Now I Know Why I am a Therapist

How one training helped me identify my negative thoughts and positive desires

Sadly not my office. (https://unsplash.com/@wstn)

(I apologize in advance to my parents for talking about this again. I know the decisions you made were not easy ones. I love you!)

I have been a therapist working in the mental health field for over 10 years, and whenever someone has asked me why I wanted to become a therapist, I often didn’t know how to answer the question, so I’ve used some variation of the following options:

  • I enjoy helping people. (This is true, but more on this later…)
  • I had an internship in college that showed me I wanted to work in this field. (This is mostly true, the internship was also terrifying.)
  • I knew people with mental health issues growing up and I wanted to help them and understand what they were going through. (This is half true. I knew people who were struggling, but words like depression or anxiety or post traumatic stress were not terms I was familiar with, so I can’t say for sure if this was the case. As a therapist, I know now I almost definitely knew people struggling with these issues.)

I was always afraid to answer that I’ve gone through periods of depression and anxiety myself, even though most people have. I know some therapists are comfortable disclosing this type of personal history. That would be an honest answer but would a client want to hear that? What would they think of me? Would they think I could help them more? Less? Would they even care? Instead of thinking about this or discussing it with supervisors or colleagues, I always defaulted to the easier answers.

Fast forward to this summer when I had a chance to attend a three day intensive training on EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The debate about the effectiveness of this therapy can wait for another post, as I will only speak about my experiences here. During the training we were required to experience the techniques both as a therapist and as a patient. As a result we were expected to identify an issue we could work on over the course of those three days. This issue was expected to be something manageable, which in our case meant something that wasn’t just trivial or fake but also not something so heavy that it would require intensive therapy or intervention if it was brought up.

I thought I chose something manageable, but over those three days I learned that often what feels manageable is often tied to the very things that sometimes make life feel unmanageable. This is a common experience in therapy of course. Clients often come into therapy thinking they want to deal with one issue when that issue is really just representative of many other issues.

The issue that I thought was manageable was “I’m worried I don’t make enough to support my family.” I’ll spare you the EMDR process, but the chain of negative self beliefs then followed:

“I’m not enough/not good enough.”

Led to…

“I don’t do enough to get what I (or what my family) want.”

Led to…

“It doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t get what I want.”

Whoa.

Where was this coming from? Well as I explored more, that final belief came from one my earliest and most painful memories, which was moving from Maryland to New Jersey in the middle of 7th grade at the age of 13. I didn’t cope with this well during the EMDR process. Try as I did to control my emotions in discussing these events, tears and discomfort came as I experienced the pain from that time nearly 20 years later.

In the weeks that followed, I sat with those negative beliefs, discussed them with friends, supervisors, and colleagues. How have these negative beliefs affected me all these years? They probably inform a lot of my actions, but the one it feels most closely tied to now is my path to becoming a therapist. As I reflected on those feelings I realized that some part of me accepted at the time of the move that if I couldn’t get what I wanted, I could help others get what they wanted.

Positive desires flowed as I reflected on this:

  • I can help people find what makes them happy, and this makes me feel happy and fulfilled.
  • I can help others change themselves and their circumstances, and their ability to change helps reinforce that I can change things in my life too!

These were important lessons for me, but they are lessons that you can learn too! I started out by talking about the question of why I became a therapist and why I struggled to answer that question. I think a lot of people struggle to answer similar questions about themselves, questions like:

  • Why am I so stressed by _______?
  • Why do I keep (insert negative or unhealthy behavior of your choice here)?
  • Why did I (insert previous life choice here)?

There are real, sometimes deep seated reasons why we feel the things we feel and act the way we do. Oftentimes these reasons were completely out of our control, as they were for me when I moved at the age of 13. Uncovering these truths and learning to accept ourselves despite these reasons is a powerful step to take. (Disclaimer: it may be wise to take these uncovering steps with the help of a therapist, as I have and will continue to do.)

So why share this now? Well I think a lot of people often ask this question about their therapist. I think there are also misconceptions about therapists and their motivations. The reality is that therapists are real people with real life backgrounds, and those backgrounds contributed in one way or another to why we chose to help people the way that we do.

I should clarify (especially to my parents) that I am very happy doing what I do, no matter the reasons that started me on this path. I should also clarify that I no longer tell half truths about why I became a therapist, if my patients can be open and vulnerable with me, it is only fair that I try to do the same with them when appropriate. I do hope to continue to share about myself as a therapist and a father and what I have learned, and thank you for reading.

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