When I enrolled at a local Gestalt institute to complete my studies, I wondered what life as a therapist was going to be like. So I asked the advice of the best therapists I knew. The best advice came from Dr. Arthur Egendorf: "Expect to feel like a complete klutz for the first decade!" His prediction, though helpful, was off by about 5 years (I'll let you guess in which direction).
And there are still those times when I find myself at a complete loss with a client or a couple. Then I feel embarrassed or ashamed, thinking they're paying me good money to help them, and all I can do at such a time is hang out with them in their darkness. (And sometimes, that's enough; but not always). Rarely, however, do I dare admit I'm stuck.
My specializations as a therapist have always followed my personal life. So at first, as I was still sorting out issues around success, and how to relate to my wife, I was specializing in men's issues. Later on, after my divorce, I helped others go through break ups. When I started dating again, I called myself both a therapist and a dating coach. And since I met my second wife, I've been doing a lot of couples and marriage counseling.
But regardless of my specialty, something I still grapple with is when to keep a client from acting self-defeatingly, and when to bite my tongue and let them learn the hard way like I did and most do. I've come to realize that it's not so much what I tell a client but when and how. The right thing said at the wrong time is the wrong thing to say.
Another part of my job that always requires attention is determining with each individual exactly how much to share about myself. Because some people come for the expertise, and some come for the connection. Divulging personal facts can convey information, or deepen the connection. But sometimes it can just be an indulgence on my part, and I've got to watch that.
Speaking of being myself, one frustration of mine is due to the fact that I'm a touchy-feely kind of guy, and am naturally inclined to hug a client—or at least many of them—at the end of a session. But living at this time (and on this coast, here in New York City) I generally don't. Between the guys who would be too embarrassed, and the women—well, these days one misperceived move could be disastrous!
So I err on the side of caution. And speaking of caution, let me tell you, most therapists are as fretful of running into a client in public as most clients are of running into them. (Some Freudian analysts have been known to shut themselves off from the outside world for decades at a time for just this reason.) For me, it depends on whether or not I recognize them, and especially whether I can remember their names. You see I'm actually terrible at names as well as faces. All my life, including before I ever entered the profession, people have come up to me saying "Hey! Charley! It's me! How ya been man?!" And I'm too embarrassed to admit I can't recall who on earth they are.
And this of course gets no better with age. But what does get better is the knowledge and wisdom that hopefully accrues. After over twenty years in the field, there are a few things I've come to know and believe:
* One shouldn't be in therapy with one who isn't.
* A therapist can most effectively take you through only that which they've personally been through themselves.
* The quality of the relationship and connection between theapist and client trumps any modality or technique. For example, as a Gestaltist, I think that Freudian therapy is mostly a crock. But I'd prefer to be in therapy with a Freudian who is self-aware and truly present than some Gestalt therapist who's detached and distracted by his or her personal agenda.
* Fritz Perls (the father of Gestalt Psychotherapy) was right: Most people enter therapy simply to become comfortable with their neuroses. A few, however, come to learn how to fulfill their potential.
* Being a therapist is like being alive: Life will throw at you what you need to deal with. This occurred early on for me when my first client (we'll call her Leslie) after two years of hard work, left a voicemail one day 20 minutes before her session: "I'm not coming in today, and I need to stop. Please don't call me." Period. Besides being as stunned as most therapists would be, this gave me another (albeit unwelcomed) opportunity to deal with my abandonment issues, which stem from suddenly losing all meaningful contact, at age 15, with my mother. Leslie's phone message was what Ram Dass calls "grist for the mill". Being a therapist provides plenty of that, and, like life, it can be a pain in the ass.
Sometimes a client of mine bemoans the fact that they're 25 or 35 or 45 and have not yet "made it" or figured out what to do with their lives. I then tell them the story of how I became a therapist.
I was turning 40 and was in the throes of a midlife crisis. My marriage had storm clouds gathering on the horizon, and my job as an executive recruiter (for the financial services industry) was paying me well, but leaving me feeling empty inside. I knew I needed a change, but to what? Go back to writing? To radio? To sales? Become a therapist? Magazine or book editor? I remember the night I met with my men's group about it, and rolled out all my options to them. They just listened, and none had a strong opinion, although one of them happened to say, "When you spoke about becoming a therapist, your whole face lit up."
That night, walking back home along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, I considered what it would actually feel like to be a therapist, and it all hit me—not from above, but below: Something arose from my gut like an awakening, and suddenly in tears, I knew:
At that moment it all came together: I could use my people skills, my marketing skills, but most of all, my life. Because suddenly I realized that all the --- shall we say - manure I'd been through in my life (no more than most people have, perhaps, but manure nonetheless) could now become fertilizer. All the grief; all the crises; all the - oh my God, all the therapy! For I'd spent (and continue to spend) most of my adult years in therapy: Freudian; primal; cognitive/behavioral; marriage counseling; group therapy; you name it. It had always been my major conduit to personal growth.
In other words, everything I'd gone through suddenly became of use.
That fall I enrolled at the Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy in New York City (affectionately known as the GAP) and I never looked back.
At midway on my life's journey, I had done something completely right for myself. I'd maneuvered a 180 and brought my work life into alignment with my soul, and this has paid daily dividends ever since.
For one thing, when a client says, "...and I'm twenty eight! And I still don't have it all together!" I can offer them a little perspective.
NEXT: Confessions of a Couples Counselor