Thirty years ago, I applied to graduate school, convinced my main objectives for earning a master’s degree in social work were to increase my helping skills and earning potential.
Halfway through the MSW program, however, the more compelling, underlying reason for going back to school emerged with painful clarity: I needed to understand my own life, my symptoms of anxiety and insomnia, my relationship conundrums and the difficult patterns and issues in my family of origin. I needed to help myself.
And so, desperate for understanding and relief, I found a therapist and began to work.
Being in therapy as a graduate student and then as a fledgling therapist transformed me. I learned ways I was caught in unhelpful relationship patterns. I learned to pay attention to my symptoms and listen to their messages, rather than trying to suppress, kill or numb them.
And being in therapy made me a much better therapist.
I realized my “mess” or situation, was not another’s and if I was attending to my own, then I could better keep my own stuff out of therapy with clients. And if I couldn’t, I could catch myself more quickly and get back to a grounded and centered way of accepting clients, not absorbing their anxiety or blaming them for their pain. I went from thinking I had to be an expert (who had it all together) who “treated” clients to increased awareness of what I had in common with each of them.
While I don’t regularly go to therapy now, I occasionally schedule an appointment. This happened recently with a family situation that triggered high anxiety. My therapist helped me remember key system issues, my truth, and what I needed to do.
The bigger picture
Finding a therapist who lived and practiced family systems theory, was also something I lucked out on.
A family systems therapist changes the frame from broken, defective, ill, or diseased to something far bigger and less labeling. A family systems therapist helps a client learn about and see the bigger picture – at least three generations of family and the other systems they grew up in – the way communication patterns, beliefs, hot issues, rules, rituals, tragedies, and positive events impacted them and others.
Family systems therapists move conversations away from “Where am I broken or defective?” to “Where am I caught in my family, life or work situation? How can learning more about my family history be a resource to me? How do anxiety and pain get expressed or managed in my family and in me? What can I do differently? How I can take responsibility by working on myself, finding ways to care for and ground myself, work with painful or anxiety-provoking issues and trust the process?
For instance, my parents were born just before or during the Depression. While my grandparents were resourceful and made it through without terrible consequences, I inherited frugality and fears about financial scarcity that I believe are connected to the deprivation and hardship their families suffered. This helps me not be so hard on myself when money fears surface, to separate their past from my present, and to observe without buying into my catastrophic money stories.
Being in therapy during my early years of learning to be a therapist was so foundational, I can scarcely imagine what kind of a therapist I’d be if I hadn’t taken the brave step to admit I was stuck and needed help. Now I enjoy being a therapist to therapists as part of my private practice because I know that therapists who have turned to understand and care for themselves will have more to offer their own clients.
Brenda Hartman-Souder, LCSW-R
Photo by Brenda Hartman-Souder