For a therapist, you’re pretty unfriendly

You ran into me at the grocery store. Or maybe it was your kids’ soccer game. Perhaps it was in the lobby after church on Sunday. You wanted to chat, but you noticed that I seemed distant. I was polite, but you were expecting me to be friendlier. Or warmer. Or nicer.

Please don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean that I dislike you, that I don’t think you’re worth my time, that I’m not friendly, or that I’m some kind of snob. It’s because of what I do for a living. It’s a side effect of spending my days listening carefully to other people as they discuss their challenges and problems. And it’s something my fellow therapists understand.

You know how people ask you, “How are you?” dozens of times a day? You probably do the same thing. But I’m willing to bet that most of the time, their reply just slides past you and you move on to the next person or whatever your intended topic is. It isn’t that you’re being rude, but for most people “how are you?” is a harmless pleasantry that you brush aside.

To a therapist, “how are you?” is a central question of the work we do. When I ask that question, I truly mean it, and I listen carefully and thoughtfully to the response. In a session, the answer to that simple question tells me a lot about how a person is feeling mentally, how stressed they are, and whether something is troubling them. I watch their eyes and their facial expressions for clues. So when I ask that question outside of a session, I listen to the reply every bit as carefully. I can’t just brush their answer aside. I can’t turn that genuine interest on and off.

Sometimes, people who know what I do for a living will pull me into conversations or other situations. They may be arguing with their teen at that moment or disagreeing with their spouse, and they assume I can intervene with some kind of magic answer. As I sit in a restaurant or walk through a store, I see interactions between people and can’t look away. I hear a mother using anger in an effort to discipline a child, and I want to show her a better way. I see a dispute between a couple that’s destined to become a fight, and I want to help them be more constructive. It’s what I do all day long, and when I shut off my office light, it doesn’t stop.

We become therapists because we care about people, have deep feelings about what happens in their lives, and sense when they’re in despair. When we’re with others, we tend to be a little guarded so we can protect ourselves from becoming swept into an unintended session which can lead to becoming emotionally exhausted. It isn’t that we’re standoffish or unfeeling; it’s that we feel so much.

So if you see any of us sitting alone at church, standing away from the other parents at the soccer game, or reluctant to engage in small talk at the supermarket, please don’t be offended. My guess is what you want to talk about it too important for the grocery store line anyway.  Why not set up a time to talk? You’ll discover we’re actually pretty friendly after all.