When Psychotherapist and Client Share Similar Crises By Liz Matheis on 11/17/21 - 12:24 PM

It’s been almost nine months since I found out that my husband has been unfaithful, and my life and world have been turned upside down and inside out. It has been almost nine months of being in a seemingly unrelenting state of shock, disbelief, distraction, exhaustion, and overwhelm. From the start, sitting in my psychologist chair and doing my psychologist thing have felt fraudulent. How can I listen, really listen and comfort another, when I am in this raw and vulnerable place? I can’t say for sure, but I have been. In fact, my job has been the one consistent thing in my life that hasn’t really changed. It has been a welcomed distraction to focus on others rather than spending all of my waking hours being lost in my thoughts and the vast array of emotions that I feel on a daily basis.

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I am an empathic, highly sensitive person who also happens to be a psychologist who can become engrossed in the feelings and pain of others. This is likely why I was drawn to the field. Over time, however, I have learned how to create boundaries between myself and those for whom I care so that I don’t burn out. Yet as a caretaker, the potential for burnout remains ever-present.

Let’s take this one step further. In the midst of learning what the red flag signs were and are and understanding what my legal rights are as a divorcing parent, I recently began working with a woman who is slowly awakening to her sense of unhappiness in her marriage—a woman whose story is eerily familiar to my own. In one breath, it is difficult to reflect back on all of the accusations, fights, and sequences of events that she is facing, and that I have faced and continue to. In another, I can judiciously share some insights with her that I’ve gained in hopes of helping to foster her sense of self, her self-confidence, a trust in her instincts, and to acknowledge and respect her feelings of marital dissatisfaction.

Just as I was met with scare tactics and threats about my own marital relationship and its dissolution, she is too. Rather than becoming intimidated, my hope is to help her find her strength to do her own research and gain her own information to help reach her own conclusions.That is because if her story is anything like mine, she may be thrown off by inaccurate information that will disempower and wear her down.

These sessions have not been easy. On some days, they’re painful, as I listen to her story and feel the visceral reactions that I have and still experience and that she is having now. I experience flashbacks after the sessions, but my hope continues to be to try to change her story in an effort to process my own. On the flip side, I have found that being able to help another person in a similar position is cathartic and empowering for me. If I am able to give another woman a little bit of direction so that she is not blind-sided by the upcoming phases she may pass through, I can begin to find solace in my horrific experience.

Although I am still in the midst of the divorce and grieving process, there are a few things that are helping to keep me chugging along.


As a psychologist, I continually reflect on the need for self-care. However, it didn’t really click with me until I arrived in this very place. Self-care means different things for me right now:
It’s okay if I don’t cook dinner every night
It’s okay if my house is not as neat as it usually is
It’s okay to want to sleep more
It’s okay to want to be left alone
It’s okay to give myself a break and not beat myself over it
It’s okay if I didn’t accomplish as much as I intended because I’m fatigued
It’s okay to cry often

Self-care has also taken on the additional meaning of being forgiving and stopping when I think I should keep going on my to-do list. My sense of self-care has taken on the additional and much-welcomed elements of self-compassion and self-forgiveness for the upheaval that is now my and my children’s life. Self-care is the growing understanding and appreciation that this won’t be forever, but it is for now.
Self-care, at a more basic, moment-to-moment level is also:

Drinking enough water to stay hydrated on the days when I don’t wish to eat or drink
Getting enough sleep
Taking my vitamins
Exercising—walking, jogging, lifting weights, stretching, yoga
Taking a shower
Changing out of my pajamas even on the days when I’m not seeing patients in person or virtually, and accessorizing too
Dying my roots and getting a haircut
Scheduling a manicure and/or pedicure
Scheduling a massage and/or facial

Know When to Take a Break

I like to consider myself a diligent, persevering individual who can push beyond fatigue for the sake of learning something new or helping another person to find emotional relief. That high level of motivation and ability to delay gratification is what helped me to get through earlier challenges, including comprehensive exams, dissertation, licensing exam, post-doctoral training, and all of the other intensive training we psychologists have completed. The downside, if there is one, to my diligence is that I haven’t always acknowledged the importance of slowing down, pausing, putting on hold, rescheduling, or just stopping. My personal and professional experiences have centered around the axiom, “Keep on going until I reach the finish line.”

One thing I’ve learned is that I need—I mean really need—breaks on a daily basis. I need time to stare out my window or sit in the sun. I need to sometimes leave my desk and work on something monotonous like laundry because it’s a welcomed break from thinking so much. It’s okay to take that break even when there are phone calls, emails, texts, case notes, and invoices to prepare. That list will never be short, nor will it ever be “all done.” I’m embracing the unfinished nature of my work and realizing that it’s okay to walk away from my desk or office.

Grieving, Boundaries and Growth

Logically, I know that divorce is a loss, a huge loss. Now that I’m in it, I deeply understand that it is the true death of the life that I thought I was going to have, the life I thought I had, and the loss of the family unit that we created together. The sadness that I feel is quite unbearable on certain days and it drains my energy and results in physical pain (i.e., headaches, stomachaches, joint pain, muscle soreness). This experience gives me a new perspective on having a broken heart. Not only in divorce, but in loss by death and break-ups for people of all ages. Loss is loss.

And now, more than ever, in the shadow of this immense sense of loss and emotional exhaustion, it is an incredibly important time for me to set boundaries around when I start my work day and when I will end it. I am a bit of a workhorse, and I balance my practice with my three children and home life by keeping a hand in all three arenas—all day long. I can’t do this right now. I’m learning to understand that if I invest a few hours into a work project, then I won’t get to the items for my home. I need to let it go for another day or enlist the help of my children. And vice versa; if I invest a few hours into a project in my home, I will not be able to also accomplish work tasks.

This also means saying no to social plans or volunteer opportunities for my children’s school or activities. It means prioritizing what I need to get done and what I have energy for.


As a psychologist, I, like many of my professional colleagues, believe that I need to “pull it together,” because that’s what we do and because that’s the implicit expectation our clients have. We are “available” to others, and sometimes, that means our “stuff” has to take the side or perhaps even the back seat. However, what happens when personal issues and conflicts take over? It has and will continue to happen, because we are all humans, and psychologists are no different

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections