. Miller says. “If there are big secrets and the work goes well, the secrets will usually come out over time.”
But You'll Probably Google Us
“I have no doubt my patients Google me,” Dr. Miller says. “Sometimes they tell me, and I appreciate when they can bring all that they discovered and whatever they feel about it into the room.” You might be surprised to learn that your therapist might play electric bass in a rock band, have a side gig as a hair model, or in Dr. Fanbourg’s case, be into exploring shamanistic adventures and other mystical pursuits.
We've Got Tricks Up Our Sleeve
It’s true that therapy is a process of self-discovery—there's no magic bullet or quick fix. That said, therapists do have strategies for feeling better in the moment. To stop a negative feedback loop, Dr. Fanbourg says to move your body, whether you step outside, take a short walk, go to a different room, or just shake out your hands. “It resets the brain, giving it new signals,” she says. “It can take just three seconds.”
- Percent of People with Mental Illness: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2019). “Mental Health by the Numbers.” nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers