I’m a Therapist: No one Warned Me How Difficult it is to be a Patient

As a therapist, I felt like a complete disaster when my own therapist told me I had a fear of feeling.

Even therapists have to go to therapy. It’s part of our training. Therapy is a profession that ends up impacting all parts of your professional, personal and political life. The therapist who does not know herself, fails her patients.

So when my clinical supervisor brought it up one day, I knew I should go, even though I had a million reasons to put it off. I guess I couldn’t hide my exhaustion. My jaw tightened and I was angry at myself for letting my weariness show. Did I forget to put on mascara or something?

My good friends, denial and intellectualization, relaxed while my supervisor finally handed me a sticky note with Dr. Stroop’s phone number. Three weeks later, I had my first session, this time sitting on the couch instead of in the armchair.

Regression and compartmentalization joined us, as Dr. Stroop asked some familiar questions. I noticed her green and blue knit shawl, classic therapist apparel.

“Tell me about why you chose to become a therapist,” she asked. Her expression was painfully neutral.

One year into treatment, Dr. Stroop asked “Have you read The Drama of the Gifted Child yet?” The book, written by psychologist Alice Miller, exposes those who instinctively hide their needs as children to secure love from their parents. My eyelids went heavy after reading a single page.

“Working on it,” I quipped, unprepared to hear Dr. Stroop’s diagnostic impression of me. No one warned me how difficult it is to be a patient.

“An affect phobia? Really?” I was $40k deep in student loan debt.

Do NOT tell me that I have a fear of feelings, I thought.

“Yes, I think you have a fear of being seen. It’s too vulnerable.”

I can’t even with you right now, Dr. Blank Face.

There is truth to the cliché: therapists want to know about your mother, and mine was never seen. Italian immigrants, my grandfather Jack and grandmother Muriel met in Brooklyn and married shortly after. They had three children, Anthony, Carol, and my mother, Tina, and lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s public housing.

My grandparents were unwell: Jack was diagnosed “a manic-depressive,” and Muriel was controlling and possessive. Jack’s condition was treated with electroconvulsive therapy, called electroshock therapy in the 1960’s. It helped in some ways, but not enough for the state to deem him fit to parent.

When Muriel fell ill with breast cancer, she sought the help of social services to find a new family for her children. They flew to California and met a well-off, seemingly perfect family, other than their rejection of the middle child, Carol. The sisters had to stay together, so the search continued. Muriel died when my mother was seven, and her father Jack died of a heart attack three years later.

I know as a therapist, children are not “seen” when their parents are sick, preoccupied, or simply unavailable. It is a nightmare for children in my mother’s situation as it threatens the child’s survival. Caregivers are required to provide care. Without eyes on the child, there is no safety, no expression, no self.

My mother was put in the position to adapt to whoever she was with, wherever she happened to be. As a child, she felt pressure to be perfect, as it felt like any offense could result in her being kicked out and homeless. She was abandoned by parents who died unexpectedly and as kids can’t help but do, she figured it was her fault. At a young age, my mother knew one way to stay safe and feel worthy of being loved was to prioritize other people and in turn, need nothing at all.

When you do not have the privilege of play as a child, you work. She left her brother’s home at the age of 17 and dedicated her time to making money and helping people. Providing direct care to people with developmental disabilities, she worked full time plus overnight shifts at the group home on the weekends. Microwaving us dinner, taking care of our sick golden retriever, and preparing to do it all again tomorrow, I knew how hard my mother worked.

My mother often said how much better we were together than apart. When she felt pain, I felt pain, as if our bodies were the same. I didn’t want her to feel alone anymore, not another second. I was a little girl, but I wanted to make it better. She shouldn’t suffer because of me. I told myself to be easy and don’t add to the burden, as this life is already too much.

Therapy asks you to make a promise to yourself, to find what is underneath the performance of everyday life, week after week. Exhausting for us helpers. Maybe I can tell my therapist that I am sick today and can’t make it. My superpower of being the calm, rational one was overtaken with irritability. I became snappy. I questioned myself, felt emotionally fried, and was over the whole crying in my car after session thing.

“Is it okay if I start coming in every other week? Things have improved and I don’t have much to say anymore.” I’ll get myself out of this feelings hell hole.

“You just got the news that your mother’s breast cancer is gone. Your family is out of crisis. Now is the time for the work to begin,” Dr. Stroop retorted.

I rolled my eyes. Begin? What are you trying to say, doc?

I consider myself a recovering “feelings avoider.” Dr. Stroop repeatedly challenged my belief that feelings make you weak and that it is unsafe to show vulnerability. Facing the suffering I carried from my mother, and her mother, and so on, freed me from the time and energy I spent avoiding difficult emotions. I had never learned in graduate school the inevitability of pain in the pursuit of personal growth.

A year later, I suggested to my mother that she go to therapy. “It feels like I’m paying for a friend,” she responded.

“Mom! Is that what you think I do? Accept money to befriend others?”

She chuckled, realizing her offense. I handed her a grocery store receipt with a phone number scribbled on the back.

Sarah Freeze, LCSW is a clinical director at Create Outcomes, a group, private practice with offices in New York and Colorado. She specializes in working with people who have experienced trauma, abuse, or who have emotionally shut down parents.


Create Outcomes is an organization devoted to supporting individuals in growing toward their highest potential. We offer individual therapy, couples therapy, group therapy, therapy for children, teen therapy and retreats. Our therapists integrate psychodynamic theory, cognitive behavioral approaches, and their own unique perspective and training to provide the most clinically relevant care to each individual. We are in-network with Humana insurance and offer in-person therapy in Denver, Colorado, New York, NY and Long Island, NY and provide teletherapy for residents of Florida.

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