The Single Most Common Question I Get as a Psychologist

The thing people most want to know from a psychologist may surprise you.

Posted Nov 12, 2019

When I finished my Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1991, I was still just under 26 years old. At the time, when first meeting me, clients would stare for a while before reciting some polite (or not-so-polite) version of "What the heck could you possibly know, you pimply-faced Ph.D.?" But now, almost three decades later, with silver hair and professor-like, black-rim glasses, I've been in the field longer than I haven't been. 

I'm also the son of a psychologist (dad) and counselor (mom), in a family of more than a dozen therapists. My step-mom, step-dad, sister, brother-in-law, cousins, aunts, uncles, great-uncles, etc., are all counselors of one type of another. If something in one of our houses breaks, even the family dog will ask you how you feel about it, but nobody will know how to fix it!  

The point is, I've been in and around psychology my entire life, and have received as many questions as any other psychologist. The question I get most often is: "How do you sit with people and hear their problems all day without it affecting you? How do you insulate yourself from their feelings and remain objective?"

The Answer: You don't.

Well, you do work hard to remain objective. That has to do with paying attention to facts more than feelings because feelings aren't facts. But, in my not-so-humble opinion, you can't insulate yourself from clients' feelings, because the harder you fight them, the more intense they get.  And the more intense they get, the more "stuck" inside you they become.

Instead, you let clients' feelings pass through you. In effect, you are lending these people your soul. For this reason, as a psychologist, you must always be willing to screen people out, even if you need the money. And when you do accept a client, you have to be willing to go through hell with them, if that's where they need to go.  

Now, you might think this would make clinical psychology an impossibly difficult profession. However, if you choose people who aren't so much complainers as action-takers, people who are grateful for the connection and capable of growth, and if you become proficient enough with a particular problem so you can easily recognize those you can vs. can't help, it becomes an extremely rewarding experience.  

It took me some time to figure this all out.

Nowadays, I work on a very specific problem with a very specific, short-term solution (overeating). Virtually every session is a blessing to both myself and my clients. I watch their feelings of hopelessness and despair dissolve quickly. It's uplifting.

But sometimes there are tragedies. Like a man who came to me just after his son had committed suicide. These sessions tear your heart out, and the feelings stay with you on a deep level. 

But remember, there are also celebrations: New parents. Business windfalls. Broken marriages resolved. Babies' first steps. When you lend people your soul, you get all the good stuff, too. And most often, the good and the bad come packaged together in one soul.

Overall, I wouldn't trade this job for the world. Every day I wake up, I pinch myself and ask, "Do I really still get to do this? How in the world did I get so lucky?" Of course, every now and then, I want to get up on top of a rooftop and scream, but those days are few and far between.

I love what I do. I love being a psychologist.

Food for thought.

PS: The second most frequent question I get asked as a psychologist is: "Are you analyzing me right now?" No, I'm not. That takes a lot of hard work, concentration, and a certain amount of vulnerability, which is very hard to maintain 24/7/365. To analyze you, I'd have to put myself into a very specific state of mind.

So, other than the extent to which everyone is always trying to figure everyone else out, when I'm off duty, I'm really off duty. I just want to watch something silly on Netflix, laugh, play a stupid phone game with my niece or nephew, or call a friend.