Sunday, August 21, 2011

Like the Tin Man. You know, from The Wizard of Oz?

I have been practicing therapy in some capacity for almost five years now. First in grad school, then as a Functional Family Therapist, and now as a school-based therapist. In the grand scheme of things, that's not very long. In many ways, I still feel very ill equipped to deal with some of the things that are brought into my office, and I know that I have much to learn as I continue on in my career. (That's why they call it practice, eh?) The thing with therapy is that you can never be fully prepared for things clients might bring to you. Each case is different. No two kids/families are alike. Even within the same families, there are different perspectives and dynamics. One of the reasons my job never gets boring. There's always something new coming up, a new challenge to conquer.

I have to wonder though, if I have come to see clients more as challenges than as people. I feel in some ways as if I have been jaded in my short time dealing with the problems of others. I went into this field because I feel for people, because I wanted to be able to help them through difficult times, help them to find ways to cope and to see things in a new and more hopeful light. To be able to improve their world even in just a small way, and thereby help improve the worlds of others as well. The ripple effect and all that. But again, I wonder, have the past few years built up a wall? Have I become someone heartless in all my magic therapist wand waving? Has the challenge of solving everyone's problems started to dehumanize the people with whom I work?

This isn't a new question. I have often had people ask me if it's ever hard to hear the things I hear. I have to be honest with them when I say, no, typically I can distance myself. Uncomfortable, sometimes, yes, but it doesn't do the client any good if I go to pieces when they're telling me their story. The other day, though, I went to talk to one of the teachers about a student who will be starting in her class. I wanted to let her know about some very traumatic things that have happened recently and are still happening, so that she would be prepared to deal with a kid who has the potential to act out when things are tough at home, but who is such a sweet kid otherwise. As I was talking, the teacher dropped to her seat, hand on her heart, and listened with tears in her eyes. She was truly feeling all this trauma that I was explaining to her, and it brought me up short. I don't remember when the last time was I truly let myself feel like that for one of my clients. So what does that mean?

This is where I have always been torn. I care about my clients. A lot. I will fight for them with parents, teachers, other therapists, whoever, to do what is best for them. But I can't honestly say I spend a lot of time thinking about them outside of work. They cross my mind, as surely as any other coworkers or acquaintances with whom I come into contact regularly. But they rarely even enter my dreams. Sometimes that has made me feel uncaring and, yes, heartless. I have talked to other therapists who care so deeply for their clients that they dream about them constantly. But would that be helpful, for me, or for them? I don't think so. I have had to build that boundary, that wall, to keep out the emotions that could drag me down and prevent me from doing my job, which is to help clients and families work through their trauma. How can I help them if I am feeling traumatized myself?

I worry, though, that this is leaking into my personal life as well. How do you separate how you operate in your career from how you operate the rest of the time? They are bound to overlap. I don't have the answer. I just pray that I am not becoming as heartless as I sometimes feel.