On Being a Healer
by Cristal Martinez Acosta, LPC-S, NCC
As a “full time” trauma therapist, I work with about 20 clients per week. The stories I hear can be horrifying and complicated. I choose to keep my caseload (I.e. number of people I see) to a minimum because of this.
I write this piece for those who seek to understand what being a therapist is like. I also write this to give a voice to those therapists who choose not to go public about the realities of burnout and compassion fatigue. I also want to bring awareness to vicarious resilience.
Therapists are human. We come with our own family histories and our own baggage. This is unsurprising. It should be known that most therapists, are under some level of supervision early in their careers and we are encouraged to unpack our baggage early on.
What happens, though, to the clinicians in private practice who don’t have supervisors? What happens to the therapist who grows older and gathers new life experiences– new baggage?
We continue to work and grow as professionals. Afterall, the ultimate goal is to continually improve; be a better clinician for our clients. We attain this through completing tens of thousands of hours of counseling and therapy over the years. We get our continuing education credits, go to conferences, attend training. Yes, we do all of this for our clients. We do this to be better helpers, but at what cost?
I urge people to try and understand that being a therapist is a hard job. It’s not just a job, either. It’s a lifestyle… an identity. We can’t simply “turn it off”.
As I watch movies, as I people watch, as I observe interactions between children and parents in grocery stores, I can’t help but conceptualize what is happening. I can’t help but diagnose Iron Man with PTSD.
Therapists are skilled witnesses and empaths (the good ones are both). We witness hardships and crappy circumstances. We hear stories of abuse, neglect, and trauma. We empathize and “go there” with people. But something we also hear about is the human spirit and resilience. Just like there is vicarious trauma, there is vicarious resilience. This is the concept of gaining strength and empowerment from our clients.
Evidence of resilience and positive change can be difficult to detect sometimes. It might look like a client had time to shower and clean up that day, where before they couldn’t get out of bed. It can look like simply showing up to session when they really didn’t feel up to it. Clients who make small strides week by week give me hope that I too can progress…that I too can overcome my personal challenges and that I don’t need to run a marathon every weekend. Sometimes, the evidence is very apparent, like when a client tells you they have been sober for 2 years or when they leave their abusive partner.
Treating individuals and families is like a riding waves. You never know what size of wave will come at you. You must be prepared to skillfully and safely ride each one and make it to shore. This process with each client, hour by hour, day by day, can be exhausting and rewarding at the same time. This position comes with a lot of privilege and responsibility. It’s serious but lighthearted. You get to witness joy, pride, accomplishment as well as pain.
So when someone asks me, “what is it like to be a therapist?” I can’t really give a short or direct answer. I always pause to give a palatable and short-enough answer.
Sometimes at family dinners, parties, or even the hair salon people want to know what I do. I used to tell them in a way that would kill the mood—“I help trauma survivors process what’s happened to them,” or “I mostly work with crime victims and abused children”. Everyone who heard this did one of two things: stayed quiet or asked for advice (wanting my free emotional and intellectual labor). I’ve now learned it’s easier to answer things like, “I’m in social services” or “I work at a bank”. Less questions, less mood killing…and more rest for me.
It’s incredibly important for me to laugh. Not at my clients, obviously, but laugh in general. It’s my way to cope. I’ll laugh at some funny video on the internet, try to make my coworkers laugh with my weird antics, or simply joke around with my husband. Laughter gives me hope and vitamins (between sessions or after a particularly hard day).
I also pray for my clients. This release is especially important because I know I have absolutely no control over what anybody does. I can have a great session with a client where they’re pumped as heck to make a change…but in the end, I need to respect their autonomy…self-determination. And for me to cognitively cope with that (a.k.a. Letting go) I have to hand off that intent and energy to someone or something else.
Healing takes energy. It also takes a strong, spacious, and flexible vessel. I’m just a human, but I’m trying my darndest to help make this world better…one person…one hour at a time.