An open letter about what we can’t always tell you.
Posted Feb 01, 2021
Dear fellow human,
Thank you for reading this letter. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive responses of people who want to know more about their therapists and the process of therapy.
Therapy is so often shrouded in mystery. Your therapist should be open with you about the process of therapy, what to expect, and give you the opportunity to ask questions. But because time in therapy is focused on you (the client), there might be some background assumptions you aren’t aware of. As therapists, there are things we want you to know, but sometimes can’t (or don’t have time to) directly say.
Here are five things your therapist wants you to know, but might not always be able to say directly.
1. We are also human.
Most people put therapists on a pedestal — almost like we are these superhuman, spiritual guides who never make mistakes and have perfect lives. Which is totally wrong.
If you’ve done this, don’t worry. It’s normal and perfectly natural to do with your therapist. Your therapist seems to have all the answers in therapy, so why wouldn’t they have all the answers in life?
It’s true that we are well-trained. As a therapist, I have interpersonal skills, insights into the human condition, skills to manage distress, and knowledge about how humans generally work. And yet nobody is perfect, and that includes your therapist. Sometimes we have a hard time taking our own advice. Sometimes we say the wrong thing. Sometimes we get ourselves into crummy situations and need to claw our way out — just like you.
We are human too. And it’s because of that human connection that we can help.
2. We rely on you.
Therapists try to make the therapy room an egalitarian space — a level playing field. And while there are times when the therapist is directing and making recommendations, we really rely on you.
We are the experts in our respective fields, but you are the expert on you. We rely on you to set goals, to be honest with us, and to tell us your experience. And we rely on you to show up and do the work. This doesn’t always mean changing, but it means coming to therapy with an open mindset willing to engage with your therapist and try new things — even when it’s terrifying.
We can’t change your life for you. We can’t make you accept yourself. We can’t single-handedly change your thoughts and feelings. We can guide you towards how to do those things, but the actual doing — that’s all you.
We rely on you as much as you rely on us.
3. Sometimes we try to do too much.
It’s not a secret that therapists get into the profession because we care. And we care a lot. We like to help others, and we want to help relieve suffering. And yet sometimes we try too hard to “fix” things.
Sometimes the situation can’t be fixed. Sometimes the suffering cannot be relieved. Sometimes you just need to sit in the pain and know someone is there for you.
Other times we try too hard to have the perfect answer or tell our clients what to do. In motivational interviewing, this is called the “righting” reflex. The righting reflex refers to a therapist’s tendency to tell clients what they should do to change. Unfortunately, this often increases resistance to the therapist’s suggestion and doesn’t capitalize on the client’s own self-wisdom and internal motivation.
Change comes from within you. Most of our job is to help you capitalize on your inner wisdom and skills to help you get to where you want to be.
4. We understand your suffering.
We all have personal experiences with suffering — we are all human, and suffering is part of the human condition. Although we may or may not disclose our own experiences, therapists get into this profession for a reason.
We know your suffering. We’ve experienced it too. We can never know your exact experience, but we want you to know that we see you. We see your suffering, and we care about your suffering. And we will sit with you in your time of need.
5. We genuinely care about you.
It’s not necessarily hard to believe that your therapist is a caring, compassionate person. But it’s easier to believe that your therapist generally likes people, but not recognize that your therapist genuinely cares about you. We want you to internalize that we genuinely care about you.
It is true that your therapist has lots of clients, and cares about a lot of people. And yet, we are like teachers — we remember all of you. We are able to pick out what makes you unique and connect with you in a meaningful way. We continue to think about you, even after our work has ended. I often find myself thinking out of the blue, “I wonder how that person is doing?”
We may not remember the specifics of what we talked about in each session, but we remember what we appreciated about each person we see. And we remember the overarching care we have for you — and wish you the best in your life.
And finally, as therapists, sometimes there are things we want our clients to know that we can’t directly say. Or we take for granted that our clients already know these things. But that’s not necessarily true or helpful.
It’s important to understand that your therapist is a human being who cares for you and wants you to succeed, in whatever form that takes. Your therapist understands your suffering in a unique way that only another human can. And therapy is better for it.
Most of us find it an incredible privilege to work alongside fellow humans. Thank you for opening yourselves up to us, and for allowing us to hold space for you to grow.