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I fancy myself a practiced evaluator in characters but I’ve missed one or two. This article is about character assessment. Your character. And your future therapist’s character. OK, ride with me, I’m gonna use good ole Bruce Springsteen as a vehicle to make 5 points about possibly one of the most meaningful decisions you make. It’s what I find to be the best mix of circumstances for great results between a possible therapist and a client. I hope it helps you too.
I grew up in New Jersey about 20 minutes outside of NYC. My family has had a beach house on the Jersey Shore since 1959. It was bought by my great uncles, who were both WW2 vets and blue-collar grinders. They saved and saved and rarely spent their discretionary money on any indulgences except that little Cape Cod style house on Long Beach Island. My great-uncles were characters. Al and Elmer, always together. They were my early childhood connection to the Shore and my intrigue into sharpening my awareness of unique Jersey characters AND what it means to have character.
There are 100 miles of beach in New Jersey, and thousands of variations of oddballs and cool-cats, badness and goodness, kookiness and edgy folks. You may know some of those characters (both fictional and real) like Nucky Thompson, Tony Soprano, Mike the Situation, Snooki, and Mr. Jon Bon Jovi. But to so many, the Jersey Shore is indubitably linked to Bruce Fucking Springsteen. The Boss.
I never got into his stuff, it never appealed to me. Bruce was too local. He was too Jersey. He was too, well, Bruceish. Admittedly I had a weakly constructed assessment of who he was and what he represented. My sharpened ability to judge character and characters, in this case, was faulty.
Then, in 2013, I was invited to see Bruce in concert at the Prudential Center in Newark. His home turf. My home turf. My buddy had just begun working for him and invited me - offering free tickets and a backstage tour. Why not? He said, “I think you’ll dig your experience, it could change your life.” That seemed over-the-top. I trusted Matt though. Still, I went to see all the Jerseyness, more as a psychological field trip to dissect the characters. I didn’t think I’d come out baptized.
The show was nearly 4 hours long. I was never bored. Never checking the time. AND. I. WAS. CONVERTED!!! Transformed. Twisted and Turned and Rock-N-Rolled, Healed and Therapized! About halfway through the show, during the song Wrecking Ball, I broke in two. I wept. I was in awe. I believed in Bruce. I had been misguided and wrong and I saw the error of my ways.
1) RECOMMENDATIONS! Trust your friends/family/support group’s taste.
Matt recommended Bruce. And I think it was exactly when I was ready for Bruce. I needed him in my life. My brother and sister-in-law recommended my current therapist Sam more than 10 years ago. He’s guided me through my 30’s and early 40’s. I’ve recommended Sam to 10-15 of my closest friends who currently see him.
My first therapist, Glenn, from afar, seemed nerdy AF. Another character I judged poorly. Actually, Glenn is nerdy, but good nerdy. Visually, I’d never have picked him. But three people I knew very well had picked him. I’d chosen them as friends because they were characters with character. I trusted their judgment. Regardless of Glenn wearing pleated khakis, my friends were like; “the dude will tune you like a guitar and make you play beautiful music.” They essentially said “I think you’ll dig your experience, it could change your life.”
I called Glenn one day and the rest was history; he uncorked me. Six months into our work together my emotional and spiritual life were swelling: I quit my job, I applied for a graduate program, finished in two years, and started on a new road. I knew, at a deep level, I was made for more. Glenn set me off on a journey into more self-awareness but also a career defined by purpose.
You must trust your friends. AND be willing to be surprised.
2) RELENTLESSLY PURSUE PERSONAL GROWTH. Are you relentless? Can you see it in others?
What I saw at that concert seven years ago was a relentless performer. Dedicated to the process, to the pursuit of greatness. In every show I’ve seen since that fire, that grit, and passion are obvious. In 2016, nearing his 70’s, I saw Bruce perform four shows that went longer than four hours, in the summer. He sweat buckets. That’s dedication and passion.
You should not only be looking for this in your therapist but in yourself. Mutually driven collaborators. A collective vibe. What I saw in Bruce was someone who does 10x the work off the stage as on. To perform that way requires an intense amount of practice, fitness, personal demons being exercised, relationships being built and maintained, eating well, and taking risks. Lots of risk. Vulnerability. Openness. In their own lives, Glenn and Sam do 10x the personal work outside the office.
How will I know if someone is relentless? There’s something in people’s eyes, a realness, authenticity, passion and drive. Look for it. Trust your gut. You may get it wrong. Then get back out there and keep looking. Your instincts aren’t perfect.
Is this person serious and deeply devoted to their own growth? Does it show? Infer. Suppose. Deduce. I don’t know what Bruce’s personal life looks like but I can infer from what I watch that he’s doing the relentless work off the stage. It’s in his eyes and his voice and his words. More than 90% of the therapy is done outside the office.
3) EXPECT DISAPPOINTMENT. Disappointing therapists flood the market.
Keep searching for excellence, like you’d search for a partner or spouse. Keep dating. It took me going to hundreds of concerts and shows to know something special when I saw it. I instantly knew Bruce was on another level because I had seen so many performers before him. So many people’s first experience with therapy sucked; they were disappointed by the level of care and skill they got. Often their search stopped there. That’s fatalism.
60% of therapists are going to disappoint you. I’m ball-parking here. It’s surprising to you because your hopes were so high and your pain was so deep. I’d say 10% of therapists are harmful and negligent, 10% are crap, 20% are fair, 20% fit that mid-zone of useful but average. 20% of therapists are good, 10% are great. Only about 10% are elite and of those, 1–5% are unicorns.
If you are searching on your own, you’re actually likely to be disappointed at least once. Same with dating. Or anything really, without good recommendations. Get used to this. Know that you haven’t gone to the show that’ll save your life but those performers are out there. Keep hunting!
4) FINANCES. Pay the premium for quality.
Don’t make a micro-level financial savings decision on something that has macro-level implications. Every Springsteen show I’ve seen I’ve been given the tickets. Except for Bruce on Broadway. I paid $800 for those. I’ve flown countless places to see him though, all over the world. I’ll pay the premium for greatness.
A seasoned therapist is booked up and can hold the line and increase their fees. I know I’ve priced a ton of people out. I wish I could take any fee. And, I too love a good deal. I love that I can hunt for the cheapest flight, wait for that stock to drop just a few more dollars to buy in, take advantage of financial opportunities when they arise, get a free drink, yada yada. These are micro-gains though. We can become obsessed with a good deal to the neglect of buying well made, efficient, and productive goods and services.
I’ll always pay up for Bruce. I tell everyone they need to experience him once.
I’ve also been paying for therapy of some sort since I was 23. I’m about to be 43. I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on these two guys. Let me be real: good therapists cost good money. This is not true across the board but most great therapists are out-of-network when it comes to insurance. Your insurance may cover out-of-network therapists but that depends on your plan. My insurance never covered therapy. For 20 years it’s been out of pocket. 100% best financial decision I’ve ever made.
5) WHAT ABOUT SPECIALIZATION? I get it. You may want someone with a specialty.
You may think you need that. And you may. You have to assess that. I find that many people feel comforted by titles and specialization to the neglect of a special sauce that’s less definable. Something more like chemistry. Something you feel in your gut.
For me, it’s always been about finding someone who has that voice that appeals to my core. As a client, I never really considered specialization. I wouldn’t consider myself specialized as a therapist. The therapists I gravitate toward understand my language, even if they don’t speak it themselves. They are INSTANT. Glenn was instant. Sam, instant. Bruce, instant. In the chair or on the stage, there’s something so authentic that it’s undeniable. I instantly felt the energy, boldness, and self-assuredness with a good dose of humility and tenderness added in. Maybe I’m saying, simply, trust your gut. Trust chemistry. Bruce was SPECIAL but he wasn’t necessarily SPECIALIZED. He transcended genre and category. For me, I’d rather that instant thing over specialization. If you get both, great, but I dig the one before the other.
Seven years ago the song Wrecking Ball wrecked my image of the fans, Bruce, the whole thing. I saw what other people saw. I had this instant appreciation and connection. I saw families, three generations side by side, grandfathers and grandmothers belting out the songs with their six year-old grandchildren. I saw great grandparents and babies, black and white, and gay and straight. All of it, all the nationalities, everyone in attendance. It was spiritual. It was healing. It was the right time. It was the right place. I was ready to hear the music. I was ready to be open to something special.
I owe my ability to pick well, to assess, to see character, and gravitate toward it to the Jersey characters of my youth. I hope you find your Bruce’s and Glenn’s and Sam’s. The elite performers that transform you.
Drew Newkirk, M.A., LPC, LMHC, is a Counselor and Psychotherapist. For nearly 15 years, he's worked as a therapist in the U.S. and abroad fighting through painful and challenging situations alongside his clients — adults and teens — helping them find freedom and fulfillment through skilled, creative and passionate counsel and therapy.