What Therapists Learned From COVID


A Letter of Gratitude:


Dear YOU,


After 2 years of having our very way of life flipped upside down by the pandemic, the current mainstream narrative seems to be that it’s “over” – or at least defining it as a pandemic in the U.S. is no longer necessary. While that very well may be true in terms of our physical safety, you don’t have to look very far to find evidence of the psychological toll it has taken and will continue to take long after communities normalize in the way they function on the surface. As deadly Covid cases are falling, rates of depression, anxiety and trauma related symptoms are not. And as conventional methods of administering therapy were dismantled, it made sense that the motivation to access various mental health services dropped.


As psychotherapists, we are accustomed to those seeking our support to be in a generally more dysregulated state than we are at that point in time, hence our ability to hold space for them. This is not to say we’ve never experienced the same traumas as our clients, and rather that the points of high acuity in response to those traumas usually wouldn’t overlap. If this were the case, we would hope that the provider was aware of ethical boundaries and referred the client out. However, one of the unique variables that impacted the intersubjective space between us and our clients is that we shared the trauma of the pandemic in real time alongside them.


If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering why I’d get off to such a cynical start within a piece of writing designed to help and motivate those who are engaged in therapy, or contemplating beginning it. Part of that reason is because I believe there is much value, near necessity, in validating even the most painful of experiences in a world that sweeps the difficult stuff under the carpet time and time again. “Living” life is experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion to appreciate and enrich the pleasant and dampen the less desirable. Shifting to the more positive side of the spectrum, I wanted to take a moment to point out a few constants among the variables and thank you for how much you continue to move, inspire, and reward us and the field of psychology following a period of worldwide paralysis.


I believe that there is nothing more fascinating in this world than human consciousness. All that goes into the private, internal experience of oneself is nothing short of amazing, much of its nature still widely undiscovered. Hearing, at baseline, the infinite number of ways humans can experience this thing called life is deeply nourishing for intellectual wellness. Thank you for being human and searching for a way to tell your story. Since our private mental formations are far too complex to translate verbatim from the time they occur to the moment we have an opportunity to share, we see the use of symbolism and the beautiful aesthetic of human language fully come to life. Riding alongside you to help find those words is a privilege, and one of the many ways that this kind of human relationship differs from others in the best way.

Thank you for trusting us enough to invite participation in your narratives, not only with the reasons for which you originally sought therapy, but within your occupations, academia, hobbies, leisure interests, artistic abilities and creations, and existential beliefs. Thank you for allowing us to help investigate the things that might not make sense right now, and support what you may have just needed a bit of corroboration with in order to relax the skepticism of your mind.

Building on the former, thank you for what we call the ripple effect of therapy. And that’s not only the ripple within your own lives (healed people heal other people), but the ripple that affects the therapists. Even though therapy is for you, it’s impossible for any interpersonal relationship to not affect both parties involved. Thank you for helping us to learn about ourselves to better help those who come after, just as the clients of the past have helped us help you in the present.

Perhaps my favorite part of this career, thank you so very much for your resiliency using humor and creative expression. We know that overactivity in the right brain hemisphere (the emotional mind) is strongly correlated with creativity and the abstract. Seeing this unfold in session and seeing how far the rabbit hole goes is another incredibly rewarding aspect of providing therapy. While the rest of the world at the micro and macro levels might ridicule and dismiss the neuro-atypical, we welcome it and are deeply humbled by your ability to express such a complex range of feelings through the arts - bridging the gap between the lowest lows and highest highs that we know can make life extremely difficult to navigate.


Thank you for your brutal honesty. I must say, in a world full of people who are seemingly “fine” upon asking them how they’re doing, hearing a more detailed and unfiltered answer to that question kind of ties my earlier points together about what is so rewarding about this field. “Fine” often stands for Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. There is most certainly a story, perhaps an abstract one that goes with however someone is feeling at any given moment. Peeling back the layers and allowing you to speak with a hyperbolic sense of cynicism is often what brings joint laughter to the room, strengthening therapeutic rapport. It’s refreshing to hear how you are really feeling. Aside from being entertained by some of the answers, this is also how we set the stage for enacting real change on the clinical side. When you paint a picture of your current reality as honestly as you can, a truer sense of what ails you is brought closer to the surface. And we can only change the reality that does exist, not the one we wish to exist.


No matter what the state of the world, these are just a few of my favorite aspects of being a therapist that seem to remain constant. Existential psychotherapist, and the grandfather of defining the therapeutic “alliance”, Irvin Yalom calls these parts of therapy “gifts”. And these gifts do not stop giving. So if you find yourself feeling like you’re spinning your wheels and the process seems hopeless, just know that accidentally taking steps backwards doesn’t automatically make things worse. In fact, it’s in these raw vulnerable moments of confrontation with your therapist or yourself that deep reflections occur and helpful insight blossoms. Just as the cliché goes, you’ll never go wrong just being yourself as a client rather than trying to shape shift to what is “ideal” for the therapist. Thank you for being YOU.

 

Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.

Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.

Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.