I am on the floor of my bathroom in my new apartment in Sherman Oaks. I can’t breathe. My heart is racing and it feels like my insides are going to explode. I remember what I learned about how to calm panic attacks years before in therapy sessions: slow down my inhales and exhales, remember this state is only temporary and when I find the present moment, I will feel calm again. I have not had a panic attack in years but it is happening now. I moved to this apartment to be close to the Graduate School I am going to start tomorrow. I have had a dream of becoming a therapist since a therapist saved my life as a teenager. But now on my bathroom floor, the only thought I have racing through my head is, “what was I thinking! I am an awkward introvert who is great at math. I can’t imagine a more terrifying career choice for myself, why didn’t I become an accountant?!.”
Now it is 14 years later and I have created a thriving private practice. I love what I do. How did I get here? Well it wasn’t easy.
For college I majored in psychology and studied heaps of fascinating research about how the human mind works. What college did not do was prepare me for was to actually counsel anybody, so when I chose a graduate school, I picked a place well known for its experiential curriculum. I walked into my class on the first day of school, and I was the youngest by far; most of the students were beginning their second career. They looked like professionals. I was not an old 22 either: I was quirky, and didn’t have a great fashion sense. I spent my free time watching Gilmore Girls reruns and snowboarding. I hadn’t had a serious romantic relationship yet. I took a deep breath, I told myself I am going to take this one day at a time.
One of the first activities we did was pair up and ask each other getting to know you questions. Then after about 10 minutes with one partner we rotated and switched to the next. What I noticed right away was my partners were varying levels of condescending towards me. The message I received was, “isn’t it cute that this girl has a dream of becoming a therapist, she thinks she can help others because she was sad, awwww.” My classmates were now mirroring my greatest fear: that I was small and young and naïve in thinking I could actually help people or start a business. You might think this would grow my anxiety, but instead the exact opposite occurred. I love being the underdog, I always have. I love the feeling of people completely underestimating me and then surprising them….
So as each of my classmates smiled at me with a hint of superiority, a power inside me grew. By the end of the first day, I was ready for battle. I read all the reading assigned to us and more. I volunteered for every role play possible, and found it invigorating to act out the parts of the therapeutic process. The first year flew by and by that summer I felt bonded to my fellow therapists in training and ready to tackle the next step.
That was until I realized the next step was me having to counsel real people with real problems. In the second year of school we picked internships. Even though I had come so far in terms of my confidence, I started to shake inside again at the thought of being in the room with my clients. My internship was at a high school that was for teens who had difficulty making it their regularly assigned schools. Many of them had been expelled due to behavior problems or drugs. It was mandatory for my clients to attend weekly therapy sessions. In other words, none of my clients wanted to come see me, they felt like I was a punishment assigned to them because they were seen as screw ups.
My first session with a 15 year old girl named Ramona who had been kicked out of her previous school for getting into numerous physical fights. What I noticed right away was the hardest part of the session was not what Ramona was doing or saying to me, it was the voice in my head. The entire time I am trying to get to know her and figure out how to help her I have my own internal dialogue yakking at me, “Jesse, you look so nervous, What are you possible going to talk about for 45 minutes, why on earth would she open up to you: you are some nerdy white girl?!.” The louder that voice was and the more it had to say to me, the more distant I felt from Ramona.
When I went back home that night I flashed on the experiences I had with therapists when I was a teen. Every therapist I had before the one that impacted my life looked at me with either concern or apathy. I always felt like there was this huge distance between me and them and had no real faith that they could help me. The first therapist I had would end every session with, “our time is coming to a close,” exactly as there was 5 minutes left in the session; it didn’t matter if I had just said, “I love puppies” or “I want to die right now,” the end of the session was exactly the same.
When I met Joan, she was different from the get go: her office was covered in client art and had couches that looked cozy. She looked me in the eye in a way that made me feel like she wanted to know me. As I worked with her I got better and came into myself. As I remembered my relationship with Joan, I remembered what mattered most. Sure Joan was well read and brilliant at connecting different theories together to help me understand my childhood better, but the most transformative thing that she did for me was be in the present moment with me, genuinely care about me, and hold hope for me even when I didn’t have it for myself.
My new goal with my clients wasn’t to help them understand their problems in the context of psychological theories, it was to get myself 100% in the present moment with them and have empathy and hope for them. After I mastered that, I could then worry about integrating “technique”. So that’s what I did…
And the short answer is, it worked. I gave myself what I was going to give my clients: I had empathy for myself that it was going to take time to calm the negative voice in my head and work through my fears. I reminded myself of my strengths. And I kept showing up day after day. I put everything I had into becoming the best therapist I could be while at the same time accepting me for me. By the time I graduated school I had had some amazing breakthrough moments with those kids. Not to mention Ramona had decided to apply to college and was completely free of fighting for 6 months when we finished the school year. I was now ready to start building my private practice.
Through this process, I learned that I was a lot tougher than I thought and that achieving success was more about putting myself out there and leaning into my fear than anything else. Many people looked at me and thought she is not extroverted enough, business savvy enough or life experienced enough to become a therapist running her own private practice. In reality, there were many people who wanted someone just like me to help them. Many of my first clients in my own office were teenagers who picked my picture off psychologytoday.com. They looked at me and saw someone they could relate to. I could go into session with my clients and help them to have more understanding of themselves and the adults in their lives. I could also help parents empathize with their teens right back. I was the bridge between 2 generations of people. I believed I could provide something of value and so I did. I see that with my clients now all the time: more than anything else it is the fear that gets in people’s way versus “the obstacles” that we think are going to affect our success.