Confession. I didn’t always feel comfortable in my role as a therapist. I am sure this is the same for a lot of people in different professions and roles. But for me it felt agonising. A huge amount of work and effort went into getting accepted into my Master’s programme and then once in it I felt sometimes like I wanted to run a million miles away.
For me the problem was that I had this idea of what a psychologist was, how a psychologist looked and acted, and I thought I needed to fit in with this idea. The stresses and strains of being in an academic environment didn’t help matters. University always felt like a rigid and highly conformist structure, this ivory tower that dictated how one should be based how others had been for centuries. There was always one or two lecturers who believed in freedom and encouraged individualistic expression but the vast majority did things by the book.
If I had followed their lead I would have believed (which I truly did some of the time) that I needed to speak in a calm, low voice in order to be a real psychologist. A real psychologist wore clothes that were never too dramatic. A real psychologist’s hair was always pulled back in a conservative bun. Although these are all incredibly superficial markers of a “good therapist type”, they represented something more than that. The feeling I had was that perhaps it was my personality that was so ill suited to being a therapist.
I am a loud, bubbly, talkative person. Meet me out and about and you would never automatically think I was a therapist. People mostly believe I work in the arts, as an actress or artist or in advertising or something.
All these factors combined made the process of becoming a professional that much more tricky for me. I was constantly being confronted with this sense of being in the wrong place. I worried that I had made all this effort only to discover that I was hopelessly wrong for the role and would have to start from scratch again.
Each time I sat in the room with a client I thought about what other psychologists would say and do, I thought about what my lecturers would say and do, and I thought about how they would scold me for not fitting in with the model of what a therapist should look like.
The worst part about this, is that this really had a negative impact on the work. These intrusive thoughts interfered with my ability to really be present in the moment with clients as I was so busy trying to fit in with an idea of who I should be that I failed to truly listen and engage with what was in front of me. I felt tense and unsure of myself. And I worried constantly whether I was ever truly helping.
I think this is a really good analogy for all anxiety. Our anxiety takes us out of the moment. It pushes thoughts into our minds that call our selves into question. It asks us whether we’re good enough and tells us we’re going to fail. But fail at what?
My lesson was this. I learned, through my own process of self-discovery along with others’ guidance, that the only thing there is to be is yourself. There is actually no “model” for what makes someone a good therapist. Just like there is no model for what makes someone a good human. We all have to figure ourselves out in our own ways. But don’t think for one minute that you will ever arrive at a fixed point of completion. Because just when you think you know yourself, something else will come along that will test you and challenge you and you will discover another facet, another layer. The journey may go through different stages and you may feel on top of the world one minute and like a piece of dirt the next. The choice is always there, however, to be true to yourself.
And so this was/is my ultimate lesson. I believe there is only one thing each of us can ever do. It’s what drives out the anxiety. It’s what drives out the fear. And it’s what drives out the fake friends and false comrades. BE GENUINE. And if you can’t feel what is your genuine self right now then at least have the intention to reach out in that general direction.
When your thoughts undermine your courage and you question yourself or your role, just try and be yourself. Ask yourself what it is you really think, feel, and believe in. Ask yourself what you want to share with the world, what it is that you think you have to offer, and you will find that there is something there. It might not look or sound like what you expect it should be. But if it’s real then it will matter more than any performance could ever.
I can testify to this. Having now been practicing as a therapist for five years, I can tell you that there is no greater strength than that of being yourself, and there is no greater gift to others. I believe that over and above anything I may say in therapy, over and above any techniques I may use, the greatest gift I give my clients is that they come into contact with someone who is genuine. My determination to be myself, my commitment to be present, to be thoughtful and honest somehow gives them permission to be themselves and to find acceptance.
As Marianne Williamson wrote:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
I think we are all afraid of showing up and showing ourselves. If we expose ourselves for who we really are then we are also exposing our vulnerability and this feels scary and dangerous. I’m not saying it isn’t. I have not become immune to rejections. I do not feel invincible because I am myself. Hiding oneself from the world will keep you safer. But at what cost? The freedom you feel when you are just yourself is more thrilling than you can imagine. And not only that. I truly believe that it improves your “performance”. Ask any top sportsman. It isn’t possible to beat an equally talented opponent without the magic x-factor that comes with self-belief and the truly exquisite feat of tuning out the noise and being fully present to the current moment. Go on, give it a go!