I find it interesting when people tell me they could never imagine me as an anxious person. I've been told time and again that I exude a peaceful, calm energy and it is difficult to imagine me having panic attacks. I think I have always seemed calm to other people due to my introverted nature. It's just who I am hard wired to be. Over time, as I've grown and matured I had to develop the skills to act extroverted. It did not come naturally, it had to be conscious and undertaken in steps. It did not happen overnight. In fact, it's something I still consider to be a work in progress.
As an introvert I prefer small gatherings of close friends over large parties. I love and need my alone time. Relationships or interactions with other people can be very draining for me. The holidays, for example, kill me every year. Giant family gatherings, parties, pressure to see everyone I barely speak to for the rest of the year and who show little to no interest in me is exhausting. Having to put myself out there is hard and when people ask how my work is going, it's hard if not impossible, to explain. I mean, really, what can I say? Yes, it's awesome, I love my work. But I'm a therapist and it's hard to explain exactly what it is that I do. It's not like I can talk about cases, nor would I want to.
People have oddly skewed ideas of what a therapist is and what we do. I'll never forget this one woman I worked with when I was acting as school social worker to the Catholic schools in my area. To begin with, I am a Catholic drop-out. I took CCD classes until I was maybe thirteen or fourteen then finally put my foot down when it came time to do my confirmation. The kids in my youth group were awful, I didn't fit in, and there were and are so many things I disagree with in that particular church that my parents couldn't ignore me. I provided well thought out and organized arguments. Also, I had a hissy fit and refused to go. Yet, here I was, doing my best to stay sane in a Catholic high school and try to overcome the stigma associated with the title "school social worker". I attempted a conversation about this with the guidance counselor whose office was next to mine. This was a poor decision on my part. I said to her that I wished there was a different name for my position so kids would feel more comfortable about meeting with me. Her response was, "Maybe you should call it Professional Friend?"
Seriously?! SO IGNORANT. Granted, that woman was an asshole so I didn't take anything she said seriously, ever. She would tell kids they were too fat, or too slow to succeed and that depression was really just an excuse for laziness. In those exact words. And she wasn't the only one. The other guidance counselors (with one exception) were just as bad. One of them was a nun and she was the worst offender. She literally told kids they were unattractive and lazy. If a student wasn't on a path to go to a fancy college she wanted nothing to do with them. So the kids who needed her the most, the ones who struggled, were the ones who received zero support.
But I digress. Explaining to people what my job entails is extremely difficult. Over the years it has become apparent that some people in my life and in general, believe I just sit and talk to people all day. Yes, that is what it looks like but that description invalidates and insults me and my clients. I sit and talk to people all day about things they have never said out loud, let alone to another human being. I use skills I have sought out and learned such as hypnosis, reiki, energy healing, circular questioning, attachment theory, everything I have learned and continue to learn about fear, biology, medications, family patterns, addiction, and on and on and on. I take my work extremely seriously and by the way, so do my clients. They don't come to me because they need a friend. They have friends. They come to me because I am not their friend or family member. I can be 100% objective, I have no agenda with them other than to help them through whatever it is they're going through.
It is a surreal experience to be seen as an expert and highly respected, whose feedback is considered to be important and necessary when at work but in my "real" life I am just me. Especially with my husband who is just as stubborn as I am. To him, I'm just a person and my opinions and feedback are constantly up for debate. It is incredibly difficult to, as he says, "be humble", when he disagrees with me. Nobody else disagrees with me pretty much ever so I don't always handle it well. I'm working on it. Even with my family, I'm pretty sure my parents don't understand what I do. As far as I know, neither of them has ever been in therapy so they really can't wrap their heads around it. It's the kind of thing you have to experience to understand.
I believe everything happens for a reason. When I started college I had a plan to work in the music industry. Then events that changed my life forever came along. The rug was ripped out from beneath my feet and I haven't been the same since. I recognize now that is a good thing and I am where I'm supposed to be without a doubt. But those events highlighted the importance of defenses against the world. Up until that point I hadn't really developed any form of self defense. Things changed in a matter of minutes and I was completely unprepared. My go-to instinct was to hide and that is where and when I developed a mask to keep people from getting too close to me so I couldn't be hurt by them. Part of the effectiveness of that mask was actually looking fine and calm at all times. My face acted on its own accord and created a neutral expression that gave nothing away, therefore, no one could see how I was feeling. Such safety! I no longer really feel the need to keep this mask on but it stubbornly refuses to go away completely. Bit by bit, however, I'm chipping away at it and getting braver every day. Who knows, one of these days, I may be ready to take it off completely. I encourage you to ask yourself are you wearing a mask to hide from the world? Where did it come from and what does it do for you? Mine helped me keep people at arms length for many years. Bit by bit, I'm letting them back in and taking that risk empowers me more and more every day.