In grad school, our professors told us not to sleep with them, and not to accept gifts, and not to let them fix our cars or code our websites. Our professors told us not to give it away, not to work for free. They told us to keep our clients’ secrets and tell none of our own. There is no boundary they didn’t cover, save love. They told us not to care overly much, but caring is not love. And no one ever said not to love them.
For years I dreamed that I was falling through endless dark water, swimming pools and oceans stories deep. I was afraid in those dreams, but never panicking, too curious about my environment to attempt an escape. I wonder now if they were preparing me for my work as a therapist, because being present with a client is much like dropping underwater and breathing down there. Everything that surrounds you is muted, everything that is not this person is hushed, and who they are is amplified, a beating heart in a watery dark.
You listen to their stories, and you enter their world. You hear who hurt them, and who they’ve hurt. They told you the thing they told no one else. You were there the moment they decided to leave their spouse. You know all sorts of things about woodworking and database design and canning vegetables and writing an application for a business loan. And they reveal themselves without meaning to, in a glance, a jittery leg, a comment about someone in the lobby.
In return for the trust they’ve placed in you, you give them your full self. In the room, the world narrows to their need. Everything you are is in service to this person. All you’ve learned, done, felt bends itself for them, makes space for them. You are their witness. It is your job to see them, to hear them, to make them feel known. And what is love if not our full attention? What is love if not genuine presence that, in that moment, asks for nothing?
You can’t maintain this process infinitely; you can’t breathe down there forever. You will actually drown. And sometimes you get distracted—a stray noise, a hunger pain, and suddenly you bob to the surface, mentally sputtering.
But, because they have let you see them, you love them. Because they have shown you who they are, something of them resides in you. It becomes difficult to balance between wanting deeply for them, something better, something more, but also asking nothing, remaining by their side when you want to pull ahead. We’re not allowed to want for our clients anything other than what they want for themselves. But we do, of course, and when our wants and their needs conflict, we have to live in the house they picked, and not the one we imagined for them.
Sometimes a client sits with a decision for months or years, and the whole time you know what they’re going to do, ultimately. But you can’t say that outright because, of course, you can’t know: you can’t predict their future. And, frankly, because it would be entirely worthless to them. They have to get to a place where they are aligned with their own truth. But you’ve seen their heart and you know what it wants.
Often, people ask me, or simply tell me outright, how hard it must be to be a therapist. And the truth is, in the act itself, it’s usually not that hard. Like anyone else, I can feel dread going to work, or apprehension headed into what I know will be a difficult session. But once I’m there, I’m under. The exception to this is when I am working with someone who has put a vault around their heart, who is immovable. There you are in the water with them, weighed down by the safe they’ve locked themselves in, drowning. But it is your job, so even while your lungs fill with fluid, you fumble for the combination, you look for opportunities for change, for understanding, for growth. You look for anything that will free you both from this watery grave.
That’s the hardest thing. And like all love, therapy comes with a cost. All these stories live inside me now. It’s inescapable and mostly it makes me a better person than I was. But when empathy is a muscle you use day in and day out, it can be difficult to relax it. So in my own life, when someone has hurt me, I can’t help but be acutely aware of their perspective. I can’t help but to make arguments in my head for why they made the choices they did. I have already, without my permission, started to forgive them, even as I am seething in anger. Sometimes, I just want to feel my own feelings without others’ being muddled up inside me.
You have to find outlets for this, spaces you give yourself not to feel or think too deeply. I take pictures of my outfits, and watch Botched, and I hate Blake Lively with complete abandon. Why? Who knows why? Who cares? This is an analysis-free zone. The grass is green and the sky is blue and I hate Blake Lively.
Overall, you get more from this love than you give. You learn what it means to actually listen to another person, and not what passes for listening in most of our interactions. You understand how people work, and you become better at predicting your own behaviors and those around you. But, more than any of that, you connect to people you never would have, and you feel grateful for what they’ve shared with you.
It is worth it, to go under. It is worth it to spend hours in the deep, wet, dark. I have made a living here, and I am better for it.