8 Hard Lessons I’ve Learned Being a Therapist During the COVID Pandemic

Jeff Guenther on Mar 29, 2021

The pandemic has been hard on all of us. Well, most of us. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are probably doing just fine. But today I feel like centering how hard it’s been on me. I’ve been a therapist for over 15 years and this year has been weird, confusing and excruciating. One of the most difficult parts is that I just haven’t gotten completely comfortable doing therapy over Zoom. I’ve gotten better compared to a year ago. Although I feel like I’m only half as sharp as I used to be pre-pandemic. But with all tough experiences come opportunities for growth, right? Here are eight hard lessons I would have rather not learned during the COVID pandemic.

1. It’s true. I hate being an online therapist.

I’ve tried. I promise you I’ve tried. At first, I was resistant to get used to online therapy because I thought the pandemic would only last a couple months. Once it quickly became evident that was not the case, I really tried to get comfortable with it. I got a new comfy chair, I decorated my home office, I figured out the perfect Zoom window set up on my laptop screen and tried to shift my attitude. But it didn’t work. I hate that I can’t feel the energy of my client. I can’t stand that I can only see their face. Every time the connection gets wonky I want to scream. I could go on. There’s nothing I can do about it, but honestly, I can’t wait to never be an online therapist again.

What lesson have I learned? I’m only going to see people in person once this pandemic ends. I’ve learned I’m more Gen X than I am Millennial, even though that’s hard for me to accept.

2. My scheduling boundaries have become horrible.

When I do therapy online for some reason I have absolutely no scheduling boundaries. Need an emergency session in the middle of an eight client day? No problem! Wanna talk at 9pm? Sure why not? I’m just sitting at home doing nothing anyway! What is time? It used to be a thing pre-COVID, right? My client hours and non-client hours have all blended together to create a mish-mash of the worst work/life balance there could be. Working in the same place I eat, sleep, watch TV and play video games makes it impossible for me to maintain a normal schedule.

Lesson learned? Just because I technically can see a client because I have nothing else to do doesn’t mean I should see that client.

3. My morning clients are getting better therapy than my evening clients.

This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it was the opposite when I saw people in person. Sometimes it took me a client or two to wake up and get in my therapy groove which benefited my later clients just a bit. But now as the day drags on and the computer zaps my energy and fatigue sets in, my later clients pay the price. Sorry late clients, I'm trying my best!

Lesson learned? Get outside and go for walks in between clients. This can help reenergize me and get me back in the swing of things. If somehow you’re a client of mine that has found this post and you want to schedule a session during the pandemic, try to do it as early in the day as you possibly can. Post-pandemic do the opposite. ;)

4. Everything looks performative.

Is it just me or does watching yourself on video give therapy totally mess with your head? I can see myself in the little window at the top of my screen while I look at my client. It’s incredibly distracting. Turn that little window off so I can’t see myself? Great idea! For the life of me I just can’t do it though, so please stop recommending that. The most troubling thing about that little video of me is that I look so disingenuous. When I feel like I’m being very sincere and compassionate I actually look like a clown with a sad face. Why has nobody told me this?! Why do my clients continue to see me?! And how come my hair always looks just a little off? Do I ever have the right haircut? Everything I do looks dumb.

Lesson learned? Be stronger than me and turn that little window off so you don’t torture yourself. Otherwise, you’ll see how performative you look while giving therapy and it’ll haunt you forever. It’s too late for me. Save yourself!

5. It’s very hard to counsel people that are experiencing the exact same thing as you.

How many times have my clients complained about the pandemic and how hard it is and I’ve responded with, “I know, right?” Maybe like a million times? I promise you that 90% of the reason I’m a good therapist is because I am grounded and stable. I’m an anchor that emanates safety and stability. But this pandemic has rocked me and my clients, and I’m lost at sea because of it. So when they tell me they’re drowning, I feel it too. While I’m having a hard enough time staying above water, they’re expecting me to help keep them afloat as well. It’s such a weird experience hearing about the trauma my clients are feeling while going through almost the exact same thing. It helps when it comes to empathy but it often makes me feel helpless and powerless when offering any real therapeutic analysis or intervention. For the record, I’m fine. I’m offering good enough therapy. But it’s extra hard to be helpful when we’re all in it together.

Lesson learned? I either need to become super rich so I’m immune from normal people problems or I need to get a ton of therapy while I’m being a therapist so I’m more solid for my clients. (I’d rather be super rich, for the record.)

6. I’m very white-privileged.

Yes, I run a progressive therapist directory that’s trying to move the mental health industry forward so diverse clients can find counselors who can competently treat them. I am constantly trying to learn all the ways to be aware of racism and microaggressions in everything I do. TherapyDen is updated all the time in order to be more inclusive. But no matter how hard I try, I will always have blindspots. The BLM movement shed an even brighter light on how much my whiteness blinds me from seeing discrimination clearly. And no matter how I’m given feedback from the community about something I’ve screwed up on or have offended someone about, my white fragility will try to rear its ugly head every single time. I’m much better about spotting it but it’s such a sneaky little thing.

Lesson learned? I must keep doing the work for the rest of my life.

7. Sometimes therapy doesn’t have to be soooo therapy.

You know, not every session needs to be the best session ever. Am I right? For some reason, I feel compelled to try harder than ever to give the best therapy I can during this pandemic. It could be because I feel so bad for my clients who are struggling. It could also be because of all the things I’ve listed in this blog that make me feel like a bad therapist and I’m just trying to compensate for it. Either way, some therapy sessions can and should be more breezy, and I should probably stop trying to do 5 years of healing in a 50-minute session. Actually, this is probably a big reason I feel so exhausted at the end of the day.

Lesson learned? Take it easy and allow some sessions to be lighter. Clients (and I) don’t always have to be working super hard every week.

8. I need to cancel more sessions.

At the start of the pandemic I was freaking out about money. Turns out that renting office space to therapists around town is a horrible business during a global pandemic. I was also going through a divorce that caused me to be totally reckless while stumbling into the dating world. With my almost debilitating financial anxiety and love life in complete shambles, I still showed up every session for my clients. I was a good enough therapist, but I should have taken some time off. I felt a ton of pressure to show up for my clients during a crazy time, and while that’s commendable I guess, I need to take care of myself so that I don't lose my mind.

Lesson learned? I’m not winning any awards for showing up as a therapist if my life is falling apart around me.

Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.

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