Many of us have watched the scene in a movie or a sitcom where a doctor or lawyer is introduced at an office or holiday party. Later, as the evening progresses, maybe after a few drinks, someone eventually comes up and asks for their professional guidance on a personal matter. For comedic value, usually the questions are beyond inappropriate and the answers range from something hysterical to the polite, “Why don’t you call my office Monday morning and we can set up an appointment.”
But have you ever witnessed the opposite? The doctor or lawyer freely offering their professional recommendations without being asked? Without knowing any history; simply passing judgment and making assumptions? I imagine it would go something like, “Excuse me, sir, I’ve noticed you’ve had several bacon steak appetizers; let’s check your cholesterol?” Sure, it may make for some entertaining cinema or TV viewing, but I’m not sure how well it would go over at the next office or holiday party. But if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I was analyzing them after chatting with me for a few minutes and then discovering I am a Licensed Psychotherapist, I would currently be retired, living on a private island!!
In my experience, mental health professionals are not often viewed as the life of the party. In fact, depending on the gathering and the people in attendance, the reactions I’ve experienced range from a mild discomfort to outright avoidance. And this is not just the experience I’ve had with strangers. I was once told that dating a therapist is not an easy thing… Ouch… When did my profession become so intimidating; provoking defensiveness and insecurity? But more importantly, when did our professions solely define who we are?
Yes, it’s true, I eventually chose this career because of my personal interests and innate strengths. I enjoy understanding and helping people. It’s my nature. My parents have told me from as early as 4 or 5, I’ve wanted to help people. I asked deep questions and sought to understand concepts well beyond my years. This curiosity, the desire to understand and to help others, it’s who I am, not just what I do. But as soon as someone knows what I do for a living, depending on the person, it’s something they can never forget. And sometimes, they’re often consumed with wondering… what is she thinking, is she diagnosing me, is she passing judgment? The truth is my friends, in certain situations, I’m frankly not paying attention… and though that may sound incredibly “un-mindful;” perhaps even unkind; I don’t mean it in a way that reflects indifference or disregard. But if you’re talking me to at a party after four glasses of wine and a shot of tequila, telling me your wife doesn’t what to have sex with you anymore or that your boyfriend has more female friends than he does male friends, but you haven’t met a single one, I’m not going to be offering you any magical solutions. And if within 2 minutes of meeting me and chatting you ask if I have you all figured out, waiting for some kind of diagnostic summary or breakthrough that is the answer to all your problems, please reconsider!
See, I’m not the kind of professional or even person, that strives to pay attention to what may be “wrong,” with you or your disorder or disease. It’s my nature to want to look for your strengths, what makes you unique; your quirks, if you will. I’m not interested in focusing my attention on what needs to be fixed, but rather I’m interested in learning what you value, your goals and the distinctive gifts you’ve been given. Because as we all know, everything has an opposite; so, what may be your kryptonite; causing disruption and disorder in your life, may also be your superpower. Especially, if you haven’t learned the practice I’ve defined as AAA: Awareness, Acceptance, and Appreciation of self.
We live in a world that seems hyper-focused on labeling what’s wrong with us or what needs to be fixed; from our healthcare system to our educational systems. We tend to pay more attention to people’s weaknesses, rather than their strengths. This is incredibly disempowering. As a result, society has been trained to be fearful of appearing weak or asking for tools in the field of mental well-being. Yes, we’ve made progress by creating more mental health awareness and some of the stigmatization has been exposed, but there is still much work to do. And I believe it’s going to take a different approach. I also believe most of our systems are circular when it comes to problem-solving, each part looking to the other to pass the blame, leaving us stuck in a never-ending circle to nowhere. There’s no right answer or no one reason our systems are failing us. But if we continue to believe mental health is something that can be fixed overnight or is something to be ashamed of or avoided, it’s not only the system that’s failing us, we’re also failing ourselves.
Personal development is hard work. And we’re tired… Life can be demanding. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid, deny or rationalize our dysfunction. And yes, ALL of us, do so, at times. Even me… It’s true, I have been blessed with genes and personality traits that manifest a more optimistic and at times, “happy, shiny, see the good in everyone to a fault,” mindset. But my brain is still wired like everyone else. I have to work to be non-judgmental, non-fault finding. I have to make intentional choices to not to pay attention to the negative, drama seeking content of this world. It’s not easy at times keeping my faith and hope intact, believe me. It takes practice, persistence, and consistency.
There’s a very old saying in the field of psychology, that could be quite offensive if taken personally. It says something to the effect that the people who go into psychology are often crazier than the people they’re helping. I’m not here to defend this stereotype, but I will say that some of the most successful people in this field have dealt with adversity. They’ve done the work and continue to, which contributes to their success in teaching and supporting others. I know I’ve done mine and continue to do so.
As I further reflect on why mental health professionals are often avoided or viewed as difficult people to have relationships with, is because they are often viewed as righteous or elitist. But make no mistake, just because I’m a licensed mental health professional, clinically trained to assess, diagnose, plan and treat psychological disorders, doesn’t mean I’m perfect or that I walk around analyzing everyone I meet. I’m only human and I’ll be learning every day for the rest of my life. In my experience, the people who are most uncomfortable with what I do for a living, are those who are not making the changes they know need to or haven’t yet reached a place of awareness,
In conclusion, I am thankful for the opportunity to serve people. I truly enjoy my job and I’m proud of what I do. And if I learned anything by reading this, I hope it’s that if you ever meet me at an event or run into me on the street, you warmly remember, I’m not analyzing you! But, if you call my office Monday morning and set up an appointment, I’m happy to!