The other side of the couch

I’ve been a clinical psychologist for coming up on nearly a decade and I have a few confessions to make; mainly by popular demand.  I’ve fielded a lot of strange questions over the years – mostly from acquaintances and strangers.  I also know a fair amount about the secret questions clients have for our ilk.  In this post, I’m going to do my best to pull back the curtain on the secret life on the other side of the couch.

I bet you can tell a lot just from looking at me.

This statement usually comes when I’m attempting small talk at a party or gathering.  Sometimes,  alcohol provides necessary courage.   The question is both an invitation and a dare.  The lovely psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, once said, “It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”  I like to use the analogy of sunlight – we all love the warmth of the sun until it’s too bright or too hot.  The person who says this to me is both asking me to see them and afraid of what I’ll see – they are anticipating the pleasure of validation and the pain of vulnerability.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve heard as a psychologist?

This question is both a test and a bid to be validated.  The test is for me – will I break the boundaries of confidentiality just enough to reveal some juicy tidbit?  I am fiercely loyal to my clients and protect them and their privacy, so I inevitably disappoint the questioner.  However, this sets me up to be ‘mysterious’ and sometimes intimidating.  That’s okay as it is my job.  The bid to be validated is embedded in the notion of something weird, messed up, or broken in others.  The person asking may appear to be looking for gossipy, salacious details, but underneath, the real question is: “Am I as fucked up as everyone else?  More so or less?  Please tell me less.”

You must be so emotionally healthy and have an amazing marriage.

Here, we see both a wish and sometimes, a bit of envy.  Depending on who is saying this and why, it can be a compliment or a method to push me away.  We need psychologists to stand in as authority figures – parental substitutes who listen intently without taking from us.  The wish and need is for them to be healthy – meaning generally stable, have things more figured out that you do, and not asking you help them with their feelings.  To this end, I can truthfully say that yes, I’m generally emotionally healthy.  I definitely have my struggles but I have always been my first client.  This means I’m thinking about what actually works and doesn’t work with me and by extension, my family, friends, and clients.  I feel strongly about therapists, counselors, and psychologists who lay emotional burdens on their clients by inappropriately talking about their own stuff and shifting the focus of the session to them.  Occasional self disclosure in the service of the client is appropriate as long as it’s already been processed with the clinician’s own support system.  Beware of the clinician who colludes with you by talking about surface topics session after session.

Comments my friends and family have heard:

It must be nice to get free therapy from your friend!

There’s a difference between therapy and talking with friends.  It has to do with reciprocity and mutual vulnerability.  In session, clients pay for my expertise, my undivided attention, and my ability to contain my own baggage.  The heart of connection and change is authenticity, acceptance, and empathy.  Those cannot be bought and come free as our therapeutic relationship unfolds.  The speed of transformation in session comes as a result of all of these things and the only required part is payment, time, and effort.  I believe that a good friend can do similar, if not same things as a psychologist – but it takes much longer.  A good friend can provide the elements needed for meaningful change but healthy people will want them in return.  While I am willing to use my therapeutic skills (which I sometimes refer to as x-ray vision) with my friends, I expect an equal and mutual agreement.  The other person need not be a clinician but must look inward and continually develop insight.  It is something we’ll have in common.

Being in a relationship with a psychologist, I bet you feel like you’re being analyzed all the time.

While I cannot speak for my partner, I’m told this is not the case.  My partner describes me as more thoughtful than average and says I’m usually interested in finding out the root of an issue. This apparently is a good thing, as we’re still happy and continuing our relationship.  Being the first client to myself (as noted above), I think I do tend to examine my own and others’ underlying needs and wants more than the average non-clinician.  I know how to emotionally self regulate and I make an on-going practice to be attuned to myself and the people around me.  My belief is this – an accountant can’t stop knowing numbers with their own taxes.   It makes sense that I’d apply therapeutic skills to my life.  I also say that a dentist can’t work on his or her own teeth – so I know when to go back to therapy when I need it.

There are millions of other questions people have for psychologists. Do you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask?  Write a comment and we’ll have another post of psychologists giving you the real truths.

Also published on Medium.