Updated: Jun 20, 2021
This past week, I was asked the same question no less than three times: “Why’d you decide to stop practicing therapy?”
The odds of this happening are low, given that “three” is very close to the number of people I see in a given week.
Once, the question came from a close friend. On another, it came from a therapist with whom I trained. The last time, the question came from a relative stranger. For all three people, my answer was just as real. Because the thing about spilling your guts on the internet is that filtering anything begins to feels a little futile.
It feels important to say that I didn't decide to practice therapy on a whim. (It’s especially important because I’ve previously been accused of being a “phase person.” Less of a big deal when it’s a sushi phase, more of big deal when that phase determines my college major or life partner.) I'd wanted to try my hand at therapy ever since I was 14, when I received pretty lousy therapy for my eating disorder. I thought I could do it better.
Ten years later, sitting across from my first client, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I was too harsh on my first therapist. Giving therapy is hard. In my master’s program, each week we’d have something called “group supervision,” where everyone would seek advice regarding challenging situations with clients. Although I shared frequently, I never vocalized the toughest part. That's because, for me, the toughest part was also intrinsic to the therapeutic process. It would have been like going to the beach and begrudging the waves.
Here was the problem: I’m not a “fixer.” I’m not an Enneagram 2 - people-pleasing, self-sacrificing, and - at worst - over-involved and controlling. I’m not an Enneagram 9, either: agreeable and supportive, seeking to leave every environment more peaceful than I found it. No, I’m a frickin’ 4. I like drama. Story. Melancholy. Introspection. Problems and their intricasies are beautiful.
I’m worried I’m not a good mom. I’m worried I’m wasting my life with the wrong partner. I’m worried I’m at the wrong job. I'm worried I'm a bad person. The solutions were so much less compelling than the problems. What if you were a bad mom, partner, employee, or citizen? What would that mean? How do we deal with the terrifying fact that one life is all we have, and every choice has an inconceivably massive opportunity cost?
Unfortunately, people don't go to therapy to revel in their problems. (Usually.) They want solutions. It's like when you go to the mechanic, and he spends way too long telling you exactly what's wrong with the car. How long will it take to fix, and how much will it cost? That's all I need to know.
Last Friday, I took a risk. I sent a text that scared me. I was feeling uncomfortable for about thirty minutes. I checked my phone over and over again. I battled a bit of regret. Then, I left my phone in the car as I sat in a recovery meeting, and tried to focus on other stuff. I thought: This is what it means to tolerate uncertainty. I’m doing it! I’m doing it! Here I am just totally doing it.
Oddly, that was (almost) enough. It worked for me. But I don’t want to accept money to tell people that life is about tolerating uncertainty, about stumbling towards serenity despite chaos. I mean, it is; but I don't want money for saying that.
This isn’t to say that, as a therapist, I didn’t give specific suggestions. I did. Internally, I had mapped out each client’s growth trajectory - one possible pathway to getting well. I could imagine some of the choices they would need to make, some actions they’d need to take, and I often felt quite sure I was right. But here’s the thing: that was a guess. An educated one, but still a guess. While, internally, my “treatment plan” felt right on target, informed by theory and supervision, I knew in actuality it was one of infinite possible pathways to change. It was almost laughably narrow. It’s as if a client had said, “I was thinking of a number between 1 and 1,000, but I can’t seem to remember what it was,” and I helpfully interjected “Hmm.. was it 763? For me, it tends to be 763.”
Uh, no? That's the thing about other people: they're not me.
Whenever I relay my reasons for quitting therapy, it feels important to say that I still believe in it. That is, I believe other people really are gifted therapists, and many clients really do benefit from the therapeutic process. I am, for once, not trying to say that what is true for me is true for everyone. I’m glad we have therapists, just like I’m glad we have mechanics.
While I was earning my master’s in counseling, I also worked as a researcher. A big part of my job was administering qualitative interviews - the kind where you walk into people’s homes and just ask them about their experience. “What’s it like to have diabetes?” “What’s it like to care for a sick kid?” “What’s it like to care for a spouse with dementia?” The stories were fascinating. The universality was painful. The strength, the coping, and the resilience were inspiring. My job wasn't to fix anything; it was just to listen.
Now, as a full-time researcher, I am paid to understand the story. I am paid to say “What’s going on here?” Sure, a small bit of energy must go to “What do we do about it?” - but, for me, that’s fundamentally an afterthought. The world is full of solvers, fixers, who are interested in the second question. In fact, they love that question. But I don’t. I don’t know what the hell we do about it. I’m just here for the story.