I sometimes feel like I’ve entered a profession where I sometimes inadvertently end up hurting clients for whom I’m supposed to be some kind of healer, even though that’s not how I recognize myself . If the client’s traumatic flight response does not cause her to end therapy in the face of this hurt that is inevitable in any relationship, even idealized therapy, we survive it and it can be a transformative experience for the client.
I am perceived in multiple roles but by the unconscious transference of my clients. I am primarily a restorative parent in the bedroom who provides a corrective emotional experience to the internalized hurt child. I’m a best friend who holds room for the adult with a broken heart or unfulfilled dreams. I am the idealized woman who is understanding and easy to talk to for a male client in an unhappy relationship. I am the parent; the friend; older sister, love interest, etc. in the therapeutic relationship. But with all these projections that make my client feel safe, I also instantly become the reason for an intolerable hurt when I categorically fail to be what he wants me to be.
The session is about to end and a client breaks down and shares a painful secret she hadn’t shared with anyone as a child. She cries inconsolably and I offer her a box of tissues. I have no choice but to tell the distressed adult who had finally opened up after months that we will be dealing with this the following week.
In this announcement, I take the risk of confining in her the abandoned child who had finally dared to share her pain with me. It’s the hardest thing to announce the end of the session to a client who has invited me into her world of pain and to refuse it because her time is up. As a therapist, don’t I think of this client more than once, wondering if she will trust me to come the next week? Will she trust that I care about her? Is it easy to announce that her hour belongs to this wounded child who hopes that I will not disappoint her as her parents did? Although trust is an illusion and trust and mistrust are two sides of the coin.
A therapist is a hero in the client’s story. A hero who is an instant away from becoming a villain for so many instances in the trajectory of the therapeutic process. Is it easy to be the bad guy when you’re placed in a heroic position? No it is not. Do I want to become the hurtful parent who announces to the client’s inner child that his time to express his pain is over? How to explain that in her moments of extreme distress she cannot hold out her hand to me? Is it easy not to carry your helplessness with me?
The professional therapist understands how important boundaries are in this profession. They secure the therapeutic relationship and facilitate consistency for the client. But during the session, there are so many moments where one is drawn into the idealized role the other projects onto you and yet you hold on and lean in to maintain your therapeutic position. Don’t I want to hug the nineteen-year-old girl who mourns the mother she lost and looks to me for motherly comfort?
It sometimes seems impossible to sit down in the face of such raw pain and human misery. Not knowing if this client who announces that she wants to hurt herself will come back or not. Or worse, not knowing what happened to her when she left without me knowing what made her leave.
Being a therapist is not just about sitting down and providing catharsis to your client. He is drawn into their inner world. A therapist feels as endangered as the client in the therapeutic relationship. It takes a moment to sever a therapeutic bond when healing feels like a pain. Being a therapist is perhaps one of the most fulfilling yet complex professions that puts two people in an emotionally intimate yet impossible position they can get out of.