The Other Side of the Couch

The first time I sat with a client I was petrified. 


I was barely 25, at the end of my graduate school experience in my practicum and I was slated to do six sessions of pre-marital counseling with a newly engaged couple. There was a workbook we were going to use so I was just there to be their guide and help with communication techniques as they worked through any confusion or conflict that might emerge. 


I had been married for 3 years at that point so clearly, I had everything figured out. <jokes>


Easy peasy right? Totally…not.  If this were a scene in a movie, I would lock myself in the bathroom, splash water on my face and then take a deep hard look in the mirror as the triumphs of graduate school played as flashbacks with an empowering soundtrack bringing me back to reality. Then I would glance at myself in the mirror and tell myself, “You’ve freaking got this!” before I shook my hair out and stepped back into reality. I had empowering memories. That was all I felt I had at that point. Poor unfortunate souls they were. 


As I approached the waiting room, I assumed that “FIRST CLIENT EVER” was flashing in neon lights as I went to shake their hands. 


If my nervousness wasn’t enough to indicate massive failure, I was also way over dressed for the Arizona heat of the early summer. Despite being in an air-conditioned building, I was drenched in sweat. I think I may have even gone shopping for a brand-new super fancy work outfit. I looked more like a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s clothes than a graduate student but…dress for the part you want…so here I was.


I walked them back to the office and invited them to take a seat. As we settled into the nuances of the first session intake, I felt myself relax a bit. Turns out they were pretty nervous too. Ah young love, I remember it still now, almost two decades later but then I was practically still in it. The excitement of engagement, the nervousness of all the decisions, the careful dance between parents and future parent-in-laws, talking about your love story was a welcome reprieve from their wedding planning stress. 


I invited them to talk a little about who they were before they met and then watched as they playfully interrupted each other as they told the story of meeting and beginning to date. Filling in details for each other this couple was so sweet to watch. I saw my own story in parts of theirs and found myself asking questions without even thinking about it. I was inviting them to go deeper and provide more details without even trying to do so. I was suddenly finding myself more and more in control and confident as I led them through the first lesson. 


The first lesson involved understanding who they were as individuals before jumping into their identity as a couple. We began to transition to more specific topics and their body language grew somber and heavier. Their hands reached for each other with more of a need for connection then I had seen earlier. We were no longer talking about the playful antics of young love but instead of dysfunction, abuse, worn and weary souls finding refuge in their faith and then each other. Tears began to fall as they opened up about their uncertainty of themselves and unknowns of a marriage that they were confident of but scared of too. 


I began to rely on the skills I had learned in school and the gift of attunement that I had discovered in myself. We used the workbook as a guide but not much more than that. We discussed a recent conflict about something that I don’t remember now but as I explained how defense mechanisms could usually be a clue to a hidden fear within ourselves, I realized that I was doing it…without even trying. I was doing therapy. 


It’s good to remember where we all started. All of us had a first day, first meeting, first big presentation, first pitch, first anything. We all started in a place of fear and excitement and nerves and joy. It means we care, and we can’t ever stop remembering what it was like to begin.


I take that first session with me to a lot of first sessions. I have had hundreds of first sessions at this point in my career, but I never want to forget what it was like to discover something within myself that I didn’t know existed or that I was capable of until it happened. 


Because that’s what therapy is. 


Discovering that you have something deep within yourself that you didn’t know existed until a trusted guide brought you there. My professors and supervisors were my trusted guides and they told me I was ready, so I trusted them before I trusted myself. 


I had trouble trusting myself because there was still a gaping wide hole of insecurity that I wasn’t totally aware of inhabiting my soul. I wanted to be perfect, to do it all right, and for someone like me, I was a champion of doing things right. I would learn that doing it right wouldn’t always get me what I wanted. I might accomplish something, but I wouldn’t always feel as good as I did after those first sessions with that young couple.


Because with the young couple I had no choice but to forget the right way to do things and just be present with them. I had to forget about how I looked or how I was perceived or what anyone thought of me. In my utter fear I had to surrender. I had to humbly admit that I was not an expert and instead only human myself.


I still have my evaluation from my supervisor at that practicum site. “If Tracy trusts her gut and doesn’t worry too much about the right way to do things but instead allows her natural giftedness to shine through, she will be a wonderful therapist.” He wrote. 


I graduated with my Master’s degree in 2007. Twelve years later I look at that note often. I am so thankful for the trusted guides who have gone before me. 


I didn’t know it, but I was about to need my own guide, again, very soon…