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| PSYCHOLOGY |
How Being a Therapist Neutralized the Human Condition for Me
Writing stories, from my perspective, trying to make them universally applicable. Hope you can relate.
For one and a half years now, I’ve officially been a therapist at a local community clinic in Brooklyn, NY, and unofficially, for half my life probably. Ever since I realized that compassion, diplomacy, and “sorting things out” were a real and stubborn skill set of mine, I knew what to do. Friends and family reinforced these tendencies in me (especially my grandmother who said I was like a psychologist at 10 years old — no pressure at all, grandma) and at some point in my late twenties, I enrolled into graduate school for training in mental health counseling. Grad school plus some time in the therapeutic trenches of Brooklyn, if you will, led me to the reflections in the article you are about to read.
The human condition is quite complex and varied. There is so much grist, grit and grace in being human, honor in it, even. We are cold and hot, soft and hard, wounded and brave, decent sinners, and tainted saints. Being a therapist has made me respect this conglomerate of all our parts, individually and collectively, and has helped me better see our life experience for what it is, and not what we might want it to be. In other words, it took a lot of the guilt and shame away from being human, softened me to the parts in myself and others that I’ve shied away from, and helped create much more neutrality and equanimity in how I see myself and others.
I’ve realized that although we all live some version of a personal life story called: “My Very Important Life Drama,” it’s not a terminally unique narrative. If I could put all my patients in twenty rooms of a house and leave cameras in there to record the sessions (major HIPAA violation and I’d never do it), you would see that most humans are telling and retelling different versions of the same story. So while we may have had different trials and tribulations on our journeys, the emotions they’ve elicited are eerily similar: love, joy, loss, disappointment, sadness, shame, numbness, wishing it all went some completely other way, the desire for a do-over.
To highlight this further, I might sometimes tell Patient A,
“You know, on Wednesdays I work with so-and-so (Patient B), and she and her daughter are navigating such a similar situation. It’s normal that you are having such a tough time understanding why your angsty teen has created an igloo out of her room and uses you only for food and laundry.”
Or I’ll speak with a parent in bereavement over the loss of her son, and I’ll reference another patient who is one year down the grief pipeline over the loss of her fiancé to an overdose, still crying and questioning life, but much, much less. There is so much universality in it all, so much more than you or I can even see.
Let me say this again. There is nothing that you have already went through or are currently going through, that some other human being on the planet, or probably a whole tribe of them, has not already went through or will go through at some point in their lives. Humbling, I know.
The loss? The heartbreak? The affair? The murder? The mental illness? The cancer diagnosis? COVID-19? Someone’s been there already, treaded your waters. It’s like there’s this infinite pool of human experiences we’re granted and all 7 billion plus of us are going to experience most of them, in one way or another, at one point in our lives. In fact, the later in life we’ll meet, the more overlap we’ll probably have. It’s beautiful to me, how interwoven all these seemingly separate lives are.
Being a therapist has softened me to these life realities, that some version of my life, you have already lived, and some version of yours, I have yet to experience. Maybe I’ll be the mom in therapy at my wits end because my teen daughter has a closer relationship to her phone than with me. Maybe I’ll be “the patient” in a reality that dawns closer and closer. Unfortunately, being a therapist does not preclude you from having your own “real problems,” a rebellious teen, a gender-confused kid, a cheating spouse, dying parents, existential angst, etc. We all navigate through the same fertile and rancid soil.
Most recently, I worked with a 75 year old woman on a “Regret and Compassion” exercise, although for her purposes, I said
“Just write out all your regrets, by the decade, as many as you can think of.”
When you are 75, you can do such a thing. What a privilege. I purposely left out the compassion part, because that was the jewel of this exercise. Besides Frank Sinatra in My Way, we’ve all got regrets, and more than just “too few to mention.” Can we bring compassion to these regrets, whether there are 2, 12 or 22? With my patient, I asked if maybe she could embalm each regret with a salve of compassion, because the regretful events were long gone, but her self-flagellation wasn’t.
This lovely woman had many regrets. She regretted not standing up to her abusive dad when he was a literal hard-hitter, she regretted not calling the cops on him (although she ran all the way to the precinct at 10-years-old and then ran right back home in a fit of frenzy), she regretted cheating on all the women she ever loved; there were many, especially the one she had loved the most. “What’s wrong with me?” she kept repeating.
“Absolutely nothing,” I said. You may be surprised at this, but the only fault of hers I could find, beside from the obvious moral ones of painful infidelity, was that she thought that there was something wrong in how she had lived her life, the choices she had made. But there wasn’t. They were her mistakes to make. Are they even mistakes? Who is to say? What’s wrong is to fight the life that she led, to oppose it while being a self-aware warrior who goes to therapy in decade 7.
There are few things now that I find abhorrent, disgusting, shameful, utterly sinful, or better left buried in the gutters of the heart. There are no gutters. Just say the thing, it’s already been said by someone, somewhere. I promise you. Generally, and quite gratefully, I can now bring compassion to right about any human experience, even the cringe-worthy ones. There is great comfort in knowing that it already happened to someone else, and yet there they remain, breathing and walking and sipping tea. It’s just a matter of time before we all experience the same thing, the raw underbelly of our common humanity with all its grist and grit. We’re all still saved by grace, in one way or another, in this lifetime or the next.
Being a therapist, even in these early stages, has taught me to be more comfortable in my own skin, to lean more gently into my flaws and yours, to accept that maybe my shirt was on backwards for the duration of an entire session with the tag sticking out and no one had the courage to tell me about it. Instead of yelling at myself for everything that went wrong, I try to remove some of the charge from the day’s events, from my part in them. All the shame and blame, I try to release it. It’s not so serious, after all, not so horrible. I did my best to be a decent human today, maybe I was exceptional at it, or maybe just mediocre. Who cares? If I’m caught up in “My Very Important Story,” I just breathe a nice dose of neutrality towards that sucker. Neutral. Not unique. Neither my story, nor yours.
More by Laura Khait: https://laura-khait.medium.com