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One of the most thought-provoking-and jarring-aspects of learning to be a therapist was that I had to figure out who I was without all my old stories to identify me. Think about it: we reveal ourselves in conversation with strangers by slowly unpacking our stories. We use these stories to create the facade we show to others. We tell stories of who we are in the world (“I am so-and-so’s daughter”) or what we do (“I am a therapist”) or about the habits or hobbies that define us (“I am SO into chocolate”).

Imagine then, that you suddenly must be present with others without using stories to identify yourself? Stories have always been important to me-I was an English major in college, I love words, and I tend to see life as a narrative fraught with metaphor. I love my stories. My stories are my history. Who would I be without the stories of growing up in south Georgia, of the time I met the Argentinean soccer team, of all the pranks I have played, of the time I forced my sister to eat a “nature taco”(that’s a snail wrapped in a leaf)? My family thrives on stories: at every birthday, we tell the same stories of a person’s life. Over the years, those rituals have come to mean everything to me.

But therapists reveal little to their clients, in the way of personal disclosure. When I was a new therapist, I felt as though my entire identity had been completely stripped away from me. The instructions to therapists felt confusing to me: you are supposed to model authenticity, and congruity. You are supposed to be a real person. But don’t reveal ANYTHING about yourself.

Then the question became: who am I without my stories? It became a larger question for me. Who am I in the present moment, without all these layers I have chosen for myself? How can I be present with someone else, without referencing my stories about my past, or my accomplishments, or other people?

The interesting aspect of looking at it this way is that I have been challenged to use the wisdom, or the insight or the humor without the stories.

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What a fascinating topic. Thank you for putting me inside the head of a therapist for a few moments!

As a person who has experienced different therapists, it is also hard to figure out the best therapist for oneself. Because we don't know the person, we are restricted to personal recommendations and/or web searches for areas of expertise. That means that often the first real "judgment" we make about our therapist is a visual one, which happens that first moment when we shake her or his hand and introduce ourselves (and OUR story)!

As a journalist for more than 20 years, I am like you in a way -- I always want to know a person's story. It seems that by mentally putting little pushpins on an imaginary bulletin board: a person is X years old, born here, lived there, has/does not have children, loves/does not love dogs, has visited these places, etc, that we feel we are learning about them, mentally cataloguing them in a way that we understand. But you're right, to be in a relationship with a person and not know their own story means we must rely only on what they know and what they say -- the wisdom and insight -- without knowing how it got there.

That's a really interesting thing to think about. Thank you.

November 17, 2009 - 9:59am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.