“You have to do your own work in order to be a good therapist, learning to sit on the other side of the chair is critical to your growth”. Every clinical social work practice teacher and supervisor taught me this, and they were right. How could I guide others in their healing if I never worked to address my own underlying issues? We all have our traumas and challenges, whether we want to admit it or not, therapists included. So I did it, I took a leap of faith and went for it.
I was in therapy while I was in college because I was struggling to manage my depression, and I felt that it was tremendously helpful at that point in my life. I had just gone through a devastating breakup, I was failing my classes, and I couldn’t function at the level that I once had. I used to be a near 4.0 student, and now, I was at risk of losing my scholarships for college. My therapist at that time taught me about how my thoughts, feelings, and actions were all connected, and that I could work to change my thoughts in order positively impact the other two. I took those lessons and applied them daily– in fact, I still apply them to this day.
But not every therapy experience was as positively impactful as that one. I started seeing a therapist after I graduated from grad school and had started my first job as a therapist for kids and adolescents. It was a terribly stressful career move. I was working 60+ hours each week, and I was barely keeping my head above water. I knew that I needed some extra support, and because I had a great experience with a previous therapist, I thought that this one would be similarly awesome.
I did all of the research, including looking her up on HealthGrades, which is basically Yelp for the therapist community, and she definitely checked out with great reviews. Our first few sessions were excellent. I felt that she truly connected with me and that she understood the career stress that I was under, especially because we were both therapists. She helped me to come to the decision to leave the job that I had at that time for the one that I have now, and I felt that her guidance and support in that decision was so helpful. She helped me see my worth and value in this field and encouraged me to have faith in my abilities. And because of that, I grew to be in the place that I am today in my career, and I thank her for that.
Then, after a few sessions, when we started delving into some of the family dynamic issues that come with being from a South Asian family, things started taking a turn. I explained that my mother would call me incessantly, 4-5 times in a row multiple times a week and that this was something that I felt would never change because it’s pretty typical to have helicopter parents well into adulthood when you’re from a South Asian culture. I communicated the frustration that comes from these types of interactions because my mom’s stream of messages and calls took me back to the days of being a teenager when I was being checked on constantly.
I also explained that in South Asian cultures, showing respect to your parents is imperative, and includes not challenging them or confronting them about their flaws. It’s more about being able to manage and adapt to the personalities of your parents. Still, she kept pushing me and pushing me to confront my mother. She kept asking me, “Why don’t you just tell her no, or confront her on her overbearing nature? You have to set boundaries, and she’ll learn to respect them. Ignore the passive aggressive texts and calls, she’ll get the message.”
In theory, I know that this is typically true, and for many other cultures, this approach may work. I’ve told some of my clients to do this very thing, but I also took into consideration whether this would be effective in their particular situation before giving that advice. I felt like she just wasn’t listening to me or understanding the complexity that comes from being in a culture where your parents are considered the next thing closest to God. I felt like I was getting the same responses worded in different ways, and that if I didn’t go forward with what she was telling me to do, that nothing would improve. Even though I was born in the US, she would bring up comparisons of my life to Bollywood movies, as if that was the way that I lived, and it felt like my culture was being exoticized. So eventually, I stopped going. I moved forward with my life and tabled the issues relating to my family, because I just didn’t feel heard.
After working in my current position for a few months, I realized that I needed some additional support to manage the stress of moving back to my home region, where everything had changed so drastically. My old friends from home had ditched me and betrayed me, the band that I was in had let me go because of the demands of my work, and my best friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I was hesitant to try this process again, but luckily, this time around, I had the awesome experience that I had wished for all along, and it was truly a moment of healing for me.
My current therapist utilizes EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) with me and transformed my life to one where anxiety and past traumas do not affect me on a daily basis. She is expertly trained in this amazingly powerful, evidence-based technique, which I was excited to try since I am a trauma-focused therapist myself. But most importantly, she listened and she heard me. She asked instead of assuming. She respected the challenges that stood in my way, and helped me to cope with the fact that some things may never change. She gently pushed me to take actions that were feasible and helpful, but she never imposed her beliefs or culture onto me. And because of that, I have grown not only into a better version of myself but also into a better clinician.
I’ll end with this: Don’t give up on this process, even though you’ve faced a major setback. I know it hurts to feel invalidated and terribly alone in that moment of vulnerability, but don’t give up. I now look forward to my bi-monthly sessions with my therapist, and I feel so much more capable of tackling the seemingly insurmountable circumstances in my life after I have my hour with her. Finding the right therapist can take a little bit of time, kind-of like finding the right doctor or even hairstylist, and you may have to try out a couple of them to find the right fit. But once you do find the therapist who sees you for who you are and helps you to self-actualize to your fullest extent, the chains of anxiety, PTSD, depression, etc. no longer grip you quite as tightly, and your mind, body, and soul can be more free.