Since becoming a therapist, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked, “What’s it like to spend your day listening to crazy people?” Over time, I’ve learned to be grateful for this question, in spite of the initial reaction it always invites in me. I now see it as a valuable opportunity to share my perspective about my work and what it means to me. The response I give—which never lacks in sincerity, no matter how often I repeat it—is always the same: “Actually, I don’t know any crazy people.”
I mean it.
When I first got on the path toward becoming a therapist, I’ll admit that I believed I was signing on to spend my working hours keeping company with sick and crazy people in need of my help. I believed that with the knowledge I was gaining in school, I was going to have all the answers to teach, guide, and treat the people I encountered in my clinical practice. But as soon as I started working with actual clients, all the thinking that was guiding me got turned on its head. I realized very quickly that the people I was working with had much more to teach me than they could ever learn from me. Above all, the great lesson I learned in that early part of my career was that there’s really no such thing as a crazy person.
For all our many differences, we, humans, are having a shared existential experience; we’re all in this weird and wondrous adventure called life together. Sometimes that adventure gets terrifying; sometimes it’s more painful than we can handle; sometimes we get confused and can’t find our way; sometimes we struggle to connect; sometimes we get tired and need support to keep us going. What I’m getting at is that the stuff we tend to call “sick” and “crazy” is merely a reflection of the struggles inherent in our human existence.
Now, when I sit across from a client, I know that I’m sitting across from an equal. A companion. A teacher. A friend. I know that what they’re sharing—no matter how extreme it might appear from the limited perspective of others—is an expression of something that also lives in me. I acknowledge their pain, see their confusion, make contact with their fear; and as I do, I know that I’m witnessing the realities of life—no more, no less. No matter what my clients share with me, even when it’s radically atypical or marginal by our society’s standards, I hold the space and keep my mind and heart open. Because they aren’t sharing their crazy with me, they’re sharing their world with me. And their world matters. Their perspective matters. Their truth matters. Their lives matter.
My clients are my greatest teachers, and I’m more grateful for them than I can ever express. They show me how to stay curious, stay open, and keeping challenging my certainties. They inspire me to keep leaning in, no matter how scary or painful it can be to witness someone else’s story unfolding. They remind me that truth is always relative, and just because we believe something doesn’t make it true. If these people are crazy, I don’t want to be sane.
What I sometimes add to the response I offer when asked about what it’s like to spend my days with crazy people is that “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.” And this is really, wholeheartedly my truth. I’ve learned more, expanded more, and challenged myself more through my encounters with clients than through any other experience I’ve had in my life. I’m regularly humbled and consistently awestruck by the work I get to do, and to call it work seems ridiculous, because it’s more of a gift than anything else. I feel fortunate to be in the presence of such giants on a regular basis. Through their vulnerability, their courage, their wisdom, and their grace, my clients teach me how to live. I only wish that everyone could see them, and each other, this way.
If what I’m saying resonates with you in any way, know that don’t have to be a therapist to access the spirit of what I’m sharing. All you have to do is hold space for the people around you, and regard them with curiosity rather than certainty. Challenge your perspectives, and question everything you feel right about. Ask questions, and be present to the answers. Know that everyone on the planet knows at least one thing you don’t. Don’t settle for surface understandings. And never, ever let your heart close.