The Mentally Ill Therapist: How I Use My Pain for Healing

I have anxiety, chronic depression, and excoriation disorder – I’m also a master’s level psychotherapist with my own private practice.

My life story and diagnosed mental disorders contradict the general public’s idea that a psychotherapist is some sort of “Buddha-like creature” that has mastered the art of suffering while also helping others through their pain.

I think one of the most beautifully difficult things about being a therapist with mental illness is that I haven’t mastered my own mental health. Yet, I’m still able to help others through their suffering. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully overcome the disorders and struggles I’ve been given, but I’ve learned how to use my own pain and trauma to help my clients through theirs.  

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It Can Be a Long Road 

The amount of pain, energy, time, and money involved in mental illness and its treatment can be incredibly overwhelming. I’ve been in individual therapy since the age of 13, received inpatient psychiatric treatment at the age of 19, and I’ve tried over ten different medications for depression.

Two years ago, I attended a ten-week-long self-compassion course in hopes that I’ll stop trash-talking myself 24/7.

I’ve undergone countless blood tests and a sleep study to try and address my chronic fatigue.

At 25, I attended group therapy in addition to my individual therapy to help me learn just how powerful relationships can be in terms of triggering my anxiety and feelings of inadequacy due to my anxious attachment style.

Just recently, I completed eight weeks of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) for both anxiety and medication-resistant depression.

I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on skin care products and scar gels to try and erase the fact that my entire body is covered in scars from over a decade of compulsive skin-picking.  

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 My Experiences Help My Clients

When I read the above paragraph, I feel a sense of profound sadness and grief from what I’ve endured, but my difficult experiences have made me a better therapist.

Because of my anxiety, I know that sometimes, no matter how much cognitive challenging and deep breathing I do, I still could respond from a place of pure panic and make the situation worse.

Because of my depression, I understand how you can feel so unwanted and repulsive that you want to die, and no amount of uplifting words from others can take that pain away.

I’m able to recognize that replacement behaviors or distractions for compulsive behaviors oftentimes don’t even make a dent, so we have to brainstorm quite a repertoire of potential interventions. When clients ask me for answers, begging for ways to end their pain, I simply sit with them because sometimes sitting with them is all you can do. 

I realize that what worked, or didn’t work, for me and my mental health is not applicable for everyone. I draw from my own hardships because it helps me makes sense of the things I continue to experience on a daily basis despite my many years of pursuing healing.

I think the most profound thing I’ve learned as a therapist with mental illness is that sometimes we get so caught up in our ultimate goal of being healed that it actually stops us from healing. There is a romanticized idea of healing that is portrayed as someone constantly being at peace or no longer feeling intense pain, but that’s not what healing is.

Healing is a lifelong process that takes consistent time, effort, and courage because we will never be free from suffering in this life, but we can also find comfort in knowing we are never truly alone in our pain. We can learn to still experience joy, freedom, love, and all of the wonderful things in life while acknowledging that moments of suffering are inevitable.  

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Take Care of Yourself While Caring for Others 

Being a psychotherapist is a difficult career that requires a lot of self-awareness and self-care. Not all therapists have mental illness or trauma, but we all experience pain and feelings of inadequacy, and making sure we take proper care of ourselves is one of the most important parts of our job.

The concepts of self-awareness and self-care as a therapist become even more vital when you have your own disorders or difficult life circumstances going on. My countertransference is often very strong in sessions because of my past experiences, but I’ve learned to use it as a therapeutic tool that allows me to stay empathically attuned to my clients.

I’m also aware that I have to be careful and take time to process my countertransference with the help of ongoing supervision and personal therapy to make sure my own emotions aren’t negatively influencing my practice. It’s about finding a balance between using our experiences as a point of reference, but not becoming blinded or consumed by them. 

If you’re a therapist with mental illness, I see you and I understand you. If you’re a therapist with no mental illness, but you’re stressed out of your mind and feel inadequate, I see you too. Life is hard and we picked a hard job to go along with it – there’s a lot of power in being open about this and our common humanity.

We can use our pain to help us become better clinicians only if we take the time to address it and care for it. You can’t expect your clients to trek and wade through the depths of their suffering if you haven’t done it yourself. No matter what your story is, take the time to explore it. It has the power to become your strongest asset as a clinician. 

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Nicole

    May 1st, 2023 at 6:03 PM

    Brave, beautifully expressed, and empowering for other therapists and future patients.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences.

  • Hannah

    May 4th, 2023 at 6:24 AM

    Love all that you shared in your article. I can resonate with all that you wrote. Thank you so much for sharing. Hugs and cheers, Hannah.

  • Dr. M. Alyce Petties Jones

    May 8th, 2023 at 1:41 PM

    A wildly intrepid view to share and acknowledge the pain, struggle and trauma amongst us. Thank you and I wish you well.

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