I barely remember attending my masters graduation. I’d been in a heartbroken haze for months, somehow finishing my thesis between breakdowns. When I look back on photos from that day, I’m sporting a giant, toothy grin that would fool anyone as being authentic – but I remember feeling empty.
Today, when I see smiles on Instagram, I wonder which ones are veneers masking suffering.
Walking across the stage on that fall day in 2011 wasn’t the first time I’d felt like a fraud as a mental health practitioner. In the years prior, between my coursework and clinical placements, I quietly managed my depression and chronic anxiety with eating disorders. Although I rarely binged and purged anymore (as I had through high school and university), it was clear that my eating disorder was still in charge of my life:
There was the time I snuck into the gym where I worked in the middle of the night, so I could run on the treadmill before a long flight (knowing I wouldn’t be able to workout after I landed).
Or the time my best friend of twenty years took me aside, her eyes glassy and her voice quivering, and said she was “worried.” For a moment, I was, too.
Or the time I took the bus to the hospital after throwing up blood, telling my then-boyfriend I had to cancel our plans that evening because I had “too much homework.” More than a decade later, I can still viscerally recall the thick shame I felt, naked and exposed underneath my blue hospital gown. “Are you getting help?” the emergency room doctor asked. No, I’m supposed to be the one who helps. “Yes,” I lied.
There’s an adage that “You can’t help anyone until you’ve helped yourself.” I hear it most often from my clients who want to pursue a career in mental health, but think they themselves have to be “healed” first.
If you can relate, I invite you to throw this perspective out the window. Here’s why:
- First, many of us who pursue careers in mental health do so because we know suffering. We know the hollowness of depression. We know the 4 a.m. catastrophizing of anxiety. We know what it’s like to feel secretly broken behind a facade of toothy smiles and perfectionism. Our suffering inspires both compassion and psychospiritual curiosity in pursuit of peace, foundational to the knowledge we impart on those we help.
- Second, many of us who pursue careers in mental health do so because we witnessed suffering in our families. We were parentified as children – meaning we looked after those who were supposed to look after us. After my dad left when I was eight, I became a sounding board to my mom’s grief and mental health challenges. And while “growing up young” comes with grief of its own, it also equips us with the attunement, sensitivity, empathy, and wisdom necessary to be really good at supporting others.
- Finally, by believing we have to be healed before healing others, we actually hold ourselves back from the healing we experience through healing others. Two of the major sources of psychospiritual unrest are disconnection and meaninglessness. By pursuing a career in which we’re in service to others, we can experience a sense of connection and purpose.
If you decide to pursue a career in mental health, it’s important that you possess the self awareness to recognize the times when your own mental health may compromise your ability to be a competent and ethical practitioner. But, at the same time, it’s important that you are compassionate with yourself and have realistic expectations for being human. Just as you’ll ultimately teach your clients, healing isn’t about happiness or perfection, it’s about gaining the awareness, skills, support systems, and resources to navigate life with agency and resilience.
Personally, I’ve done years of therapy and thousands of hours of yoga. I’ve sat through plant-medicine ceremonies and rigorous silent meditation retreats. I have a masters in psychology and am considered an authority on mental health. And yet, I believe I’m healing, not healed.
While there are some areas the voice of shame still lies to me, I know I’m a good therapist. I know helping others can occur alongside helping myself. And it can for you, too.
Megan Bruneau is the author of How To Be Alone (and Together): 72 Lessons On Being at Peace With Yourself, from which half of all profits support Active Minds. Enjoy the first chapter for free and learn more on her website!