One of my mantras is “If your heart isn’t getting broken doing this work, you are not paying attention.” Why pay such close attention? What are the risks and payoffs? How do we put out hearts back together again day after day?
A full engagement in the work of therapy means that we open ourselves to relationship with another. A dispassionate and distant approach is possible and even the standard in some models of therapy. I work from an existential and humanistic approach and to me that means diving into the heart of connection with another. Does this mean I have a full-blown completely transparent and mutual relationship with my clients, one bordering on friendship? Absolutely not. But it does mean that I am present and available to them to journey with them into the dark reaches of the heart. It means sitting with people through all the messy feelings and tears and fears of life. It means celebrating growth and success and healing. Sometimes it means sitting with them when they are dying.
The risks: not being able to recover ourselves sufficiently, getting our hearts broken beyond repair, taking the hurt and therapeutic failures personally, overextending ourselves as therapists and fellow feeling human beings. This all leads to burnout and even a departure from the field of therapy. The payoffs: a deep understanding of the matters of another person’s heart, compassion for the suffering in the world, perspective on our own sorrows, a greater capacity for empathy.
I spent a great deal of my career working with elders and medically ill people. I truly love working with these populations. And yes, your heart gets broken every day if you are paying attention. But oh, the moments of grace! The blind woman who painted trees. The woman with late stage diabetes who started painting and found herself all over again. The man with a serious self-inflicted wound who tapped into his anger at himself and the world, and then re-entered the world. The people with Huntington’s Disease who delved into art history. The elderly man who took our storytelling group on an imaginary drive to California in his convertible. The man whose glasses I always washed before our sessions and who died suddenly one night. Grace, grace, grace.
Putting our own hearts back together means becoming a guru of self-care. This will look different for everyone. For me, it means staying engaged with my own life, my own family, friends and activities. Making my own art, having homemade spa days, tending to daily life, spending time with friends and family, and staying connected with my spiritual community all buoy me in the sea of heartbreak. Any population is going to drain your energies in some way. The question is can you fill yourself back up sufficiently to continue doing the work. After five years of working with a medical population, the answer began to be “no” for me. And that’s okay. We did great work together, I loved every minute of it, and it was time to move on.
Heartbreak is a place to visit, not a place to live.