There is irony in the idea that psychotherapy can be a lonely and isolating profession.
For one thing, we’re in the business of helping clients cultivate more fulfilling relationships. For another, we spend years in our own therapy working to strengthen our own self-awareness, relational skills, empathic development, and the capacity for emotional connection.
You expect your therapist to be emotionally integrated (if there is such a thing). That somehow we have our relationships under control. And that the quality of our relationships are on par.
The reality, however, is that like everyone else, we still have our problems and anxieties. Some of us just learn to live with them better than others. And at the end of the day, the therapist in private practice doesn’t enjoy the company of coworkers or work in a team environment. The therapist works out of an office where books and other adorned objects serve as his or her only companions.
One of the ironies of the profession is that while sessions with clients are often filled with emotional charge and even fulfillment, we are then left with ourselves after the client exits the room.
So, what’s that like for us?
I know I’ve had times when I leave the office with a sense of having derived more emotional satisfaction, and even growth, from my sessions than when I’m with friends or family. The therapeutic conversation is, after all, rife with meaning, curiosity, inquisitiveness, exploration, dream work, and of course, uncovering layers of emotion.
But there is another compelling layer to this that deserves attention.
I feel lonelier as a therapist than before I became one. I feel lonelier after having been through my own therapy than before it. That’s not because I didn’t feel lonely before therapy but because therapy brought the feeling to my awareness. It made me realize that underneath the “depression” was loneliness, a deep longing for connection with another. And loneliness carries a quality depression doesn’t necessarily have: a sense of desperation.
Just picture yourself telling someone—no, admitting to someone—that you’re lonely. How does that feel? I flinch at the thought. We’re taught that there is shame in being lonely. It could mean you don’t have your act together, you’re bad at relationships, you have poor social skills, and a myriad of other qualities deemed not good enough by society.
There is shame for me as a therapist when I noticed in myself that shortly after I experienced a breakup, I felt excited when an attractive client that I thought had left therapy booked another session. What did that mean for me? Was it “wrong” for me to feel that way? It’s a question I took to my own therapist. The point is we’re trained to recognize these feelings and fantasies within us so that we can facilitate the safe and effective use of ourselves for our clients. In other words, we’re trained to recognize and work with our humanity.
I’ve often asked myself, What would my clients think if they knew that I suffered from loneliness? In what way would it affect the therapy? Are they under the assumption that as their therapist, I have everything figured out in my life, and that I subsequently enjoy a life of relational stability and meaningful relationships? And what if they knew that I, at least for the time being, experience much of my relational fulfillment from our sessions together? Something about that feels exposing, as if I’d be “found out” if they knew.
What if my client who paints a heart-wrenching picture of her loneliness could sense the longing inside of me as she looks into my eyes, tears streaming down her face, for a sign that I understand her pain, that I can hold her despair, that I can revel in her hope for my ability to bestow hope? What if she knew that I drew my empathy from a place of relatedness? I can feel your suffering, for I am carrying my own.
Loneliness is being recognized as an epidemic in the US and Canada. A study published in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology concludes that the perceived quality, not the quantity, of interpersonal connections was associated with poor mental health. This explains how a person can feel lonely even when surrounded by others. More importantly, it supports what therapists have known all along—it’s about how well a person is able to connect on a deep emotional level, from a place of empathy and vulnerability.
The problem is that after years of developing and strengthening my capacity to connect on a deep emotional level, I started to notice how much resistance there is in others to connect in the same way. The fear of vulnerability is real. And it’s all around us.
But I’ve come to realize through my own therapy that as a therapist, I have to be at home with a certain, perhaps limited, but nevertheless unique level of connection with others outside of my practice. And more importantly, to not be too quick to write off my personal relationships as devoid of the capacity to connect; that would only be reinforcing the loneliness and avoiding what could otherwise be the most meaningful relationships of my life.
After all, it’s in the nonclinical relationships where our social and romantic lives move forward. To believe otherwise is to feed into my own pattern of emotional avoidance, and to confine myself to relational deprivation and social isolation.
It’s about learning to discover the beauty in relationships outside therapy. Because without those, there is no life. And that’s what psychotherapy is largely about: Learning to discover what it is that makes us feel alive.