Fame and Fortune in PsychotherapyThe (Non)Importance of Media

Prior to speaking, along with my friend and colleague Dr. Christine Courtois, at the amazing Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in DC last weekend, I spent several days in New York interacting with one media outlet after another in the service of promoting my latest book , Closer Together, Further Apart, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider. The book examines the intersection of human relationships and digital technology – a hot topic at present – so it’s generating quite a bit of interest. At the same time, because my other primary area of clinical expertise is sexual addiction, I found myself fielding questions about Lars von Trier’s new film, Nymphomaniac: Volume I, an artistic rumination on active sex addiction in women. For several days straight it was a 24/7 media binge.

Sometimes, after a week like this, I wonder how the heck I got to where I am. I certainly didn’t start my career 22 years ago thinking: I’m going to get on CNN, Oprah, and The Today Show if it kills me. In fact, I began my mental health career as a psych tech – meaning long hours in locked wards with most of my time spent lighting patients’ cigarettes, shepherding them to groups, and helping them to bathe, eat, and hold on to hope. (This was a natural extension of my “pre-teen career” as a counselor and confidant to various family members.) Needless to say, back in my psych tech days “doing media” was not a life-focus. Notoriety was also not on my mind when I went to graduate school or even when I opened The Sexual Recovery Institute. Yet here I am, bouncing around the world as an acknowledged “subject expert” on intimacy disorders, addictive sexual behaviors, and the ways in which these issues are influenced by digital technology. So yeah, that happened.

What I find interesting (and slightly disheartening) is the number of clinicians that I run into who, despite providing years of lifesaving clinical work, seem to beat themselves up because they haven’t yet written a hot self-help book, they haven’t been featured on The View, and they don’t have a TED talk with 2 million hits. For some reason (likely cultural pressure) these excellent, empathic, highly skilled psychotherapists seem to think that helping people on a daily basis and just generally being a good person isn’t enough, even though the work that most of them do is a lot more meaningful and long-lasting than just about any talk show appearance or Internet mention could ever hope to be.

The Downside of the Spotlight, or, Why You Don’t Want What You Think I’ve Got

It’s not unusual for fellow clinicians to approach me with “fame and fortune” type questions. Usually they start out by saying, “I’ve got this great book that I’m going to write as soon as I find the time.” At this point, as gently as I can, I cut them off and tell them that the time needed to write blogs, articles, and books doesn’t just magically appear. Then I let them know that writing a decent book typically takes at least a year of hard work, and that most people never even finish their future bestseller’s first chapter because writing a book while also having a full-time job means things like:

  • Staying home on Friday and Saturday nights, ignoring your friends’ invitations to go out
  • Sitting at your desk for ten hours on a Sunday when the rest of your family goes to Disneyland
  • Skipping a fun day at the beach because you’re on a deadline
  • Spending 40 weeks a year on the road speaking to clinical audiences and sleeping in hotels that may or may not have a clean gym and fluffy towels
  • Missing out on precious family time, including special events like birthdays, anniversaries, and sometimes even major holidays because your new book is due or someone needs a speaker in your area of expertise

So this is the hard reality: If making your beliefs known to the larger culture is not high on your priority list, then you can have a wonderfully rewarding therapeutic practice, in the evenings you can enjoy dinner at home with your family, and on weekends you can go shopping, work on an old car, knit, mow the lawn, watch your kids play ball, and do lots of other really enjoyable stuff. However, if spreading the word about your therapeutic specialty is something you feel compelled to do (for whatever reason), then you might get to see your face on TV once in a while but you probably won’t have a lot of that other life-affirming stuff. Sadly, this is an either/or proposition. You just can’t have it both ways. People like Brené Brown, John Bradshaw, Patrick Carnes, and Claudia Black don’t sell books, provide national trainings, and become well-known and highly respected subject experts by winning the lottery. And you won’t either. No one does.

Simply put, the therapists who regularly engage in therapeutic conversations at the most public levels were invited to the party mostly because they’re the folks who were willing to bypass having a life. There’s a lot of hard work and effort goes into writing and speaking. And spending three-quarters of your life on the road to educate and promote involves personal, familial, and social sacrifice. Honestly, I can’t even begin to tell you how much I would like to roll out of bed on a lazy Sunday, have a cup of coffee, and then meander the flea market with my husband – but my Sunday mornings are reserved for four hours of writing and answering emails no matter what. And no, I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me. This is the path I’ve chosen and I don’t regret it. In fact, I love what I do. The point I’m trying to make here is that getting in and staying in the public eye takes passion, sacrifice, and 70 to 80 hours per week. Let me assure you, if I didn’t feel as strongly and passionately as I do about helping people (both clinicians and the general population) understand the population I treat, I would spend my “free time” a lot differently.

So if you’re reading this and you’re one of those therapists who’s beating yourself up because you’ve not done more to garner acclaim and advance your career, I suggest you reframe these thoughts. Instead of looking at what you wish you had/did/were, consider the gifts that the life you actually have offers you. Then ask yourself how much of that life you’re willing to sacrifice for a larger role in the cultural zeitgeist. In my experience, when the choice is giving up your personal life in order to write and maybe get on TV versus having a fulfilling personal life but not becoming a media darling, most people will happily choose family, friendships, recreation, and relative anonymity. And why wouldn’t they? At the end of the day, quality time with loved ones nearly always provides us with a lot more long-term meaning and satisfaction than notoriety or fame. So instead of beating yourself up for not doing/being enough, perhaps you could pat yourself on the back for having values and priorities that enhance rather than detract from your life, relationships, and happiness.

Empathy for You and for Me

As therapists we are trained to relate to clients with empathy. Over time, most of us get pretty good at this. Occasionally, however, we forget that clients aren’t the only people who deserve empathy and understanding. As such, we tend to sometimes judge ourselves and other clinicians based on the size of our/their paychecks and reputations. The paycheck thing can be especially tricky. Some of us beat ourselves up because we think we’re not making enough money, and the rest of us beat ourselves up because we think that we (or others) are making too much. This is really a strange conundrum. The way I see it is this: In every other profession a person who starts out in the mailroom and works his or her way up to CEO is celebrated, so why not ours? At the same time, however, I don’t think we should be judging ourselves or others based on financial remuneration. Some therapists choose to labor in publicly funded clinics, making very little, but they do amazing and highly rewarding work. Other therapists opt for private practice and high-end clients, making quite a lot, and they too do amazing and highly rewarding work. In therapy, money is not a sign of talent and/or success and/or failure; the ultimate measuring stick is whether and how much we are helping people.

In similar fashion, getting yourself “out there in the media” is not a sign of success. Instead, it is a choice made by some therapists, usually for a combination of personal and professional reasons. For instance, I have chosen this path because I believe I have a unique and useful insight into sexual addiction and other intimacy disorders, and because there aren’t a lot of therapists with my particular skillset and experience who are willing to speak publicly about their work. In other words, if I’m not out there, who will be? And even with that thought in the back of my mind I never intended to end up where I am. In reality, my involvement with the media started small and slowly snowballed over a number of years. Happily, most of the people I run into respect what I do and the reasons I’m doing it, possibly because I try to educate rather than to sensationalize (by doing unethical things like dragging clients onto television or taking cameras into hospitals to film people in crisis). In turn, I respect the clinicians who’ve chosen a more traditional therapeutic path. In the end, each of us is working toward the same goal, which is helping troubled people to better deal with trauma, emotional distress, and highly disturbing (to them) behaviors. And no matter how we go about it, no matter how much we earn, no matter how much acclaim we get as individuals, what each of us does is important, meaningful, and enough.