As I type this I have just returned from a sacred ritual that only some lucky parents get to enjoy: the annual return to college, a pilgrimage of semi-epic proportions where we journey to the far reaches of this long, beautiful state.
Both of our daughters wisely chose colleges with mild, benign climates and sunny beaches, which means at least eight hours in the car on I-5 or 101. This trip we crammed a large dresser with well-organized and tightly packed clothing in each drawer into the back of our Prius, while our youngest daughter filled her little Civic with the rest of her clothes and her mountain bike.
On the way back home we stopped in San Francisco to celebrate our older daughter’s 24th birthday and hang out with her and two of her delightful roommates, a German fellow who just returned from Burning Man and a young woman who has set her sights on a career as a therapist.
As we relaxed and chatted about everything and nothing, I was asked for advice about becoming a therapist. What words of wisdom could I provide? Normally, never at a loss for pithy statements, I found myself stammering and blathering a bunch of phrases and truisms that might have sounded good but failed to adequately respond to the simple and sincere question: What should a young therapist know about this mysterious profession?
This is what I wished I had said:
- Trust yourself. Be willing to be you, whoever you are, or whoever you think you are.
- Be willing to fail. Your clients do not expect you to be perfect. They hope you are willing to work hard on their behalf and they will understand if you make a few mistakes along the way.
- Be honest. Never lie to your clients. Sometimes that will mean saying nothing and thinking carefully before you speak.
- Care. If you cannot muster a little love for each of your clients, you might be in the wrong profession. And I mean love. Our clients bring their whole selves to this process. We owe them the same.
- Maintain boundaries. Your relationship begins and ends within the confines of your office and the therapy hour. Give everything you got for that hour and then let go.
- Do not do not do not take this personally. This is never about you. The client is coming in to see you to get out of their own way. The last thing they need is your stuff to obstruct them. Be a mirror. A loving, accepting, honoring mirror.
- Develop your empathy. This is one of the most vital skills you will ever have. Listen carefully and join with your client. What do they need? What do they want? What are they afraid of?
- Focus on their strengths and power, not their weaknesses and failures. These are good people who come to you for help. See the best in them and help them do the same.
- See the client as a whole, perfect person and insist that they understand this is real. They are confused. So are you. So am I. And yet it helps to have faith that an inner clarity is accessible. Help them know that is true, trustworthy and reliable.
- Accept your client. Communicate that to them. Convince them you are not here to judge them and you are not interested in this. They have had enough shame. In this place, that will never happen.
- Help them understand there are three things they will never control and can never directly change. These three things are the past, the future and other people. Most of our pain and suffering comes from our inability to accept the fact we have no control over these aspects of our experience.
- All we can directly control and change is contained within the self, in this moment. Once we fully grasp this concept, we are free. Helping our clients understand this is the key to their recovery.
- There is reality, whatever that is. Something exists. There is our perception of reality, which for each of us is something remarkably unique and personal. Finally, there is an observing or witnessing self that can see how we see. This is our true self, not our mind or ego.
- Our clients are just like us. They have a different story but the themes are the same. They have something they don’t want or they want something they don’t have. And that discrepancy between what they want and what they have causes them all their pain.
- Accepting this moment as it is without judgment is the key. As we see that our thoughts, interpretations and judgments are the problem, we can extricate ourselves from our traps. And as we free ourselves, we can free our clients.
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.