Some of you may remember that a while back, when I was first interviewing for (and soon after landed) my first “real” job, I had a stage system in which denial was the first stage of attempting to find employment after graduation. I don’t have a theory for how it works once you land that job (once the stages have all been successfully resolved, I’ll keep you informed), but what I do know is that there’s a serious case of denial going on, and it might be with every new person who has entered a demanding, somewhat thankless field that thinks they can handle the pressure.
The other night, I was at a cousin’s going-away party and was approached by my aunt and her best friend. These two women have been in the field of counseling psychology for over 30 years and encapsulate what I want to be when I grow up both professionally and personally. My aunt asks the seemingly innocuous question: “how’s work going?” And I respond with the go-to answer that I thought I have perfected over the years – “good, it’s fine!”
Now, if you know anything about experienced therapists, you know that it’s impossible to lie to them (when when you’ve been lying to yourself for the past five months), because they can read right through your BS and somehow convince you to relinquish the power of denial. “Fine? You’re billing 33 hours of direct client contact a week and you’re fine? Really?” When I in one form or another convey to my clients that they’re in denial, I’m usually met with a little bit of resistance. In this case, I start tearing up and finally admit to myself that I’m overworked, underpaid, and cannot possibly be providing high-quality therapy for 33+ clients a week. That many of my clients have extensive trauma histories, a few personality disorders, and some pretty serious anger issues that I’m too inexperienced to fully make an impact. My aunt and best friend normalize and validate these feelings for me, letting me know that even as experienced therapists, they would not be able to handle the pressure and stresses that come with maintaining such a large caseload. That if they were me, they would also do what I do – come home after working a long day, maybe go for a run (they both laughed at this one), make dinner, verbally take their aggression and emotional turmoil out on their spouse for no reason other than the fact that he’s there, crash at 10:30, and not have time mental energy to focus on anything else (and now you can see why I haven’t written a blog post for the past four or five months…)
In my workplace, there are a select few that are outwardly vocal about the stress that comes along with being a therapist in a community mental health agency. As someone that’s prided myself on my optimism and enthusiasm, I try to tell people that it’s not that bad, it’s a temporary job, and that we’re working our best to help the people that want to come in for actual help and soul-searching. And that we at least have a supportive and understanding boss who wants to see us grow as people and as counselors, because a lot of workplaces don’t have that. That yes, while some parts of the position are less-than-ideal (paperwork! Having to choose between an awesome training and scheduling a client so you can bill for an hour! Having to worry about meeting quota on a weekly basis! Down with the system!), it’s still a job that will eventually launch our careers and that we are helping people in a difficult population to reach their full potential. And telling everyone these things, I had to believe them too.
So where did this denial come from? Well, as a walking cliche, I’m going to go with the obvious answer and say “my parents” and “oldest child syndrome.” I know in my heart that they didn’t mean to instill this sense of denial in me, and that they were wonderful parents and did everything they could to support me in my professional and personal growth. Really, I’ve been pretty damn lucky to have the parents I do and I wouldn’t trade them for anyone in the world (and I promise I’m not writing this because my mom is the one person that frequents this blog on a regular basis). But I definitely internalized the “work hard and suck it up” attitude that they taught me over the past 25 years.
Now, they never expected perfection from me (“just try your best honey”), and I’ve been told several times that they’re incredibly proud of my hard work and the things that I’m doing. But you see, they’re super-people. Nobody’s perfect, but they come pretty damn close. For the past 30 some years, they have worked as accomplished surgeons. At the same time, they managed to raise three relatively well-adjusted children, actively engage in volunteer efforts, maintain an active social life, exercise, and have fun. Oh, did I mention that they’re still married after 27 years? Sure, they complained about work from time to time, but very rarely mentioned how stressful and demanding their jobs and lives actually are. I’m the oldest of three siblings. I didn’t have anyone to compare myself to, so I compared myself to my parents, made friends with the ambitious genius kids in middle and high school, and thought that I could suck it up and make it through anything, no matter how hard it was. There was the internalization that eventually, I could achieve that perfection and maintain that perfectly balanced lifestyle.
Fast forward to now. After
bursting into tears in front of my supervisor about how I can’t handle the pressure and stress rationally discussing my concerns with my supervisor (though if there was any field to show emotion to your boss and have he or she understand and not be totally freaked out, it’s the mental health field), she, like my aunt and aunt’s friend, normalized these things for me. That it’s okay not be Superwoman. That the first year is like “therapist bootcamp,” and that maybe it’s okay to actually admit that things are difficult. That as therapists, we advocate for self-care in our clients and intellectually know how important it is for us, but rarely engage in it to the extent that we should. And that she would try to help me come up with some other options to make things somewhat less stressful.
I’m still considering my options. Find another job part-time that isn’t so demanding to make up for the lost funds from taking on less hours at my job. Budget for a significant pay cut but find time and mental space to engage in other activities. Go back to school. Or strive to be Superwoman, but knowing and accepting that I’ll never be that person, and do my job to the best of my abilities. But as humanizing as it is, I’m relieved to no longer be lying to myself and admitting to my stress, flaws, and insecurities when it comes to this job.
In therapy, they say once you get out of denial and admit to yourself that there’s a problem, the real work can begin.