Sometimes We Get It Wrong (and we’re still worthy!)
One of the many reasons I love working with kids so much is how blunt they can be. Don’t get me wrong, I also love working with adults, but adults have learned over time to sugar-coat some of what they say, or say things in ways that are not as direct. Kids, on the other hand, just let it out. And I love it. They make me a better therapist, a better human being, and I know they are going to make me a better mom to my own children one day when I start a family…
Yet, as much as I love it, there are some days when my teenagers say something that hits a nerve, as teens are often prone to do!
One of my kiddos really struck a nerve this week (not his fault at all and this is NOT a bad thing). Let’s call him Frankie. Frankie has struggled for years to put words to his feelings. For the first year of therapy, Frankie sat in my office and said very little. He did not appear to have any words to label his feelings, nor did he seem to believe in therapy. Despite giving me only shrugs and nods in response to my questions, he continued to show up week after week, voluntarily. It was a test in my patience to say the least, and let it be known that when it comes to patience, I have very little of it (I’m working on this one)!
But now, two years into therapy, Frankie talks the entire session. He is very aware and observant of the therapist sitting across the room from him, a concept which might easily be taken for granted, but when it comes to developmental trauma, some people have a hard time truly acknowledging another caring, supportive person in the room with them. He has made incredible strides in counseling, and he and I have an awesome therapeutic alliance, which I really cherish.
This week, while talking to Frankie during his session, I attempted to provide some feedback on what he was saying, to which he flatly replied “Umm, nope. No. You’re wrong.” He wasn’t trying to be offensive. He wasn’t trying to do anything except communicate exactly what he verbalized –that I had misinterpreted what he was trying to tell me and I had gotten it all wrong.
This happens in therapy – sometimes we do get it wrong. Most adult patients might have phrased it differently and said something a little less direct, such as “Well, no I don’t think that’s exactly right…” But not Frankie. Frankie was to-the-point, something I know I can always expect from him, and something I truly appreciate about him and most other kids who I see for therapy. But for whatever reason, on this particular day, his response about me being wrong sent me into feelings of shame. I started saying to myself:
“How did I get that wrong? How could I have misinterpreted what he said?”
“What is wrong with me? I’m such a moron.”
“Get your sh** together, Alyssa.”
Figuratively speaking, I beat the crap out of myself. Even as I drove home that night, I felt horrible for being “wrong”, as if being wrong is the equivalent to being “bad”.
This is the shame talking. Shame exacerbates even the most harmless situations until suddenly we feel like crawling in a hole and dying for making a simple, common mistake. Shame makes us feel like we have to be perfectionists, and that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. In believing this, we set ourselves up for failure because we are all human beings, each and every one of us fallible.
Thankfully, I have wrestled with shame and perfectionism long enough in this life to be able to (mostly) push it away when it comes up. I’m much better at talking back to the part of me that feels like making a mistake is the equivalent to being a horrible human being. When I was in the moment with Frankie, I was able to kick the shame and other defenses (i.e. the urge to defend what I was saying) out of my office so I could hold space for him to further explain his point to me. And guess what?
He was correct, and I was indeed wrong!
And that is OKAY! Sometimes we just get it wrong (yes, even therapists!). What’s important is to be able to hold space (whether you’re a therapist or not) to listen to others and acknowledge when you’re wrong without being defensive or letting shame get in the way. We’re all human, and no amount of chastising yourself is going to make you infallible in the future. We do not have the power to be perfect, but we have the power to acknowledge our imperfections, accept them, have compassion for ourselves, and move forward.
Besides, how mundane would life be if we were all perfect?
Thankfully, we’ll never know.
It’s A New Dawn
Change – the thing many of us crave but run far, far away from when faced with it.
“I want a new job.”
“I always wanted to try yoga.”
“I wish I could afford to travel.”
And then one day it happens:
-You get a new job offer.
-Your friend invites you to a yoga class that she goes to every week.
-You finally have enough money saved in your bank account to fly to the country of your dreams!
Opportunity knocks, and you would think it would make you happy, but instead you are terrified.
“Well what if I hate this new job?”
“What if I look like a fool in yoga?”
“I can’t go on vacation, God forbid I need this money for an emergency down the road. It’s too scary to travel right now anyway.”
We long for change! We pray for it! We beg for it! We curse the skies and ask God why things aren’t changing. Then one day, we see an opportunity on the horizon, and instead of embracing it, most of us are like “Nope, no thanks. Not today.” Personally, I have struggled with change my whole life, especially lately.
Last week, I resigned from my position with the police department. If you didn’t already know this, I have spent the last two and a half years as a counselor for a local police department. The fact that I will no longer be an employee there after this Friday is something I still cannot wrap my brain around.
When I first started this job in 2018, I was ecstatic. I thought I had the rest of my life figured out. I told myself I’d have a secure job, a pension, vacation and sick time, holidays off, etc. Prior to this position falling into my lap, I had always wanted to go into private practice. But when I started this job, I put those dreams on the back burner for the promise of a guaranteed salary, benefits, a pension, and the opportunity to help others in a very unique way – most police departments do not have a full-time counselor on board.
But one day last summer, I left work realizing something was missing in my career. I wanted the opportunity to work long-term with kids and adults who have endured trauma, something I was unable to do given the short-term counseling I was limited to providing through the police department. The majority of my job included helping others only with surface-level problems, teaching them healthy coping skills, and then referring them to someone else to dive deeper into their trauma.
I longed to walk with people on their journey to recovery instead of referring them to someone else. I knew that I could help people so much more outside of the confines of short-term stabilization counseling. So last summer, I opened my own private practice as a trauma therapist. The intention was for me to do this part-time while maintaining my job at the police department. My practice opened in August of 2019. I started out renting a small office from a very kind woman until my practice became big enough to be able to afford my own office, which took about two months.
In October, I moved into my own office. From there, it took about 6 more months for my practice to grow into a full-time job. I was so torn because I loved both of my jobs. Working with the police allowed me to form relationships with law enforcement officers, school district employees, multiple victim service organizations, among many others who dedicate their lives to helping and serving others. I’ve had the opportunity to deliver food to the homeless, to console people in their grief after a traumatic loss, to offer a safe space for kids who are living in neglectful and abusive environments, and so much more.
I could write a book alone on what it is like to be the only therapist working with law enforcement officers on a regular basis. I met some amazing men and women who work tirelessly, putting their lives on the line for others, sacrificing time with their own families so that others may be protected. My friends in law enforcement have challenged me and opened my eyes to what their lives are really like and why they think the way that they do. I’d like to think that I helped do the same for some of them when it comes to mental health. After all, being the only therapist in a room full of police officers helped me to find my voice and develop confidence in who I am and what I do.
But as time went on and I continued to work in the police department, major changes started happening – a combination of changes in myself and changes in the department. Out of the respect that I have (and will always have) for most of those that I worked with, I won’t go into those changes. I’ll simply say that in my gut, I knew it was time for me to move on.
Yet, I struggled. “What if I quit and they hate me? What if I quit and my private practice doesn’t continue to flourish? What if I can’t make it as a trauma therapist? How can I give up guaranteed income for a job where, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid? And most importantly, what will happen to the people who might need my help through the police department in the future?”
But you can’t pour from an empty cup, right? What good would any of those things be if I wasn’t truly happy with my job? And the truth is, the more that time went on the more I felt I belonged in private practice. So as scared as I was, I honored my instincts, and I resigned. I cried after I sent in my letter of resignation; and after my last day this Friday, I will surely cry some more. Change is horrifying, but as scared as I may be, I know I did the right thing. I mourn the loss of what could have been if I stayed, because I know I had so much potential to thrive in that position. I truly valued the work I did at the police department and the wonderful people I met. But I know those relationships will live on whether I work at the police department or not.
Change is happening at a pace so rapidly and so unexpectedly that I can barely keep up. My husband starts his dream job on Monday; and on Friday, I will say goodbye to a job I thought I would stay at forever – and that’s just scratching the surface of the changes that have been occurring in 2020!
I’m terrified, but I’m moving forward. I’m shocked at myself, but I’m proud. I’m nervous, but I am SO EXCITED for what’s to come.
In the words of the famous singer/songwriter Nina Simone:
“It’s a new dawn,
It’s a new day,
It’s a new life for me,
And I’m feeling good.“
You CAN Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Those three precious doggies in the photo above are all mine. Macie, the small, white dog, is 7 years old. Noel, the brown and white pup, is almost 2. Bentley, the wolf-like wild man with his tongue always hanging out is 10 months old. I do not have children of my own yet, but these are my babies.
This quarantine has been tough on humans and pets alike, as as their routines have been just as scrambled as ours have been. In my home, I have noticed things have been the hardest on Macie. She has been extremely anxious, panting, shaking, hiding under the bed, and pawing at me to pick her up. While her breed (part chihuahua, part poodle) makes her an anxious dog by nature, she has been much worse than usual, especially over the last month or two.
This past week, my husband and I were itching to get out of the house, so one late afternoon we took the dogs to the dog beach. I was hesitant to take Macie because her anxiety has been so severe and I did not want to further stress her out by having her be around a million unfamiliar dogs. Normally in unfamiliar situations, Macie panics and clings to me. I thought the beach would be a nightmare for her, especially because she hates water. But then again, she has been cooped up for so many months just like the rest of us. Normally, during this time of the year she is used to car rides, day trips, family gatherings, etc., so I figured “Ah, what the heck – the beach might be good for her.”
Within 30 seconds of being at the beach, she turned into a totally different dog! She was hyper, playful, social, and completely fearless! She splashed in the water, chased after dogs that were ten times her size, and rolled around in the sand without a care in the world. It was a drastic change from the anxious dog I had been so worried about over the last few months. She was so care-free!! It was such a joy to watch her step back into the playful pup she has always been.
But I’m not here to talk about Macie all day (although I could). I’m here to tell you that one of the most important lessons I have learned from Macie, from my patients, and for myself is that it is never too late to discover something new about yourself, to change, to heal, to recover, to accomplish your goals. Lately I have found myself talking with a lot of people who simply feel like it’s too late for them:
-“I’m already married with kids – I missed out on my time to learn who I am outside of my “mom” and “wife” identity.
-“I’m retired – I spent so much time working that I never found “the one” and it’s far too late for me to learn how to be in an intimate relationship.”
-“I’m a recovered addict, there is no way I am going to be able to make a career and a life for myself.”
-“I’m divorced, a survivor of domestic violence, it’s too late for me to be able to trust anyone again.”
My response to all of the above? No, no, no, and NO.
Our brains were once thought of as being a relatively static organ – unchangeable. But man oh man is that SO WRONG. Our brains are ever-changing, adaptive organs. The brain can rewire itself at any point in life, not just in the developmental/childhood stages. So it truly is never “too late” to do that thing you always wanted to do, or to be that person you wanted to be, or to find that significant other you have been searching for your whole life.
Personally, there are many times when I have felt like it is too late for me. I know, I’m only 28 years old, but still – I have battled crippling anxiety my entire life. At times, my anxiety takes over my whole body and I feel like I have no control. As a perfect example, I had a dentist appointment this week. What should have taken all of 30 minutes ended up taking 3 and a half hours. I, of course, had to wear a mask in the waiting room, which I sat in for 90 minutes before finally being called back. Having the mask on for that long threw me into a panic attack that left me crying in the waiting room (not my proudest moment).
I felt so embarrassed and defeated when I got home. I remember thinking to myself “I’m going to be crippled with fear and anxiety for the rest of my life.”
But this is just so not true. As we were at the dog beach later that evening and I was watching my 7 pound chihuahua splashing around in the waves and digging in the sand with 70-pound dogs, I realized that it is never too late to overcome your fears, or to do the thing that you never thought you could do. After all, Macie, who has spent her whole life cowering in fear when in new environments, acted like a fearless, care-free puppy this week.
And now when I reflect on what happened at the dentist, I realize that I, too, am changing. I normally would have walked out and not gotten my teeth taken care of because the anxiety felt like too much. But this time, I stayed. I sat through it, I reached out to my supports, and I ultimately did what I needed to do in order to take care of myself and my pearly whites! This is huge progress for me – my brain is slowly but surely rewiring itself to be able to endure unpleasant feelings, and I know that one day, these unpleasant feelings will be even easier for me to manage.
The bottom line is this:
It isn’t too late, regardless of what the thoughts in your head are telling you. Healing and happiness and recovery exist whether you’re 7 years old or 70. So let me ask you this: What is it that you’ve been wanting out of your life but feel like it’s far too late for?
Go get it! If my 7 year old chihuahua can do it, I know you can too!
5 Tips for Finding the Right Therapist
It’s happening – we are starting to deal with a mental health pandemic as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am seeing it in my own patients, I am talking about it with my colleagues, I am seeing it in my friends and family. This pandemic has been going on for half the year, with no ending or solutions in sight. This is causing extreme upticks in anxiety, depression, PTSD, and relationship issues, among many other problems. The more I talk to friends and colleagues in the field, the more often I hear them saying “I’m so booked up with new patients that I have to start turning people away who are looking for therapy.”
On one hand, the thought of how badly people are struggling from this global pandemic makes my stomach turn. On the other hand, I am glad people are taking care of themselves by getting themselves in to see a therapist! If you are one of those people who are thinking that it might be a good idea to talk to someone, I thought I would share a few tips for finding the right therapist. I know it can be a daunting task – I did not see my very first therapist until around 21 years old and it took me about 4 years of switching from therapist to therapist just trying to find one that I felt like understood me. But don’t let that deter you – most people don’t spend years trying to find the right therapist, although it certainly can take some time. Below are a few tips to keep in mind when trying to find the right professional to help you:
- Know the difference between in-network therapists and out-of-network therapists. Out-of-network (OON) therapists do not accept your insurance directly, but that doesn’t mean your insurance will not pay for some or all of it. Know what your insurance will cover before starting the search – check with them about whether or not you have OON benefits and if you do, ask about any deductibles, percentage reimbursed, and out of pocket maximums. Many insurance companies will reimburse you between 70-80% of an OON therapist’s fee. Knowing this information will help you to better refine your search for a therapist who is a good financial fit for you.
- Do not limit yourself to a quick search on Psychology Today or just the list that your insurance company provides you. Don’t get me wrong, Psychology Today is awesome, but especially now that most therapy is virtual, searching on Google will allow you to widen your search to therapists that are just about anywhere in the state.
- Do your research if you think you have found a therapist who you might be interested in. Read their websites, send them an email, ask them a few questions, request a brief phone consultation. Try to get a feel for the therapist before deciding if you want to schedule an appointment.
- Look for therapists who specialize in specific disorders, treatments, or life stressors/events. Be wary of those who say they specialize in just about everything – it’s very important to find someone who knows his/her limitations. Not all of us can be experts in everything. For example, if you are looking for a therapist to treat you for difficulty coping from a miscarriage, you would not want to see a therapist who has no experience or specialty in this area. This could ultimately do you more harm than good.
- Most importantly, remember that this is about you. When you do meet a therapist for the first time, they will be asking you many questions, but it’s also important for you to ask questions of your own. You are the one who gets to decide if you want to establish a relationship with this person – and having a good relationship with your therapist is one of the most important predictors in treatment success. To put it plainly, if you’re not feeling the connection, it’s probably not going to work out.
Hopefully these tips will help those of you who are thinking about searching for a therapist but have no clue where to begin. And if you’re still on the fence about whether or not you want to follow through – hop off that fence and give yourself the gift of therapy. It took me a while to find the right therapist (it probably would not have taken me nearly as long if I had known the information listed above), but even on my worst days, I can say that my therapist is the best gift I have ever given to myself.