I’m an exhausted therapist
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I discovered and appreciated your thoughtful presence through reading the Sun Magazine, and since then, reading your columns in Salon. Thank you so much for your ability to see something honestly and differently than the canned sound byte or ho-hum perspectives of the academic elite. Therefore, I turn to you with a very complex question/concern, with the understanding that it is not the type of thing that can be easily answered in a page. Also I think I prefer to pose this in a stream of unedited thoughts, as I think this best captures my dilemma.
I am a psychologist, as I have been since 1995 when I got my Ph.D. at a prestigious, scientifically based training program at a solid land-grant university in the Midwest. I came to this place somewhat differently than most of my peers there. They had come directly from pretty amazing places like Harvard, Cornell, Stanford … I actually dropped out of university for awhile, earned my way back and finished up while making soup and selling books at the local health food restaurant.
This was a job I got after I gave away everything that I owned and dropped out of school and hitchhiked to the mountains, where I spent several years learning about life in other ways besides reading books and articles. Like climbing mountains, nights alone under the stars, skiing over passes, the tremendous freedom of the wilderness. I found that the freedom of no possessions and so much space was much more secure than the oppressive materialistic models of living I had come from. Also I reformatted my relationships from the alcoholic, disengaged relationships my parents modeled. I had the tremendous good fortune to meet and be loved by the people I worked with, whose compassion, genuineness, curiosity and honesty were transformative and revitalizing. My curiosity as well as my will to offer something valuable and good to my community persisted, and so I went to school. My education was profound and scientific. My ability to think was transformed, my curiosity was set free, and though there were tremendously hard times, I even have a job now as a psychologist which is how I earn my living.
I believe I approach my therapeutic work with both the wisdom and honesty of my life experience, as well as the science of my education.
Currently, I am finding my daily work emotionally exhausting. I come home at night and sometimes I can’t think. I am unable to talk. I cannot bear the thought of verbal communication with someone who wants a response from me. I seem to have lost my rudder, my sense of why this work is important. There are so many difficult stories.
Therapy is not helpful for every problem, even though a person may strongly wish that it were. Some people actually seem to get worse by submerging themselves into their dark worlds. Some people’s needs seem bottomless and their needs drain me to senselessness. In the newspapers and Internet, I read about injustices and horrors and hatreds, misguided individuals exerting their will on the less powerful. I have read science long enough that some truths have come full circle. What was once good health advice is now just exactly wrong. All this makes me tired and confused. Also I have had the immeasurable blessing to meet and get to know some of the coolest people in the world. Also, I have to daily wrestle with insurance companies about why this person should be able to come see me, and why they should pay me to talk with them, which is a good question. I am not that great. And I have lost my sense of purpose. While I have witnessed beautiful transformation before my eyes, I am not sure that I still possess the strength or perspective to guide people back to themselves anymore. I am tired.
Knowing what I know about my family of origin, I question whether my need to engage with others so pervasively and intimately is not in fact, pathological. I feel a tremendous sense of sadness and loneliness when I hear about fathers loving their daughters.
My therapist, whom I blatantly hired to be my replacement father, recently retired. I am okay, though I love and miss this man. It seems important to trust myself on my own.
Times have changed; while once “the unexamined life” was the life less vital, now our cultural values seem to be “bigger faster stronger meaner.” I tell myself in the morning, “I am off to make my small but relevant contribution”; I tell myself, “Press on” because it is important to endeavor in the direction of truth and integrity and hope.
But I don’t know if I can keep on. Is there a way that you can see to rejuvenate the hopeful compassion I once had? I am smart enough to know that I should not overwork. If I had more money, I would buy time. I try to regularly find time in the forest, but to some extent that is an escape rather than a transformation of my life’s work. Any thoughts are very much appreciated. Please don’t use any identifying information, as I am still an active professional and would not want my angst to harm my patients.
Thank you very much,
Tired Wild Animal, currently caged
Dear Tired Wild Animal,
My guess is that you are suffering the departure of your father-figure therapist more profoundly than you realize.
More specifically, it’s not that you are suffering his loss so much as that you are suffering the loss of what you invested in him — your own aggressive life force. Through paternal transference, you made him the vessel and filled him with whatever chaotic, world-beating impulses you could not fully integrate personally; now that you have lost that symbolic repository of primal energy you feel rudderless, self-questioning, prone to fits of hopelessness and doubt.
In other words, you’ve lost your mojo.
There are many ways to get your mojo back. In fact — and I think here Austin Powers would agree — you never really lost it. It is in you.
So ask yourself this: When was the last time you felt powerful and driven? “I gave away everything that I owned,” you say, “and dropped out of school and hitchhiked to the mountains, where I spent several years learning about life in other ways besides reading books and articles. Like climbing mountains, nights alone under the stars, skiing over passes, the tremendous freedom of the wilderness.”
That sounds powerful. That sounds like your mojo. You have been an adventurer. You have been iconoclastic and close to nature. You set off on a spiritual journey. You did that because you needed a genuine experience.
I think you need another genuine experience. I think that doing therapy in a cultivated, professional environment has taken you to the limits of intellectual understanding and has nearly bled you dry. It’s also possible that patterns of transference in your practice have allowed it to become a substitute, or analog, for the primal thing that actually moves you, and that you must get closer to the passionate encounter itself.
It is time to go back to the well.
You derived wisdom from those experiences up in the mountains but you don’t need that wisdom now. You need the experience itself. Your mojo is not in wisdom. Your mojo is in the meat of your body and your body needs the mountains.
Can you feel it? I can almost feel it. I can feel how you need the mountains. Get up there! Get up in the mountains for a while. It will come back. Your mojo will return!
Return to those places that fed you and made you wise. Go up there again with nothing.