Do Therapists Only Care about Money? An Airplane Morality Tale

I will not persuade you.

No, I will not persuade you therapists are not in it for the money. If all you see are greenbacks in their eyes (🤑), I don’t imagine I can dislodge your thoughts. I can’t deny we work for a living. Indeed, some of us live well, go on vacations, have pricey things. No, I will not persuade you, but instead offer you a story about one noble and gifted therapist.

Perhaps then you will persuade yourself.

Three people make up our cast. Two participants, one observer. All occupied one side of an aisle on a commercial flight. Little identifying information about the 30ish man in the window seat will be mentioned.

I had the aisle seat. Call me the observer. A pretty lady with thick brown hair sat between the young man and me. Bald men, at least this one, notice luxuriant hair!

As we waited on the tarmac, I saw the window-seated gentleman fanning himself. True, the compartment was a bit stuffy before take-off, but I wondered why he hadn’t opened the nozzle above to create a cooling air flow. Perhaps he hasn’t traveled often, I thought. I reached over the napping woman and touched his arm, pointed up, and twisted the nozzle. He smiled and the fanning stopped. I went back to reading my book.

The sleepy woman’s eyes opened:

I became aware of some intense breathing from the gentleman to my right, turned to look at him, and noticed he was sweating profusely. I asked him if he was okay, and our interaction began …

He told me he ‘hates flying,’ especially, the take-offs and landings. I recognized the brief conversation helped him to regain control of his breathing, so decided to continue distracting him by engaging in some light discourse. I was also very, very relieved he wasn’t having a heart attack! He told me he was traveling to visit his girlfriend, and when I joked it would be her turn to visit him next time, he laughed, ‘Oh no, she’s moving (here); I’m not doing this again!’ He shared that he has a young daughter who loves to sing and so I invited him to tell me more about her. He seemed to appreciate the distraction and smiled when he spoke about her.

My focus was to remind him to take deep breaths, attending to the slow inhalation/exhalation of his breath. This gentleman seemed somewhat embarrassed, but also quite grateful, and certainly did not eschew my help.

After we reached cruising altitude, he seemed much calmer. From time to time his breathing turned faster and more shallow, which would prompt me to engage in conversation to provide a distraction. We spoke about his destination. I shared some of my favorite places there and he told me what his girlfriend had planned. I encouraged him to enjoy the weekend, fearing he would worry about the return flight instead. I also supported his willingness to fly, given his clear dislike of it!

When we began descending, our fellow-passenger was in distress again. I turned my head toward him, and thought I was directing my voice quietly just to him, never imagining you (on the opposite side) would be privy to the ‘therapy.’ I was focused intently upon him, as a counselor would be with a client.

I used ‘grounding’ mindfulness, and ‘present moment awareness’ strategies to help him control his breathing, and distract him from his fear. I coached him through some diaphragmatic breathing by instructing him to put his hands on top of his ‘belly’ (which sounds less serious than ‘diaphragm,’ and somehow always prompts a smile).

I asked him to attend to the rise and fall of his hands on his belly, and the feel of his hands against one another. When I noticed he was holding a soft velour hat, I encouraged him to pay attention to its texture. I coached him to pay attention to the muscles in his feet, legs, arms, shoulders, and neck, to experience each area relax, to wiggle his toes — anything to take his mind off the descending plane. I kept cycling through the breathing exercises. It seemed to help him, fortunately.  Of course, I also supported his positive progress.

Once we landed, he again seemed quite grateful but a bit embarrassed. I worried for him on the return flight, so tried to empower him, as we regularly do with our clients, by reminding him he managed the trip with the help of some newly-learned techniques which he could do for himself.

What did I feel during this exchange? I focused on calling up anything I could think of to help him, and keeping my voice calm and steady, as he was struggling a lot! I was pleased in a wondrous way, that I happened to be there and able to help. Such serendipity in the world!

I was also a little embarrassed to discover my ‘therapy session’ was overheard. (The gentleman behind us caught my eye when we stood up to de-plane, to acknowledge the ‘session,’ as did another person in that row). I hoped he and others were not distracted by the repetitive refrain, and that my struggling seatmate was not self-conscious about anyone overhearing. I felt a bit of the ‘therapist’s high’ that happens once in a while, when we have helped another person to find the ability to succeed, and we hope, empowered him to use the new tools to help themselves going forward. I was amazed that by some coincidence I was in that particular seat, at that time and I forgot all about the nap I had eagerly anticipated.

If anything, Catherine “Candy” Davies minimizes all she did, and the gift she displayed in doing it. A tour de force for sure. For over two-and-a-half hours Candy worked with the gentleman, sped through a sandwich, read a few magazine pages, but retained constant awareness of her ‘patient’s’ emotional state. I congratulated her when we landed and she introduced me to her husband waiting inside the airport. Later I found her online and asked if I could share her story. She kindly provided most of the details you’ve just read.

Candy was not always a therapist. She earned an MBA and worked for a large corporation, as well as a non-profit. She’s also been a teacher of college business courses:

My ‘midlife crisis’ led me to a career change, and a return to school to earn an MSW.  I have been working at SUNY, New Paltz (the State University of New York, New Paltz Campus) since 2007 and am happily married to husband Bill. We have two grown children of whom we are very proud.

When I shared the story with Bill, he commented it was yet another example my career change was the right decision.  I agreed with him, for it put me in a place to help this young man.

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said: “The true test of a (person’s) character is what he does when no one is watching.” Even though a few of us listened-in (you can’t hear everything on an airplane and my book was engrossing), I would remind you Candy remained unaware of her audience until the end.

Maybe now you have persuaded yourself — by virtue of my seat-mate’s basic decency and therapeutic talent — that counselors are not the self-interested rascals you thought we were. Then again, maybe not.

But regardless of what you think, Candy will still be out there, giving her best, healing when possible, living her values.

Biased though I am and special though she is, in my experience she is not alone.

Below “Candy” Davies SUNY photo, is a High Contrast, Stylized Vector Image showing hands helping each other, the work of Phollox. The last image is A Helping Hand, by Jean-Paul Haag. All but the photo are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

18 thoughts on “Do Therapists Only Care about Money? An Airplane Morality Tale

  1. Well, I’m sure it doesn’t shock you to know that I don’t believe counselors to be “self-interested rascals”…. no more so than the general population. In fact, I think a good therapist works very, very, very hard for the money. I have watched therapists in action and I have also seen the positive consequences of their work with kids and families for many years. Most therapists working for a public agency in California are not going to get rich doing their work. They might make a decent income but they are not going to get rich. Sure, there are a few therapists in management positions and psychiatrists, psychologists, MFT’s, LSW’s in private practice who might make a lot of money but I suspect they have put in the hours and hours and years to be an insightful, strong therapist so why shouldn’t they earn the money?

    Most of the people that I know in the helping professions are there b/c they have empathy and perhaps b/c they have the gift of being able to connect with people. I think they work hard in their often intense work hours and they deserve to kick back and spend their hard earned money however they like. Personally, they have also been some of the most interesting dinner guests and dinner companions I have known. I always enjoyed kicking back with them!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting that you frame this inspiring story as an antidote to the idea that “therapists are just in it for the money.” Like JT, I have never thought this. I have thought this about some lawyers, bankers, and dentists. 🙂 I think this story is a wonderful example of human decency and altruism. For years, I was a fearful flyer and had a few panic attacks during take-off/landing and turbulence. Once, an older woman just started talking to me, telling me everything was going to be just fine, and she held my hand. I remember feeling foolish but also very grateful. I never forgot her kindness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      The area in which therapists are vulnerable to their own personal demons is, in my opinion, more related to the power inequity in the therapy relationship and the potential to go over sexual lines. As JT suggests, the financial incentive is usually greater in other vocations, including the corporate business arena that Candy left. Sounds like the older woman you met (and Candy) both reaffirm our faith in humanity, at least a bit. We are in need of that in this difficult moment in USA history. Thanks for your comment, Evelyn.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Some of us patients, having had very few caring people in our lives (especially if they’re family)… can and do think “I’m so pathetic, I have to pay for someone to care for me.” I’m sure you know this. And sometimes the stark contrast between the therapist’s care, and the lack of care in other parts our lives hurts a great deal. I hope you know this. I liked your story because I was under the cynical impression that a therapist would not want to “work” off duty, so I was very pleasantly surprised. As a patient who has benefited a lot from mindfulness, deep breathing and grounding learned in therapy, I personally am happy to teach what I’ve learned to stressed out coworkers.

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    • drgeraldstein

      I do know what you say. Glad you keep to a mindfulness practice and benefit from it. You offer your own kindness in teaching others. Brava!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a patient, I recognize that you’re not all in it for the money. But sometimes I remind myself that this is a service, that my therapist listens to me because it is her job, not because she’s my friend. I know she works hard for the pay, and her being there for me for coaching without charge shows her dedication.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you, Emily. I think virtually all therapists have heard the charge of being in it for the money, even if only infrequently. I remember being shocked when, in my 20s, I heard a real estate agent say, “doctors feed on pain.” She was referring to MDs. Yikes. On a couple of occasions a husband (who had been dragged into therapy by his wife) expressed the idea that counselors only were interested in money. As the national political scene demonstrates, rationality and well-though-out examination of an issue are in short supply. Perhaps it always was and we didn’t want to know it.

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  5. This was lovely. 🙂

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  6. Beautiful story, Dr. Stein ❤

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  7. drgeraldstein

    Thanks, Rosaliene.

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  8. Being a doctor,nurse or therapist doesn’t come naturally. There is so many years of college and university education that gets you the skills needed to be a good practitioner and even once you are qualified you still need to keep up with education. This all costs thousands of dollars and years of dedicated study. I think therapists earn every dollar they make. There has to be an exchange, plus it helps the patient take responsibility for their wellness. It seems to me that therapists have the hardest time to have to justify their earnings. To me if you have a therapist that cares that is the genuine giving from their heart, no amount of money or education provides that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • drgeraldstein

      All good points. In this country, practitioners are also under pressure from government and insurance companies to lower their fees. Not a time to easily make a fortune. Thanks, Claire.

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  9. as a therapy client I am under no illusions that therapists earn every penny they earn, well mine does anyway! but I do find it strange that so many people who have little understanding of the ‘caring’ type professions assume people are only in it for the money. I was a nurse prior to having children and certainly I did this to earn a living but I also did it because I enjoyed helping people and believe I was compassionate, empathic and frankly, good at my job. a while back I witnessed a car accident, I went into nurse persona, did what needed to be done, stayed til the emergency services took over and didn’t expect (not that I would have gotten any!) any kind of financial, or other, reward. but had I been working on the wards and done similar work, then yes, i’d expect remuneration, but I would have applied the exact same care, skill and attention in both scenarios.
    no one would consider it strange that a mechanic asks for a fee for fixing a car, or that an accountant charges for auditing your accounts, but for people who are in ‘caring’ careers somehow the rules seem to be different! never understood why. I have friends who foster children, and again somehow people assume they do it simply for love! and yes they do. but they still need to be able to live as well! same applies to therapists i’m sure!

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    • Well said, Onyee, and well done in your emergency intervention. Health care provides, usually, nothing visible in the sense of a work product, though one could argue that a car that now works is akin to a human body restored to health. But a soul, as in psychotherapy? Perhaps here is the ultimate invisibility. I’m not sure of this answer, but it is probably as close as I can come to answering your question about why some believe therapy is not deserving of the same respect as some other kinds of work. Thank you for your useful perspective.

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  10. See my therapist regularly and it is the best $15 copay I have ever spent! 😊 Throughout my career even I would have these same statements directed towards me about my own low-level job, but to the poor people I served my pay was considerable. I never took offense because I knew poverty and I also knew if it were not for their own suffering, I would not be employed.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Your perspective is refreshing, especially in a world filled with a sense of entitlement from both rich and poor. Thanks, Nancy.

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