"MY THERAPIST JOURNEY: Reconnecting with Passion"

Maritza Plascencia, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

By the time we are finally at or barely past the FINISH LINE of becoming licensed many of us find ourselves so BURNT OUT from all of the hours we have put in. Once we find ourselves in this state it is hard to look back and see with clarity the reason(s) why we chose this path in the first place and if we do, it is hard for them to matter that much anymore. Some of us may have even lost sight of ourselves and the many aspirations we had before ending up working in a not so ideal setting or with a not so ideal population for us that is hard to imagine we will ever feel passionate again.

In my own journey I have come across many colleagues who at some point, close to becoming licensed or being newly licensed, have found themselves feeling like this profession was a BIG MISTAKE for them. Others have shared how after all the work they’ve put in they were left feeling DISCONNECTED from themselves and sometimes even DEPRESSED, or simply NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Once we are licensed clinicians we are expected to go out into the world and be capable to fend for ourselves, when the entire time leading up to that moment the message has been we are not. Add on the student loan debt (or any other debt accrued along the way because generally we are so underpaid as unlicensed clinicians and sometimes can barely make ends meet) that can easily weigh anyone who has it down. Perhaps the neglected relationships, because we were so (well, simply put) “PEOPLE’D OUT” to really invest in or maintain relationships we had pre-grad school.

If you have gotten this far by reading, I gather some, if not all, of this resonates and you may even be wondering if someone’s been spying on you. Let me tell you that every therapist I have ever come across who has exposed themselves to me and confided they were feeling this way have been surprised when I have validated their experience and opened up about my own, because I wanted them to know WE ARE NOT ALONE!

It took a lot of support from people in my life that were able to hold space for me or could relate to this experience to help me reconnect with a passion that was burning out in me. When I started, graduate school professors would praise me for being bilingual and claim I would never be without a job, that I’d be sought after by agencies because of the high demand for bilingual clinicians. What they failed to warn me about was that I would be underpaid, overworked and misunderstood.

  • UNDERPAID: Well, because most of us end up working in agencies that are trying to get the most bang for their buck and as a collective they’ve made it normal for pre-licensed clinicians (bilingual or not) with a master’s degree (some even with a doctorate) to not make much more than someone with a bachelor’s degree. (True story: I once saw a job post looking for an assistant to run errands, such as fill-up the gas tank on all cars, go to the car-wash, walk the dogs, get the mail, etc. that paid exactly what I was making at the time, and it didn’t even require a college degree!)

  • OVERWORKED: Because who needs more than one bilingual clinician, right? Oh yeah, and while you’re at it (being bilingual that is) why don’t you take double the caseload and translate forms and handouts, facilitate a couple weekly groups in Spanish, oh, and also help the barely bilingual receptionist as needed (at least a few times a day with difficult to understand callers). Oh yeah, and don’t forget, there’s multiple sites and all require you to go because there are clients that can only work with you because you’re it! Also, make sure to prepare in advance (find some time while at the main office where you already have a million things to do) with all of the required paperwork for new clients (at least a few every week) because the internet most likely will not be working for you to log into the system to print the forms from that site.

  • MISUNDERSTOOD: “How come all of the other (non-bilingual) clinicians (doing the job of one employee, like it should be) stay on top of all of their responsibilities and meet all of their deadlines?” Enough said.

Unlike most of my non-bilingual colleagues, I actually ended up at what was once my dream agency (before it turned into a nightmare). I won’t deny I did meet some exceptional people, other clinicians, some that ‘til this day I consider more than just colleagues. That agency was at the top of the list for anyone looking to get into a training site, it was jokingly referred to by some as part of the “Ivy League” for training sites. The training was exceptional in some areas, in others just meh.

After that experience I was left feeling like my soul had been sucked right out of my body, I felt mangled, used, useless, like I had no business being a therapist, a fraud. How was I supposed to preach to my clients the concepts of boundaries and healthy relationships when I hadn’t been able to stand up for myself at my workplace? How was I supposed to continue helping low-functioning people when I myself was low-functioning? I confess, my weekdays consisted of getting up after a few times of hitting the snooze button, at the last minute possible, running out the door (sometimes 5 minutes late), speeding down the freeway with no breakfast in me and doing my make-up at every red light to go on pretending I was not falling apart, barely getting through the work-day, leaving past my eight hours (because eight weren’t enough to stay afloat of all that was on my plate), and getting home to a late dinner, vegging out in front of the TV or collapsing in bed and repeating it all the next day. Weekends were a struggle to get out the door to visit family, non-therapist friends were almost non-existent because I could barely keep up with family who couldn’t understand why I was so incapacitated. Oh yeah, add in the fact that at the time my family was dealing with a major life-altering situation where the feelings of powerlessness and loss were being served à la carte!

Finally, it happened, what I had most dreaded was my reality… ROCK BOTTOM! Taking the licensing exams had sucked every little drop of life that was left in me. I remember pretending to go to the restroom and instead going to cry in my car just to get through the day or calling in sick more frequently because some days I couldn’t even get out of bed. In my denial and desperate attempt to hold on to “my dream job” I approached my supervisor for a raise, because I mistakenly thought that if granted one it would mean all that I had been through was worth it. Now I know that even if they had said they’d double my pay it wouldn’t have been enough; the raise got denied and instead my reasons (mainly that I was being expected to do the job of three people) were turned against me and I was written up for not being 100% caught up with everything. I knew that if I was to get fired, my one last speckle of dignity and sense of self would disappear. I decided to quit and go quietly, because after all, I had no fight left in me, at least not for that.

I left my job at the end of August 2016 and took the next four months to just sit with the pieces of a broken self, grieving the loss of what I once was and eventually realizing the potential of what I could become. My loving husband, who knew I had lost myself, had leased a small office and given me a small budget in hopes that would help bring me back to life months before I left my job. I had started off with only one client, because that was all I could handle at the time; by the end of that year, I was slowly coming back to myself. You know that saying of “hanging on by a thread?” Well, my one client was my thread. Seeing that I could still be effective as a clinician because the client kept coming back and would report progress in every session, helped me regain some of my confidence. (A professor of mine once said, “We get the clients that need us the most and that we need the most.”)

Fast forward to this moment, as I sit at my desk and type this, barely a little over two years, I am so busy in private practice that I am actually looking into doing something I never had even considered I would, hiring others to work for me. I have two offices and one I sublease full-time and my own only on days I’m not using it. I have a full case load, my phone rings off the hook most weeks and most weeks I get 2-3 people scheduling a phone consultation through my website. I am figuring out how to go about opening a wellness center (hopefully by next year). I have become a public speaker and guest lecturer at several local universities and organizations and have been a guest on three podcasts, so far. I’m not gonna lie and say that my life is perfect, on the contrary, it is a beautiful mess. I have wonderful days in which I am so full of ideas and killing it in all I do and others in which I just need down time to recharge and sit with my human self and my feelings, but nowhere near the level of dysfunction I once was at.

Here is how I managed to put myself back together…

  1. I had to talk about it! Yes, we are in the profession where talking is the cure (for the most part) after all. I would talk to my husband, my family, a really dear friend and colleague who could relate and validate. I’ve even gone back to therapy for myself.

  2. I had to allow myself to grieve the parts I had lost along the way and make room for the parts I would create to honor my loss. I once claimed I would make non-profit agency work my life, because I wanted to serve those less fortunate. After experiencing my burn-out, I don’t think that will ever be possible as I feel an aversion at the thought of doing so. Instead I decided to designate a small part of my caseload to working with a couple victims of crime that get funded at a reduced fee through the state program.

  3. I committed to weekly clinical and business consultation meetings with a local colleague. Doing so allowed me to have someone else as a sounding board, someone that was also in the early stages of building their business and on the same boat of figuring it all out. This turned out to be very motivating and inspirational, because I would get ideas and find out about resources I probably wouldn’t have come to on my own.

  4. I decided to pick a niche (well more like a few niches)! I worked hard to complete the requirements for my EMDR certification and got fully trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy to work with couples, which I’m currently taking a break from, but will be pursuing certification for next year. My niches are trauma, couples and couples with trauma, while integrating mindfulness in everything. This has revived my passion in so many ways and given me a great sense of accomplishment!

  5. I attended the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in Anaheim, CA back in December 2017. Besides the fact that I love geeking out on psychology stuff, it was a conference I had really enjoyed attending back in graduate school. Getting to see so many great and leading therapists in the field and being surrounded by thousands (really, not exaggerating!) of therapists was super inspiring and it helped me reconnect with a part of my pre-burn-out self. A part that was still in touch with why I had decided to pursue this career in the first place.

  6. I opened myself to the idea that being licensed did not mean being done with learning and growth. I signed up for a course with Laura Long after hearing about it from a colleague. The name of the course is “Your Badass Therapy Practice” and quite honestly at the time only knew the name and saw a quick intro video where what stood out to me was Laura’s candid manner and unapologetic use of profanity. I felt that if she attracted people acting like that, then I needed to follow because that’s where I’d find my tribe. I had shed the skin that made me proper and toned down my authenticity to avoid inconveniencing anyone in the past. Little did I know I would gain so much value from this course and gain more than just a role model to look up to. I honestly don’t think I would be running my business as effectively as I am now if it wasn’t for what this course gave me at the time and continues to give me because I have lifetime access and a community where I can be myself.

  7. I became a avid listener of podcasts that inspired me to keep pushing through. The very first one was Selling the Couch with Melvin Varghese, one that I still listen to and continue to get much valuable information from. I sometimes think Melvin’s voice soothed me enough to make the idea of being a therapist feel safe again. From there followed others such as The Abundance Practice Podcast with Allison Puryear, thanks to her I have been able to shift my fear of failure in private practice into a faith in abundance (I think her community is the next I will be joining, it is really inexpensive and judging by the therapists she features from her tribe, they are also wonderful). Other favorites I often recommend are also Practice of the Practice with Joe Sanok, when I found this one I had to binge listen for days, he’s awesome! The same goes for My Biz Bestie with Amber Hawley and Maelisa Hall (Maelisa was featured on one of our FB Live events over at Your Badass Therapy Practice, she’s super awesome, they both are) this one makes me feel super warm inside every time they have two biz besties come on to share their story!

Though I am in a much better place now, I can say that I am still in search of some of the missing pieces. But this no longer stands in the way of me being in touch with my passion for doing this work. Instead it has allowed me to create opportunities to try things like acupuncture, cupping, breathworks, past life regression therapy, reiki, etc. It has awakened an immense spiritual curiosity in me. It has broken me open! I feel like I am a therapist that has so much to give, I feel competent (no longer a fraud)! To only think that if I had given up I would’ve missed out on the growth I’ve had up until now and the growth that is yet to come.