Get Thy Nonprofit Self Into Therapy!

For those who are interested in learning more about psychotherapy, Elizabeth Sullivan provides a good overview of the assistance it can offer. It's important to remember that there is a wide continuum of what people need or get from therapy and that results and timelines, of course, vary by person. It may not even be therapy, but, for example, coaching or mentoring, that's more appropriate to your needs. But that's a different article all together.

I worked most of my career in nonprofits, but I experienced so much dysfunction -- including my own! -- that in 2007 I decided to train as a psychotherapist.

The very dynamics that motivate us to change the world can also create unnecessary personal, psychic suffering and result in a need for psychotherapy for some. Many of us hold ourselves to an ethic of sacrifice and self-deprivation as well, often stemming from some variety of guilt or survivor guilt. Of course, we have clear, ethical, intelligent reasons to change the world. But we need personal freedom in addition to social freedom.

Top 7 reasons nonprofit people may find therapy helpful

7. You will be able to plan creatively for your own future.

People in the nonprofit world can sometimes lose sight of our personal future, in our eagerness to win victories for others. Therapy can help you sketch out your own career dreams. You can't advocate for yourself in an effective way if you're not sure what you want. I had a client tell me recently, "Once I was able to ask for the promotion I wanted and get it, I felt appreciated and naturally generous, instead of guilty."

6. You will learn how to really not take things personally.

In therapy, many of us work on perceiving what is real. Do I really want to be a doctor, or was that my dad's wish? Why am I drawn to this person who does not seem to want me? Does my supervisor hate me, or is she stressed out and scared about funding? Not taking things personally means we can communicate like adults, take responsibility for ourselves, and have clearer interactions.

5. You will learn how to ask for help powerfully and effectively.

Knowing how to ask for help is in the top five of most important life skills. Let's ditch the myth of the brilliant loner and instead have a smarter ideal: the brilliant connector who is able to figure out the right idea or expert advice for all situations.

4. You will not burn out.

Nonprofit workers I see in therapy say, "But how can I complain about my life, or even talk about what's hard for me, when the people I work with have it way worse?"

But not voicing troubles is like ignoring an infected tooth until it rots. People who live like this repress their needs until they inevitably burst out. Most often they then quit or get fired, with a feeling of personal defeat or blame. What a tragedy! We need all these smart, creative people to lead us into a better world.

3. Your relationships will improve, both at home and at work.

When our relationships are unhealthy, we cannot thrive. We need intimacy and love; therapy helps us with both. What improves relationships? Honesty, vulnerability, understanding, presence, grace, joy. A client who has worked hard on improving his marriage said, "Now whether I have a difficult day or a great day, I know I can share it with her--talking about it makes it more bearable, or more wonderful."

2. You will know and accept what you feel and have a more satisfying daily life.

Therapy shines a light on what is really going on inside and improves life satisfaction by legitimizing what we feel instead of pushing it away. It's ok to be jealous sometimes, or sad, or angry, and when we acknowledge these feelings they often dissolve more quickly than when we try to ignore them. In some ways this is the primary insight of therapy, but it's not easy to live it or to get there on your own.

1. You will be able to be even more ambitious about your social change agenda.

Sometimes unconscious fears or blind spots hold us back, therapy helps us safely look at the shadows in our own psyches and clear out the personal myths that stymie us and make us smaller. The nonprofit world needs visionaries and big-picture thinkers who will make bold plans--therapy can help you dream bigger.

Is this a good time to try therapy?

Here are some quick questions to ask yourself:

  • Am I thinking about quitting and/or switching industries? You might be in danger of burning out.
  • Are the difficult people or situations I encounter halting my progress? Everyone has to deal with the downers and derailers of life, but some of us are more consistently able to push through and still achieve our goals.
  • Am I feeling discouraged, isolated, trapped, or guilty for not doing more? We all get the blues once in a while, but a situation is not sustainable if we are consistently unhappy.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to invest in therapy to help you figure some things out. Like higher education, therapy is an investment in your own life. Still, someone should not be in therapy if they are satisfied with life and not suffering.

Therapy is a chance to reflect on the things you can't always bring yourself to talk about with those you are close to; and to figure out how to live with soul and satisfaction. Talking to a therapist may seem simple, and it is (just show up and try to talk honestly about what's really going on), but it is also a powerful process of alchemy and surprise. Many clients come in to work on one issue, and find that it is something else that is really hindering them.

If you want to find a therapist, the best way to find someone good is to ask friends who are in therapy for recommendations. I hope this essay inspires you to begin your own process of self-discovery. There are incredible powers, ideas, and dreams inside each of us that can help change the world for the better. Onward!

Elizabeth Sullivan co-founded City CarShare, a nonprofit car sharing project to change the American relationship to the car. She is now a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco. She is currently researching a form of ice cream therapy for PMS. :)

Comments (11)

  • Anonymous

    Therapy is the best gift I ever gave myself. It has also helped my relationships with family and colleagues, and gives me a lot more insight into how and why people behave the way they do - which is great when managing up and down in my organization.

    Feb 22, 2011
  • So cool to hear therapy called a "gift" to yourself--that is how I think about it too, but I never put it into those exact words. Thank you! Elizabeth

    Feb 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Hooray for this article!!! So refreshing to have this topic out in the open! Yes, sometimes we who work in non-profit social change work may need therapy to help us sort things out. Would love it if we could experience/create more joy in our work and move away from damaging levels of guilt and martyrdom.

    I often tell colleagues and clients that we can't give to others unless we have a strong core from which to give. Thanks for articulating all the reasons that therapy can help us do the "inner' work that it takes to be successful in our work in the world!

    Feb 22, 2011
  • Thanks for your encouragement. Down with martyrdom! Elizabeth

    Feb 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    This article had to come from San Francisco! If you have no social life, close friends or relatives a commercial friend is better than no friend, maybe

    Feb 23, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Dear "Anonymous":

    Here's an interesting thought about the therapy relationship from a person from the East Coast, Leston Havens, of Harvard University:

    "Any reader (...) might be tempted to join the chorus of those critics of psychotherapy who term it paid friendship. (...) If friendship or family were not so often paid for in ways far more costly than psychotherapy—as when friends turn out to be predatory enemies—those critics could not be silenced. But as soon as one demands of friendship mutual respect and some happy resonance of interests and styles, there should be no surprise at its rarity or the occasional good sense of paying for it. Of course I say this here defensively, but not in defense against my patients, who have suffered many pains of intimacy. And, I thought, how we pay! It is not a question of nothing for nothing, but of paying heavily for very little."

    Feb 23, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I'm not always sure therapy is the thing - sometimes it is coaching. Some one on our side to help remind you that you are on the right path or give you a heads up if you are drifting or floating into burn out territory. 'Therapy' assumes a pathology that leads us to believe there is something wrong with us as we are. My experience with therapy is that it helped me look back but not move forward - coaching was much more effective at helping me progress and change the habits that led me to therapy in the first place.

    Feb 24, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Interesting assumptions about therapy—and not true from my experience.

    But coaching is also a wonderful way to work on one's life. I've used and loved both approaches, and others too.

    The task for each of us is to develop the soul (or "to love and to work" as Freud once put it) however we can.

    Whatever works!

    Feb 24, 2011
  • If I may suggest a modification to your research: ice cream therapy may prove more promising for treatment of menopausal hot flashes. Based on anecdotal evidence involving a large number of subjects over a considerable time period, I believe the tried-and-true salt-and-sugar (e.g., popcorn and chocolate) combination therapy is most effective for PMS. Cate Steane

    Feb 24, 2011
  • Anonymous

    I must bow to your obviously superior research methods. You are so right!

    Feb 24, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Having had lots of therapy during my life, the most effective was immediately after I left my nonprofit E.D. position, when I was focused on the day's issues (such as being pushed out) than my past. I wish I'd gone in for that sort of help while still working as an E.D. -- things would have been much better for me and my team. Such is the learning curve...

    Mar 21, 2011

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