The impossible profession

I sometimes feel that I have signed up for a profession where inadvertently I sometimes end up hurting clients for whom I am meant to be a healer of sorts although that’s not how I recognise myself. If the client’s traumatic flight response doesn’t make her terminate therapy in the face of that hurt that is inevitable in any relationship, even the idealised therapeutic one, we survive it and it can be a transformative experience for the client.

I am perceived in multiple roles though by the unconscious transference of my clients. I am mostly a reparative parent in the room who offers a corrective emotional experience to the internalised wounded child. I am a best friend who holds space for the adult with a broken heart or unfulfilled dreams. I am the idealised woman who is understanding and easy to talk to for a male client in an unhappy relationship. I am the parent; the friend; the older sister, the romantic interest, and so on within the therapeutic relationship. But along with all these projections that make my client feel safe, I also in an instant become the reason for intolerable hurt when I emphatically fail to be who they want me to be.

The session is about to end and a client breaks down and shares a painful secret that she had not shared with anyone when she was a child. She is crying inconsolably and I offer her a box of tissues. I don’t have a choice but to announce to the distressed adult who had finally opened up after months that we will process this in the following week.

In that announcement, I am taking the risk of shutting away the abandoned child within her who had finally dared to share her pain with me. It’s the hardest thing to announce the ending of the session to a client who has invited me into her world of pain and to turn her away because her time is up. As a therapist do I not think of that client more than once, wondering If she will trust me to show up the following week? Will she trust that I care for her? Is it easy to announce that her time is up to that wounded child who hopes that I will not fail her as her parents have? Although trust is an illusion and trust and mistrust are two sides of the coin.

A therapist is a hero of the client’s story. A hero that is a moment away from becoming a villain during so many instances in the trajectory of the therapeutic process. Is it easy to be the villain when you are placed in a heroic position? No, it’s not. Do I want to become the wounding parent who announces to the client’s inner child that her time of expressing her pain is up? How to explain that in her moments of extreme distress she cannot reach out to me? Is it easy to not carry her helplessness with me?

The professional therapist understands how important boundaries are in this profession. They make the therapeutic relationship safe and facilitate consistency for the client. But within the session, there are so many moments where one is being pulled into the idealised role the other is projecting onto you and yet you hold your ground and lean away to maintain your therapeutic position. Do I not want to hug the nineteen-year-old who is crying for the mother she has lost and looks towards me for maternal comfort?

It sometimes feels impossible to sit in the face of such raw pain and human misery. To not know if that client who announces she wants to harm herself will turn up again or not. Or worse, not knowing what happened to her when she left without my knowing what made her leave.

Being a therapist is not just sitting and offering catharsis to your client. It is being drawn into their inner world. A therapist feels as unsafe as the client in the therapeutic relationship. It takes a moment to break a therapeutic bond when healing looks like harm. Being a therapist is perhaps one of the most fulfilling and yet complex professions that put two people in an emotionally intimate and yet impossible position that they enact their way out of.

Zara Maqbool

The writer is a BACP (British Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited individual and couple psychotherapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at or her official website.

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