Having been in the field of psychology for almost a decade, introductions at social gatherings have become triggers for me.
When I open my mouth to say I’m an (almost) therapist, I know I’m opening up a world of reactions. Often times, people hear psychology and conjure a little Freudian “shrink” who analyzes someone on a couch about their daddy issues. I’ve heard many doubts about the process of therapy from on-lookers: people shouldn’t have to pay to talk to a stranger when they have friends; spending so much time dwelling on feelings just makes problems worse; therapists who don’t have perfect lives can’t help others. Even people who are actively gaining from therapy quickly separate themselves from any associations of crazy or broken or struggling.
So as if mental health didn’t have enough stigmas working against it, I had to go and add religion to the mix.
As an undergraduate, with a double-major in psychology and theology, I started giving selective introductions. Depending on the crowd, I named the major I thought would be received most positively. The day of my graduation punctuated this experience. With my new diploma in one hand, I shook the hand of a classmate’s father with the other. In the excitement of the day, I lowered my guard and said both of my majors when he asked. As graduation caps landed all around him, he smirked: “so you’re gonna sit and around and talk to people about how much religion has messed them up?”
Now that I’m finishing up a Masters in “Pastoral Counseling,” the trend continues. Just recently, I was venting with a student from a different program about the amount of reading required in grad school. But our bonding only went so far as he questioned whether I was “allowed” to b.s. my way through the readings since my studies were religious? I scratched my head as I thought about how to even answer this new one:
Answer a: explain what “pastoral counseling” actually is
Answer b: explore why he thought I should be held to a different academic standard because my program title had a religious adjective. And also, enquire about which religion was strictly against skimming.
Answer c: look out the window and point out the flying bison that just went by
I know that what I do is a kind of code-switching: choosing to represent certain aspects of my identity in the circles where they are most acceptable. And I do this all the time in little ways. Sometimes for my own benefit (I unzip my winter coat to reveal my pregnant belly before I step onto the bus) and sometimes for others’ (I don’t swear in front of my parents because they don’t like it).
But I go back and forth about whether I like my approach to introducing myself. On one hand, I believe there’s healthy self-protection and self-awareness in revealing yourself most fully in “safe places.” On the other hand, I know I can spend so long holding back and surveying the place for “safeness,” that I never show up.
I still don’t know what exactly the right balance is. But lately, I want to work on more of the authentically-showing-up tactic. Maybe instead of being afraid of the stigmas people will stack up against me when they hear religious language, I could be a presence that explains them in a fresh way. Maybe instead of cowering back at all the “terrible therapy experiences” my profession leads people to share, I could genuinely say, “I’m sorry that happened to you” and offer them the loving, therapeutic space they were supposed to have received.
Perhaps I will get burned. Perhaps it’s not my burden to spend parties educating against misinformed conceptions. I’ll get back to you (or if you’ve got thoughts, please share them!).
But I do know when I re-imagine my graduation scene with the snarky father, I no longer feel hurt and shame. Instead, I own the pain the Church has caused. And I own the healing I believe therapy can offer. And instead of the fake “haha” I gave him, I respond with, “yes, those may be the types of clients I work with, and I hope I can help them find healing.”
 This critique is valid if you are lucky enough to have friends who will meet with on a consistent basis, listen to you with unbiased interest, reflect back what they hear in a challenging, empathic way, and help you set goals that improve your well-being.
 This critique is actually correct! Usually, therapy does make symptoms worse before they get better, but that’s the glorious journey of digging up your “stuff” to look at it and heal.
 Just read Wounded Healer, by Henri Nouwen.
 But let’s be real, aren’t we all?