From the Other Side of the Couch…What it’s Like to be a Therapist

If you were to google the definition of a mental health therapist you would get some variation of this: “a licensed professional who helps people manage and overcome mental and/or emotional disturbances and problems within themselves, their families, and other relationships. They communicate with clients to understand their problems and develop strategies to improve their lives.”

While that definition is certainly not wrong, it fails to dive deeper into what it actually is like to be a therapist. While many people know what it’s like to be a client (whether they’re currently in therapy or not), we thought it would be interesting to share what it’s like on the other side of the couch–what it’s like to be a therapist. Below you’ll see some questions & answers from two of our senior clinicians, Julie Burke & Julie Smith, who have been seeing clients at Austin Family Counseling since 2016.

What is it like being a therapist?  What is your favorite/least favorite thing?  

JB: Being a therapist is weird!  But in the most wonderful way…it’s hard to explain.  When I read this question, the first thought I had was a picture that says “Someone’s therapist knows all about you.”  It’s 100% true.  I don’t even know how to describe what it’s like to be a therapist.  You’re basically someone’s safe space and secret keeper and accountability holder.  It’s an exceptionally rewarding job that can also be incredibly difficult.  My favorite thing about it is the relationship you create with your clients–helping someone feel safe enough to share parts of themselves and navigate life stuff (I’m oversimplifying) is invaluable.  The hardest?  It can be emotionally draining and sometimes you feel helpless.  BUT I would argue that isn’t not even really bad…it sometimes is just heavy…which is why having a regular, routine self-care practice is extremely important as well as a network of trusted clinicians you can consult with, as needed.

JS: Being a therapist is a strange and rewarding job. Just this morning I was at an ethics training where we broke down the ethics behind hugs! This job comes with vulnerability, flexibility, tough moments, and rewarding moments. My favorite thing about this job is working with my clients. Being able to be a part of a client’s world and to have the privilege of hearing their most tragic, joyful, and vulnerable moments reminds me every week why I love being a therapist. The least favorite part of my job as a therapist is the business side of things: sheduling my calendar, writing notes, responding to emails, marketing…all of these things are needed with my job and are not my favorite things.

What is it like being a client?   

JB: SO many things…sometimes it’s scary, sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s frazzling.  Regardless, it’s always a vulnerable thing to do.  With the right therapist, it is such a rewarding, valuable relationship.  When you have a therapist that you click with and can feel safe with, they can (and will) be someone who you share your deepest vulnerabilities with and also your most exciting moments.  Sometimes it can take a few tries before you find the right fit for you, but when you do, you’ll know.   

JS: I can only speak to this from my perspective because I have my own therapist too! When I’m a client I have so many feelings going into a session. Some days I cannot wait to tell my therapist every single thought in my head. Other days I know there are things I need to talk about and I desperately want to avoid my therapist because it seems like too much. As a client, I cry in my sessions, I feel confused in sessions, I gain insight about myself and my family, and I laugh so hard in sessions. It is hard work being a client because of how many levels of feelings, experiences, and thoughts that I go through and need to process.

Is there something wrong with me if I go to therapy?  

JB: No way!  I think everyone should go to therapy.  Truly. 

JS: No. There is nothing wrong with a person who goes to therapy. Therapy is a place where a client can go to experience a safe space to process whatever experiences, thoughts, or feelings a client has. Sometimes disorders like anxiety, bi-polar, or depression can be the reason a client seeks out therapy. When a diagnosis is the reason a client seeks out therapy, this still doesn’t mean something is wrong with them. Therapy should be a safe space for a client to talk through any thoughts or experiences, regardless of the reason a client is seeking out therapy.

How can talking about painful memories be helpful?  

JB: During a conversation with a friend today, he said “shame lives in the dark”.  It’s absolutely true.  With a lot of painful memories can come a lot of shame so when you go to therapy and talk about some of those painful memories, you’re giving yourself space to be seen and heard–which helps bring shame out to the light (and in turn, helps it slowly go away).  Talking about painful memories is DEFINITELY difficult–I don’t want to pretend it’s easy.  But when you don’t talk about painful memories, you’re just sweeping them under the rug and after so long, you’re bound to trip over that rug.   

JS: This is such a great question! I use the phrase “sitting in your feelings” with a lot of my clients. Sitting in your feelings can include talking about painful memories. When we experience emotions, whether they are positive or negative, to fully process those emotions we have to feel them fully. When a person experiences joy or excitement, you normally don’t hear that person say “I can’t wait until this feeling is over”. That person just fully feels that emotion until it is done and has been processed. The same is with any negative feeling, like pain, sadness, hurt, or anger. We have to let ourselves “sit in the feeling” of the negative feeling to process it, and then we can begin to move forward from that experience and emotion.

How often do you think/talk about your clients?  

JB: This is a difficult question to answer.  Certain clients (for one reason or another) will pop into my mind every now and then…whether it’s because I see something that makes me think of them or I’m wondering how they’re doing.  This usually happens when they’ve shared something with me that they’ll be doing.  For example, I had a client tell me once that they were about to start a new position at work and they were feeling excited and nervous about it–so I wondered about them and how it went.  If you care about people, which I care very deeply about my clients, they come to mind from time to time…this just feels like a natural, normal reaction.  As far as when I talk about my clients…that’s a different story.  Generally, when I talk about them, it’s because I am consulting with other clinicians for one reason or another.  But I definitely don’t talk about clients casually or just with anyone and everyone. 

JS: If I talk about clients, it is usually for consultation purposes. This is when I want another clinician to help me think through the treatment of a client. When I consult about a client, I only share enough information with the other clinician to help me with treatment and to keep the client’s information confidential. I think about clients often throughout the week. I research information on how to best help my client. I go to trainings and think of new skills and tools to teach clients. I reflect on the client’s session to think through if anything needs to happen during the next session.

Do you ever get impatient with your clients?   

JB: This is a question I wish I could say “no” to…but then I’d be lying.  I think when you’re working with people, it’s bound to happen for one reason or another.  Sometimes I get impatient with clients or sometimes it’s they’re parents or sometimes it’s another professional they’re working with…regardless of who it is or what situation prompted it, it happens.  I feel like if it didn’t, I’d feel robotic in one way or another…and that’s definitely not a goal of mine. AND what’s most important here is what I do with that impatience…I don’t project that onto people because then our therapy becomes about me and not them…and that’s also not a goal of mine.

JS: Yes, completely. I am human and sometimes it is difficult to see a client stick to behaviors or cycles that are not beneficial to them. What is important here, is that as a therapist, I try my best to remain present with a client during their session. So if a client is struggling with a certain part of their life and not moving at a certain pace, I remain present with the client and I remind myself that their timing is more important than my own. Sometimes client’s get impatient themselves! One of my favorite phrases is “There is a purpose in the process”. So no matter how much time passes, or how many start overs occur, the process in how a client creates change in their life has a purpose, has meaning. So I remind myself that it is all about the client’s timing and not my own. 

Do you go to therapy as a therapist?

Before we even answer this question…this quote seems applicable (and answers it without us even needing to do so).

Effective psychotherapy works because the therapist continues to grow as a person and as a healer.     

Jed Diamond

JB: I do!  This surprises people sometimes–I remember someone once was confused and asked, “Wait…what?  The therapist sees a therapist?”  I sure do!  Like I said earlier–I really do think everyone should have a therapist. 

JS: Yasssssss! I love my therapist. She helps me sort out all of my own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and helps keep my mental health feeling good! 

How does being a therapist impact your personal life?  

JB: Hmmm…I think being a therapist impacts my personal life in both good & bad ways.  We’ll start with the bad ones…People mean well (I truly believe that), however, a lot of times people will lean on you for support or ask for ‘free therapy’ or advice with different life situations.  This is fine, in theory, however, people don’t realize that as a therapist–I don’t give advice.  AND even if I did, that’s not something I want to do for people in my personal life.  When I’m with friends, I want to be a friend–not a clinician.  Another thing that can be tricky is people often ask the question, “are you psychoanalyzing me?!”  I have been asked that SO many times.  The short answer is “no”.  When reading “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone”, Lori Gotlieb shared that she feels like people are afraid of being seen when they ask that question.  Maybe that’s what it is…which helps me have compassion in those situations, although after being asked so many times…it definitely gets old.  Being a therapist impacts my personal life in positive ways, though, because it has made me realize how dynamic the human experience is and has given me opportunities to learn how to be empathic in ways I previously didn’t have access to.  It helps me have empathy, understanding, and how to see people for who they are. 

JS: Being a therapist affects my personal life in many ways. I have to create boundaries with friends and family who want to ask for therapy help. I keep the majority of my week private from my personal world because I keep the confidentiality of my clients. My self care includes making sure I am able to be present for client’s so I have to take care of myself. How I think through relationships, behaviors, and experiences is affected by being a therapist. There are many ways being a therapist affects my personal life and I have to work hard to make sure that I keep enjoying my job as a therapist and my personal life at the same time.

While we both said this earlier…being a therapist is a wonderful, weird, rewarding, and sometimes really difficult job (for both personal & professional reasons). We welcome any questions, anytime, about what we do and hope you learned a little (or a lot!) about what it’s like to be on the other side of the couch.