The Dangers (And Treasures) of Working Through Your Unfinished Business
By Chay Tea
When I started the Master’s program classes to become a counselor/therapist, one of the first warnings we received was: many relationships don’t last as you go through this program. In other words, lots of people break up while learning to be a counselor/therapist. And, as was our shiny-new-hopeful-winning-optimistic-I-just-started-this-program nature, most of us ignored that warning or convinced ourselves that it was a warning for other people who really did need it, but it wasn’t true for us.
As a living testament to the truth of this warning, I can say it was both one of the most painful experiences of my life, and it was also the best thing that ever happened to me.
So, before I get into that deep and scary topic, why does this happen?
Getting your Master’s degree in Counseling is very different from the standard career choices. In order to do the actual work of the profession, it is necessary for each person to do the work for themselves personally. We had to open our personal life to our career, which can get very messy really quickly, and it can be easily turn into someone thinking they want to be a therapist when they actually really need mental health help. (aka projection – if I help others I’m really helping myself..)
Counselors and therapists must work on their mental health first. This is one of the most difficult things for anyone to do and a struggle that we endure for the entirety of our lives, so you can see why many therapists are perceived to be (or, let’s face it.. some actually are) incompetent.
We go through the grind of theoretical and research classes just like everyone else, but we have some added components directed at our personal growth. I’m sure all programs are a bit different, but the program at Saint Mary’s College of California has an incredible piece in its set of classes: an intensive year of real-time peer counseling, coached by licensed therapists and counselors (many of them alums). I sat in a room of peers, and I counseled one of them as the other two watched and wrote furious notes, and a coach oversaw our every interaction. And as you may have guessed, I also opened up real problems and issues from my own life for them to practice counseling me as well. I can’t say that the program was perfect, but with 100% certainty, I can say that this class set up the foundation for my craft.
One of Freud’s first and lasting concepts was the notion of “unfinished business”. I talked a bit about this in my projection post already, but it’s going to come up again and again because it’s foundational to human existence. Freud’s whole framework was based on the fact that we have repressed feelings from our negative experiences, and they like to come out in unintended/unwanted ways until they are resolved. Now that it’s been a few hundred years, we have more understanding than this being a purely negative thing–but the fact remains that if you haven’t dealt with something that’s rotting, it’s gonna start to stink.
So…. back to the worst and best thing that ever happened to me.
I, like many other people in my program, had been dating my then-bf for 2 years before I even started school again; and 2 years is enough time to convince yourself of many things that simply aren’t true.
Trying to keep this both personal so that it’s real but still keep my private life.. but to tell you a saga in a paragraph, we had helped each other grow a whole lot in some very difficult years of our lives, and we depended on each other a lot to confirm our identities. In the beginning, I felt useful, helpful, competent, and excited; I was Jasmine broken out of the palace by a mysterious stranger, exploring the world one dive bar at a time, learning about the world and work that I was passionate about (education).
As the years went by, reality sank in; he became ambitious in his work, and I became overly dependent on his feedback as he pulled away from me. His feelings were my feelings, his loss was my loss, but his gains he kept to himself. The more I learned in the program, the worse I felt about myself. The better counselor I became, the less I liked how my life was going. It was a complete paradox to me. How could I be getting so good at this and feel so terrible about who I am? And how could someone who helped me so much before be driving me insane now? It didn’t occur all at once; more like a creeping, unsettling feeling that grew and festered in fights and silences.
Anyways. Obviously you can tell by now, we broke up. It was dramatic and drawn out, and I went through some of the most intense grief reactions I had ever felt when it was finally over. I barely ate, I slept 4 hours a night for 7 weeks straight; I just cried constantly as soon as I made it to my car every day from work… and I found myself cycling in fits of anger, in despair, in denial, and in depressive states.
Yet, as awful as I felt, at my core there was an amazing glow: I had planted the seed of learning to love myself for who I am. And twisted though he was, Freud had publicized what we all felt in common sense and placed it in the world of science: when you deal with your shit, it fertilizes new things in your life.
Alongside my fits of crying and screaming in my car, I was also working out a Ton (being really angry and running a lot really goes well together); I began singing and connecting with my spirituality again, something I hadn’t done in a long time; and I called no less than 30 different friends from all walks of life, some I hadn’t seen in years. My greatest gift from this breakup were those 30 phone calls and in-person talks with friends and family. I was blown away by the love and support each person reflected back at me – I had no idea that I had such a positive effect on them and how open they would be to giving it back. I had hours and hours of conversations, each telling me in their own way how they saw my pain, they believed in my strength, and they hoped and envisioned a better future for me.
One of the moments that stood out to me came when I called one of my mentors, a Christian Brother (a Catholic religious order of men who serve the poor through education) that I met in my time as a volunteer. I was on the phone with him around 12am my time, and 2am his time, and we had talked for at least an hour and a half. He listened patiently, he gave sound and heartfelt advice, and I felt so much better after talking it through with him. I apologized profusely for the late hour, and he said, “You are worth much more than one extra hour of sleep.” I cried that night, not with sadness but with joy, because for a long time, I believed that I wasn’t worth anyone’s time unless I was being useful or interesting to the people around me.
I knew that at one point, I had to tell this story, because it’s painful to start therapy or mental health care. It is hard to even bring yourself to the point where you accept that this is something you have to try. I was going to therapy all through this process, and I cannot stress enough how much it made a difference in my growth. Counselors and therapists always say, “It gets worse before it gets better.” And it’s true. It’s like taking out the trash for the first time after it’s been rotting in the basement for weeks. Burying it dulls the smell, but taking it out makes everyone aware of something unpleasant. And it takes time to heal and clean off the dirt. And it is hard work, every single day.