(Dear House Hunters on HGTV: you're making it very hard for me to keep the 10th Commandment. I am coveting my neighbor's house and their ability to afford a house and that they get to go look at houses and that some of them get to move to other countries all while I'm poor in an apartment. Shame on you for causing me to sin...)
So my co-therapist and I got a new client tonight. For confidentiality reasons, I can't say much about this client. Though, I will say that she is a girl and that she is my first client who is younger than me. I think that gets the necessary details across.
I have this problem of having WAY too much empathy for my own good. It's one of those annoying things that is both a strength and a weakness. Do you have any of those? Where you're in an interview and they ask what your biggest strength is and you answer. And then they ask you what your biggest weakness is and you say the same thing and it sounds horribly cliche and fake. But yet, it's true. It drives me crazy. But really, empathy is a big strength and a big weakness for me.
It's a strength because, hello!, I'm going to be a therapist. You need empathy to be able to align with clients and give them the caring support they need to improve their lives. I am really good at putting myself in other people's shoes and thinking about how hard being in their situation would be. I really do feel what they feel, at least to some extent. I think this is part of the reason I love reading so much - I feel the story, not just think about it. Usually, I am able to express my feelings of empathy to others and it comforts them, or at least I hope it does. There have been quite a few times when friends have told me about some of the hard things they've been through and I'm sitting there boo-hoo-ing and they don't even shed a tear. I assume this is part of what makes me a good listener and makes me one of those people that everyone goes to when they are struggling and just need someone to listen. I love being that person and I think I'm pretty good at it. See? Strength.
But then, my empathy is also a weakness. Because sometimes I have too much empathy. I put myself too far into other people's shoes and have a hard time living my own life because I am thinking too much about the other person. I become overwhelmed, at least for a little while, by pain and hurt and the desire to take all of that away from the person who shared with me.
That happened to some extent tonight. Here was this girl who was struggling with some pretty hard stuff. And though I haven't dealt with the same things she talked about, I could relate so easily to her. In some ways, she was very similar to me when I was her age and I could see myself in her. My heart broke for her. I sat there listening, trying so hard to think of every possible thing I could do to help her, and but really just wanting to sit there and cry with her. I felt so connected to her. When I let her know how strong I could tell she is, I was choking up and tearing up. And because I had so much I wanted to say I wasn't breathing enough. And, as I found out later, my chest and face turned bright red. (Which by the way, I just noticed this happens last semester. Have I always turned red in emotional or embarrassing situations? Cause I never knew). I probably looked and sounded crazy to her. But I was having such a strong emotional reaction that I couldn't help it! I held my composure (somewhat) and focused on her like I was supposed to, but inside I was a mess.
Then I drove home. Oh great day. I was even more of a mess! I always worried that my empathy would make it hard to be a therapist because it would be hard to leave work at work. And yes, it is. I thought about this girl and battled tears the whole way home. Because I want so badly to help her. To let her know that things will get better and to make things better RIGHT NOW. That she is amazing. That she has incredibly worth if only she could see it. I wanted to give her a big hug and take everything away so she could be happy. Neither of which I can do. (Stupid ethics!)
But, though I may not be able to do those things for her, there are many things I can do. I can research more on treatments that can help her. I can be at every session ready to focus solely on her. I can tell her over and over how strong she is and how much I admire her courage. I can give her hope that things will get better. I can challenge her negative thoughts so her mind can be filled with positivity. I can help her realize what resources she has available. I can make myself a better therapist. I can smile at her and reassure her and call her by name. I can help her understand and process her pains. And most of all, though she will never see it, I can pray for her.
This was the first time in doing therapy that my empathy has run away with me to aid someone else. And it is hard. It is scary. It is going to take some getting used to and I need to learn how to deal with it productively.
But would I change it? Would I want less empathy?
Not when it can help me to help my new client. Not when it can help me to help others. Because really, out of everything I want in life, the thing I want the most, is to help as many people as I possibly can.