My Students’ Most Commonly-Asked Questions

They reveal a lot about assumptions regarding emotions, people, and therapy.

Posted Apr 02, 2019

As a professor at a large public university, I teach hundreds of undergraduates each year on topics ranging from children’s development to mental health to family functioning. In part because I am also a practicing psychologist, I field tons of questions about – you guessed it – personal mental health. Those questions don’t phase me; after all, I’m the first to corner the dermatologist to ask questions about my kids’ eczema the first chance I get, even when it’s between the chips-and-hummus plate and the bounce house at a kid’s birthday party.  What does surprise me is the next-most-commonly-asked set of questions students ask, which all generally boil down to something like this:

“Professor Borelli, does it depress you to hear such sad stories as a therapist?”

Record scratches to a stop right here (note that my students won’t understand this analogy). This is what I just don’t get, especially in light of the fact that this type of question comes from students aspiring to become therapists themselves. The fundamental assumption underlying the question is that being around people sharing their authentic feelings would make me a sadder human being – someone who’s worn thin, raked over the coals by having to endure interactions as painful as this. On its surface, the question makes a lot of sense – does being in the presence of emotional pain make you experience more pain yourself? In psychological speak, this is kind of like asking, “is emotional contagion happening?” And the simple answer to this question is yes, of course – being around people’s emotions has to affect you, as we are all, to some extent, products of our environment. But we may not be affected in the way my student expects.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

If anything, I think I’m probably far more fulfilled by my work than most others I know. I find my work as a therapist to be enriching and uplifting – most often I leave therapy sessions inspired by my clients’ tenacity, humbled by their willingness to share of themselves. This work buoys me; it doesn’t deflate me.  It also just happens to be that my working belief about emotions, including the most painful of all emotions – sadness, regret, rejection, fear, loss – is that spending time in their presence (and expressing them) leads to progress and also connections between people. For instance, when my client spends a session sharing intense disappointment regarding a lost opportunity at work, his disappointment may decrease as he develops caring for himself (for having the pain of not getting something he wanted); he may also grow to understand more about where his feelings originated, which may help him feel more self-compassion than criticism; and finally, the process of gaining self-understanding and sharing his feelings may help him feel more connected to other people. At least this is how things can work when they work well.

This isn’t to say there aren’t situations when seeing clients isn’t challenging, but by and large, for me, this work gives far more than it takes. The student’s question wouldn’t actually be a silly question at all if it pertained to a different type of challenging clinical situation, because the reality is that many of the clients that therapists see have histories of significant trauma, stories that are upsetting, terrifying, or downright traumatic to hear—so much so that exposure to these narratives can be overwhelming for the listener. But often, it’s not these types of situations about which my students are inquiring – they’re asking a more general question, one related to the impact of being in the presence of clients’ garden variety emotion.

Shutterstock/with permission
Source: Shutterstock/with permission

This is where I think my students’ logic is flawed. And I don’t think it’s just students who have got this all wrong—I think these questions reveal something important about how people in contemporary society (perhaps just American society) think and feel about emotional expression– that it’s something to be avoided at all costs.

If we can get away without having a real conversation, then by all means, let’s go with that option. If there is an option to automate or take the human out of the equation, we vote for that choice. And I guess most therapists just work differently than that – 99 times out of 100, therapists would choose to have a meaningful conversation with someone about something that mattered to them. They don't want to talk about the latest meme that’s trending on Instagram –in fact, they may actually find that draining –and they do want to hear about what’s making someone feel insecure at that moment, because that’s how they feel connected to someone, and for them, that’s what being here is all about. Meaning, I think that therapists choose to do this type of work because having these types of conversations – getting the privilege of being in the thick of it with clients day and day out – is actually the very part of the work that feels most rewarding.

Raw emotion, intensity, pain? That sounds exhausting, deflating, say the cultural masses. These will bring you down. You should avoid them—either expressing them or hearing about them.

These are the implicit assumptions—and assumptions such as these are the problem. Psychologists from all different theoretical backgrounds will tell you that feeling our emotions is the solution to the problem, and that having regular contact with our feelings—being able to move in and out of them, to express them when and where we want to, around the people we feel safe expressing them to—allows us the flexibility to be able to control our psychological health. It may be the single best predictor of positive mental and physical health outcomes, staving off problems like anxiety and depression, loneliness, and interpersonal conflict. And similarly, allowing others the freedom of expression of their feelings – creating the kinds of environments where everyone is permitted to share feelings without fear of punishment or criticism – well, that’s the stuff that healthy relationships, families, and workplace environments are made of.

So now that I’ve been teaching for ten years, I’m no longer surprised by this question, but I am saddened and worried when I hear it. I’m saddened on two levels. First, I worry the question likely reveals something about the questioner—that they themselves doubt their own ability to handle intense emotions—and second, that they’ve encoded so deeply the message that tougher emotions are ones to be locked away.

It’s a cycle that does make me tired, and sad, and worried. If we doubt in our ability to handle hearing another’s pain, we unwittingly perpetuate the message that some things can’t—or shouldn’t—be shared.

Underneath this question you can hear a lot of fear lurking – do people with mental illness have the power to impact the therapist? Not that any of my students would come right out and ask the question that way – they are much too well trained to do so – but underneath you can hear this fear rattling their voice. On a related note, they are asking, if I become a therapist, can I trust in myself enough to separate myself from my clients? To maintain the boundary that they and I need?

So when students ask, I fumble, I breathe, I silently acknowledge how generally powerless I feel in the fact of so ingrained a cultural attitude, and I do the only thing I think might help: I use this question as an invitation to lean in with them and openly and honestly look a little closer at their own thoughts, feelings, expectations related to client emotions—however silly, painful, or worry-laden they may be. I don’t turn away, and I don’t dismiss. And I hope that slowly, but surely, the knots around expressing these sorts of things loosen, even for a moment.

And I remember that there’s another reason they asked the question, which is that there’s a part of them that hasn’t already accepted this implicit belief to be a foregone conclusion. And indeed, when they hear my response to their question, this part of them is given life, as oxygen breathed into a tank through a tiny straw. They’re relieved by the answer. And I’m relieved by their reaction to it.