Getting Out of My Own Way


There are days when being present for the pain of another human being feels like an impossibility.

While we are therapists, we are also real people with messy lives, noisy heads, spirits that ache and with hearts as open as never ending rain clouds.

We do not sit in a cubicle and “do” our work. We must sit across from another soul in all of our frailty and strength; on good days and bad.  I know we are ethically bound to not show up if we are too impaired to work. I know how the board defines impaired and I admit I have shown up with a broken arm, a broken heart, pleurisy and an exhausted soul.

Thank goodness all were on separate days.

Here is the kicker; clients have thanked me more profusely on the days when I am praying not to get sick at their feet while fighting off a migraine.

I recall the time I was told it was a great session after I coughed so hard, I excused myself to throw up and returned to my client talking, as if I never missed a beat. I recall wondering if I was really needed, or if a breathing blow up doll with my face would suffice. 

There was the time when I broke my arm in three places and each time I shifted in my chair I could hear and feel my bones move. I was listening intently to my client that evening, who thanked me for my wisdom.  That was a result of trying not to pay attention to my own physical pain.

When my husband left the marriage I needed to show up as a marital counselor. I could literally feel the shards of my own heart through my chest and that night the couple thanked me for my insight. Focusing on them allowed to me get out of my own way.

I do not recommend heart break, illness and broken bones as my top tools for effective counseling. I have learned however, it is my job to show up, be present and get the hell out of the way.

Good counseling sessions are not about my brilliance, just like the bad ones do not mean I have lost all skill and I should consider a job at the nearest retail store with the best discount.

My job is to be present.

To be open.

To be vulnerable enough to be empathetic without being so vulnerable that I go down the emotional rabbit hole with my client.

When I ignore the letters after my name and remember the most valuable tool I bring to the table, after my clinical skill, is my heart, only then does my ego open the door for meaningful sessions.

So I must tend to my heart of I want to thrive in this calling. Therein lays the real skill. We need to take care of our tender spirits with a level of expertise that is not taught in school.  

On those days when I struggle to create the sacred space for the pain of others to be held ever so gently, I check in with my heart and make sure that I can extend the same compassion to myself that I plan to extend to the person before me.

In that effort and awareness I will sit down, feet squarely planted on the ground, and start. With a little bit of luck, a great deal of heart, a handful of useful skills and with my ego carefully placed on the periphery, I will offer up my very best. Sometimes my client and I will knock it out of the park and at other times, I must admit, I think about that great discount at Target.


Elissa Berman