How Counselors Cope
TL;DR: this is what counselors sometimes look like after session. (It's hard to see in the photo, but I'm teary eyed and have a couple tears on my cheeks.)
In my 10 years of working in the mental health counseling field, I’ve received a lot of comments and questions from people in my life around how I (or anyone) can be a therapist, such as: “How do you do it? How do you hear heartbreaking or upsetting things and still do the work? How do you not break down or lose it yourself?”
Sometimes, clients will even express concern and hesitation in telling me what they’re about to say… not because they’re afraid to say it, but because they’re afraid with “burdening” someone else (me) with their story. I always welcome it (not knowing what it is) with open arms because it’s what I was born to do. Often clients themselves will also ask how I do it because I respond well, no matter what curveballs are thrown at me in sessions.
So how? The truth is I’m not entirely sure I can articulate the “how.” It’s an amazing mixture of natural characteristics I possess, resilience I’ve built over a lifetime of stuff I’ve personally experienced and dealt with, amazing education, lots of professional experience, and bunch of different forms of self-care. I’m probably missing some ingredients, too, but you get the point that it’s not a simple answer.
As a person in everyday life, I feel – a lot. I’m the person you’ll see crying at every graduation ceremony (no matter who's graduating), when the national anthem plays at games, at random acts of kindness, at tragic news, at almost anything moving or awestriking. I have happy tears almost immediately upon having a good laugh, I have sad tears with loss. Even though it sounds like I cry a lot , I am able to move between emotions and when to express them and contain or cope with them with relative ease.
In my counseling role, yes, I hear so many heartbreaking stories that are so overwhelmingly sad; other stories that are angering and bring out the “mama bear” protector in me; and everything in between.
I actively listen and remain present to hold space for my clients and their feelings, and to remain a constant and compassionate person to help them with whatever they need at the time. Sometimes that help wells up in my eyes, a tear or two gently streams down my cheek, or words come out in a exclamation like, “I’m pissed off for and with you because what happened to you was not okay!” These expressions are always about being real and authentic, and joining with and validating the client where they are. While my emotions may be seen at times, they are also contained and always about connecting with my client (while also role-modeling that feelings aren’t bad – everyone has them), and the focus is always on the client.
And, truth be told, yes, sometimes after sessions I break down a little. I, like everyone else, am human first. I let it out and can cope with the tough stuff. I enjoy being let into my clients’ lives and I’m so grateful that clients trust me with the things that make them feel most vulnerable. I’m also so grateful to be able to genuinely connect with my clients.
So – just know that I’m always ready for the tough stuff, even if it streams down my cheek for a moment during session because I care and I’m here.