On being a therapist

Looking back on a 50-year career
by Norman Glassman

Nothing in my upbringing led to my considering therapy as a career. I’d never known anyone in therapy, I had no idea what a therapist did and when I heard of someone who was rumored to be in therapy, it was always whispered, always a secret.

In 1967, after law school and the Peace Corps, I was living in Washington, DC, as yet undecided about whether I would actually practice law or not. I heard about a place called the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. I learned that Esalen was at the epicenter of the Human Potential Movement, and going to a session there appealed to me. So, I went.

I found the group facilitator at Esalen to be extremely nurturing and gentle, yet challenging and insightful. Group members talked about ways they held themselves back and felt unsuccessful in their lives. They talked about how they avoided intimacy with people they actually loved, and about their fear of being exposed and hurt. I wondered how this was all relevant to me.

Soon after I returned to DC from Esalen, I was offered a job as administrative director of a pre-trial diversion project for emotionally disturbed accused offenders. The interface of law and psychiatry appealed to me. I studied the work of Eric Bern, who popularized Transactional Analysis (TA) through his book, Games People Play, and slowly I transitioned to become a therapist.

An important part of how I worked was based on what I already knew: people desperately need to be listened to and nurtured. My work was to help them understand that they didn’t need to be anybody but who they were — and, above all, to gain the tools to “get out of their own way” and become the best, healthiest self they could be.

Over time, I discovered that I had a combination of qualities that fed my ability to be of service. I was creative, caring and intuitive, able to sense into clients’ feelings in ways that gave credence to their experience. I found that I could use my intuition and creativity to help them see how the behaviors they had used to protect themselves in the past might be blocking them from creating the reality they hoped for in the present.

I think that change happens when therapists talk to people, listen to them, witness their struggles — and, most importantly, care about them. I know that when clients have the curiosity and courage to look honestly at themselves and make new decisions, amazing things can happen.

As a therapist, I have thought more about honesty and my increasing unwillingness to support false narratives, my own as well as my clients’. People often cover and hide rather than face their responsibility for the difficult situations they find themselves in. Being gentle, while honest with ourselves, is the fertile ground for growth and resilience, particularly as we age.

I work with people to create and be at peace with the life they have, not with the fantasy of what it should be. Sometimes older people experience loneliness and a fear of being alone. I tell them: “You have one person who is always with you. That is you. How do you nurture yourself? How do you have an intimate relationship with yourself? How do you find joy?”

As we age, I think there are existential questions that apply to us all: What is my character? What is my essence? What are my deepest values? Are there ways for me to heal the relationships that have troubled me while I still have the time and courage needed for me to do that? Often, it’s the relationship with ourselves that matters the most.

Norman Glassman has been a therapist for more than 50 years, admitting it is a ‘bit of a shock’ to have worked so long in the field. Trained in the Human Potential movement of the 1970s and Transactional Analysis, he worked with individuals, couples and with court-assigned offenders. He has a JD and is a licensed marriage and family therapist.