Jeff Guenther on Feb 23, 2020
When I was just starting out as a baby therapist 15 years ago, I would often get distracted by my personal life during sessions. I was 24, new in town, trying to make friends, and my dating life was all over the place. I’d spent the previous two years in grad school, which was a romantic wasteland for me. I was just coming off an incredibly painful breakup with my girlfriend of three years. (Still my most painful breakup to date. Thanks, Marisa. I hope you’re happy!) I had crushes on a handful of women in my cohort, but unfortunately, they did not feel the same. I’m sure I reeked of desperation. Even my style was bizarre. I dressed punky with tattered clothing, spiky hair and an eyebrow ring that glowed under black light. The trendy ladies at USC didn’t know what to make of me. I came out of those two years and into Portland feeling motivated to revamp my dating life. I ditched the eyebrow ring, washed the gel out of my hair and threw away all my clothes that had rips and holes. The only thing I wasn’t able to shed was my desperation–– a feeling that leaves me prone to jealousy when I’m dating.
This week on my podcast Say More About That, I talk to my good friend Julie Berman, LPC about how we treat jealousy when it comes up with our clients. As you know, I like to disclose (probably) too much about my personal life, so you’ll get a glimpse into jealous feelings that I’ve dealt with recently in relationships. Listen by clicking play below, or find it on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
When I started dating in Portland at 24 years old, I experienced a good amount of jealousy until I was married at 31. Last year I got divorced (which you already know because you’re obsessed with my love life! Kidding...) and as I’ve been getting back into the dating scene, I’ve been experiencing little bouts of jealousy again. So now I have a new opportunity to tolerate feelings of jealousy while being a therapist. Lucky me!
For me, the problem with jealousy is that it hijacks my brain at super speeds without me knowing it. It’s not uncommon for me to notice that I’ve been obsessing about how suspicious I am of an ex that my new love interest is still in contact with. “Why are they still in contact? Is there something unresolved? Are they going to get back together? Should I just be cool with their friendship?” Every time one of those questions comes up I do a deep dive into how worried and concerned I should be, and without knowing it, minutes have passed. This is harmless if I’m sitting on the couch and zoning out to Netflix. But it’s harmful if a client is sitting in front of me spilling their guts. Because jealousy manifests in me in such a stealth way, this could happen! One tiny little thought can turn into a hundred scary thoughts that demand my attention immediately.
If I’m feeling extra insecure during a client day I’ll pray I don’t get contacted by my love interest in between sessions. Even if it’s a sweet, innocuous text, my mind can turn it against me. If I was smart I’d turn off my phone. But I would never turn off my phone because HOW WILL I KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE WORLD IF I DO THAT???
Luckily, jealousy doesn’t hijack me for as long as it did when I was in my 20s. Thank God! These days I might get distracted for 30 seconds at most, which isn’t great. But back in the day I would lose huge chunks of sessions. I would get overwhelmed with jealous thoughts and then go into autopilot therapist mode. We’ve all been there, right? I would respond to the client with empathetic statements but I couldn’t tell you exactly what they were diving into. Sometimes minutes would go by before I was able to snap out of it. Now I’ll catch myself pretty quickly and snap back into the session. Hopefully it doesn’t get any worse.
As I write this post, I can feel shame running through my body. I feel like a bad therapist. I feel like I should be healthier. But jealousy and insecurity is a normal part of my experience and every now and then it’s going to mess with me in therapy. So no, I shouldn’t feel ashamed. I’m human and sometimes I don’t intently listen to every single word my clients say. That’s step one to cope with jealousy and the distraction it creates: tapping into compassion for myself. It’s okay that I’m like this. It allows me to be more understanding when my clients feel jealous.
I know when I wake up in the morning if I feel more tender than usual. I know it could be a harder day when I feel more sensitive. If I’m feeling sensitive, and my dating life is triggering feelings of jealousy, then I plan on being as intentional as possible. I do a practice called segment intending. Feel free to steal it from me. At the start of every segment of my day I set a little intention. For example, when I get out of bed to make some breakfast and watch the news, I’ll set an intention and say something like, “I will mindfully eat my yummy yogurt and put my focus on the TV.” The next segment of my morning is taking a shower and getting dressed. Before I get in the shower, I’ll say, “I’m going to enjoy the warm water and have fun picking out my favorite outfit.” Right before I see my first client of the day, I’ll say, “I’m going to connect with my client without distraction and hold emotional space just for them. I’m excited to see them!”
Setting an intention and being deliberate about how I want that one-hour segment to turn out can make all the difference for me. It’s not foolproof. Things can go awry. Especially if my client starts talking about something that reminds me of my personal life. But more often than not, I’m able to stay focused during the session and only lose my shit for just a little bit between clients. Maybe one day I’ll find myself in a long-term relationship again where I don’t feel jealous or insecure. But until then I’ll keep segment intending and trying my best.
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.