A few days a go I came across this: an essay titled, essentially, ‘how to fall in love‘. It’s not the sort of title which I find particularly appealing, associating it, as I did, with a certain kind of magazine. But people kept linking to it so I decided to have a look. I confess I was expecting a load of nonsense about what to wear, how to compliment the other party and how to follow a date up to ensure a long-term relationship. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover that this was a little more substantial. The piece was based on a study which attempted to build intimacy between strangers by each asking the other 36 increasingly personal questions.
Now I found this more intriguing than I had initially anticipated. I am a psychologist, after all, and that means that I am interested in relationships. I am also fascinated by fragility. Many of the people I see clinically end up in my consulting room because life has become too much from them – too cruel, too lonely, too tough. I ask them to expose their vulnerability to me – to tell me what frightens them; what demons haunt them. I am always struck by the privileged position I have – trust is earned, not given, and many people have trusted me with their pain and fear.
But I am a human as well as a psychologist and I know that it is not just my patients who are fragile. We all are – perhaps that is the essence of our humanity. Life can be dreadfully painful. To my mind, therapy is one of the ways of understanding that pain and learning to live with it. I can’t eradicate your experiences, nor do I wish to, but if we can find a way to allow you to exist without those experiences sapping the joy from existence perhaps we have done enough. It is, of course, easier said than done.
But then I began to think about professionals and whose job it is to expose our fragility. We are no different from our patients, really. A lot of people I have seen clinically seem to have a notion that we who work in mental health don’t understand what pain is. That is often, in my experience, incorrect. Many of us don’t talk about it as a general rule, but that doesn’t mean that loss and despair haven’t touched us. Perhaps, when it comes down to it, loss is what it’s all about – loss of identity, safety, love, self.
One of the interesting things about clinical psychology training, as opposed to psychotherapy or counselling training, is that we are not required to have our own therapy. I have always been deeply unsure about this. I think it suggests some fundamental difference between professionals and patients, which, as I said, I think is trumped by our shared humanity. I think it deprives us of a chance to reflect on ourselves and the reasons we do what we do for a living, for, to be sure, it is an odd way to spend your days. We might talk about being interested in people, but there are plenty of ways to indulge that interest without exposing yourself to tales of horror; without sharing someone’s else pain so acutely. I think there’s much more to it than that. Therapy is a means by which you can get to know yourself better. In my line of work, self-awareness is of paramount importance – knowing why you respond to Patient A differently from Patient B; understanding why you can’t work with Disorder X; why you’re so desperate to help someone with Problem Y. I don’t think we all have a Messiah complex but I do think our career choices are often deep-rooted and under-analysed.
But not being compelled to have therapy of our own also stops us experiencing what it is like to be a patient. It’s not necessarily easy being the therapist, but I reckon it’s a good deal harder being on the receiving end. It is difficult to tell someone the things that you are ashamed of. It is hard to talk about the abuse and neglect you have experienced and to cry about the abandonment you have felt. It is not easy to build a relationship like this. It takes the most enormous courage and it deserves huge amounts of respect. And whilst no one’s journey is the same as anyone else’s, it is experiences such as these which can attune us more sensitively to the pain and longing of others, which allow us to build those connections so integral to therapeutic work. And that is why I believe that every psychologist should understand the process of exposing their vulnerability, their fragility and their pain and that they should be compelled to do so as part of their training.