Therapy is kind of weird in some ways. The whole idea is that a person, couple or family will share their concerns with a therapist who listens and (hopefully) responds in a helpful way. Together they come up with ideas about how the client can better cope or move forward with their situation. It is intentionally a one-sided experience.
Occasionally, clients will apologize for telling me the very things they are coming to therapy to talk about. They seem concerned about burdening another person with their problems. Some express concern that I spend my days listening to the problems of others. This is a lovely reflection of their caring hearts and their awareness of the human relationship involved in counselling.
But when someone tells me they are sorry I have to hear their story, I’m surprised, because I’m not feeling sorry about it myself. In fact, when we as therapists talk about hearing the stories of others, we generally describe feeling honoured, humbled, and having a sense of being given a sacred trust.
Client’s stories are a window into their life. They show a bit of someone’s experiences or history, and how they cope with it. Stories give clues that help us make sense of current experiences and symptoms—they help us understand why anxiety has shown up, or how relationships have spun out.
When therapists hear stories, we aren’t just passive listeners as someone vents. Instead, we interact with the storyteller and help shape the story as it is told. As a result, when we hear a story of trauma, we are also hearing a story of endurance and resilience. When we hear stories of struggle and pain, we hear the stories of overcoming and hope.
And when we hear stories of hopelessness, we hold the hope until it becomes a shared story once again.
Of course some stories are hard to hear—but that is what makes listening to them so important, since these are the stories that might never be heard anywhere else. And these stories are often the most important to tell in order for transformation to take place. Participating in that transformation process is what makes listening to hard stories worthwhile.
This is because stories aren’t just told, they are shaped in the telling and in the listening. As we interact with the story, it changes and evolves, and the storyteller changes too.
So please don’t be sorry for your therapist when they have to hear difficult stories. They have ways to manage their reactions, and boundaries in place in order to not take them on personally. And during their session with you, their focus is supposed to be on your story and exploring it in ways that will be helpful and therapeutic for you.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network