'I Struggle With Parenting Even Though I'm a Therapist'

People often ask, "How do you do your job? Isn't it hard, shouldering other people's pain and sadness all day?" or, "I think your job is so interesting, but I would never be able to detach from my work and not take it home with me."

And I'm certain that many politely refrain from saying other tropes I've heard: "That's the most depressing job—listening to problems all day long!" or, "Did you go into this profession to solve your own psychological issues?"

I often wish that I could bring at least part of my work home with me—not the pain, but the skills I use in my office. I'd like to effectively use them with my family, particularly in times of parenting distress.

Often, I explicitly or implicitly assure patients that I can tolerate their distress—what emotionally overwhelms them will not do so to me. With my support and presence, I can accompany them and help them move through these feelings—serving as a witness, guide, supporter, and container.

Dana Dorfman
Dana Dorfman writes about her experience of being a therapist and a parent. Dana Dorfman

I recently sat with a high-powered corporate executive man in his late 40s. He held his head in his hands, sobbing, barely able to catch his breath. For the first time in his life, he allowed himself to feel the fear and sadness which pervaded his childhood. As he accessed previously unspoken memories of his mother's debilitating depression, he recalled how his yearning for her attention and love was met with emotional unavailability and withdrawal from him.

While listening, I did not run to the rescue, come up with solutions to reverse the feelings, or take action. I simply stayed with him. And by doing so, his insights into his confusing actions emerged. He gradually understood the psychological motives underlying his marital infidelities; viewing them at least in part as his efforts to preempt re-experiencing vulnerable feelings of loss and emotional abandonment. While feeling for him, I trusted the process, hopeful that this work would allow him to lead a more fulfilling, honest life he was seeking.

This is my work and my daily practice.

While there are many differences between being a therapist and a mother, there is obvious overlap between the skills warranted for both roles: creating a safe and nurturing relationship to identify, express, understand, and work through emotions. So, unsurprisingly, many assume I must know what I'm doing as a parent. Unfortunately, what I know doesn't always translate into what I do.

Challenges with parenting

I was recently reminded of this during a particularly low moment at the close of the summer with my 16-year-old son.

His three best friends in his tight-knit group of four were leaving for language immersion programs abroad for their upcoming junior years. And unfortunately, my son was the only one who chose to stay in New York.

Dana Dorfman with her son
Dana Dorfman with her son. Dorfman works with parents and children in her job as a therapist. Dana Dorfman

As my son entered our home, after saying goodbye to his friends, he slammed the door behind him and darted into his room. He sat on the edge of his bed, head in hands, elbows on his knees, and started sobbing.

As I sat beside him, his grief washed over me like a tidal wave, preventing me from any access to my "therapist self." Intellectually, I knew that his sadness was appropriate and my validating it would have been equally as appropriate. Had I been with a patient, I would have known that the situation simply warranted a healthy transfusion of love, tolerance, and perspective. However, in the situation with my son, I injected the antidote.

I quickly countered every emotionally-laden thought he verbalized with unconvincing platitudes or seemingly obvious "fixes."

The more negative he was, the more insignificant my counterpoints seemed, and the more convincing his anxious thoughts became. Rather than validating and sitting with his feelings, the way I pride myself on doing in my office and have encouraged countless parents to do, I gradually absorbed his anxiety.

Unable to resist the magnetic pull of catastrophic thinking, my mind conjured the worst-case scenarios: visions of him sitting at home every weekend socially isolated, plummeting confidence, deepening into depression, unable to function at school, unable to go to college. I was diving headfirst into the worry rabbit hole.

Attempting to pull myself out, I reminded myself of the metaphors I so often use with parents:

"Don't jump on his anxiety carousel!" I coached myself. "Imagine yourself standing beside it as it turns: assure him of your presence, reliability, and stability. He can seek you out when he is ready."

Unfortunately, I had already jumped on the anxiety carousel and accelerated its spin. Each negative statement he made felt like a punch to my gut. My heart ached and sank, simultaneously. As he cried, I couldn't hold back my own tears.

Finally, my son interrupted my internal dialogue. "You don't understand," he said. "No offense, Mom but this is not helpful. You're actually making me feel worse, not better. I know that you're trying, but I'm not up for talking right now."

I spend my whole day understanding; in fact, I am a professional "understander." So how could I screw this up so badly?

Parenting is a continual journey

From my work with patients, I know that parents' difficulties tolerating certain emotions in our kids are often reflective of the feelings we cannot bear within ourselves.

By virtue of my son feeling pain, I felt pain. My own self-protection got activated, and I tried to protect myself from feeling pain because I felt responsible for his pain.  My patients' progress reflects our work together, whereas my inner narrative with my kids' progress or regression is a more direct reflection of me and my parenting.

Dana Dorfman
Dana Dorfman writes that she sometimes struggles to apply her own therapist techniques to parenting. Dana Dorfman

So much of therapy is meeting the patient where they are. But with my children, I look ahead for them. I find it hard to validate how they feel in suffering because I fear as a mother that if I validate negative feelings I will reinforce them, despite my knowledge to the contrary.

Experiences like these serve as reminders of my own evolution–that I have more growing and learning to do. They also allow me to more deeply empathize with the many parents in my office. As parents, we not only teach our children, but they teach us about ourselves, often our blind spots and pain.

Their development challenges us to revisit uncomfortable emotional places, deepens our self-understanding, and heightens our tolerance for our inner lives. And through enriching our connection to ourselves, we enhance our connection to our teens and their relationships with themselves. And ultimately, they and we will continue growing, improving, and exercising these skills.

Dana Dorfman is a New York City-based psychotherapist with 30 years' experience treating adolescents and parents in her private practice, schools, and agency settings. She is the author of When Worry Works and was also the cohost of the parenting podcast, 2 Moms on the Couch.

All views expressed in this essay are the author's own.

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