So You Wanna Be a Therapist?
I’m really, really lucky because I’ve basically wanted to be a therapist as soon as I needed to pin down and figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up Because of that, I was fortunate enough to start my career and brave this crazy, adventurous maze in my very young twenties. I’m also very lucky because even though I knew I wanted to be a therapist and went straight down that path as soon as I could, the actual work of therapy is infinitely different than I ever could have expected…and yet, I love it more than I possibly that I could.
While I’m not an expert or even a seasoned veteran by any means, I do believe I have a solid grasp with what it means to work, enjoy, and thrive in this field, and I’d like to share my 100% biased perspectives with anyone contemplating the exciting realm of therapy work!
- Above anything, to be a therapist, you need to be humble. I say this because you will have to buckle down and really accept the fact that you will be constantly learning, evaluating, and working on yourself. We often enter this field with grandiose ideas about helping and saving others, though the paradox is that the main beauty of our best work involves our own introspection.You will learn about blind spots you never knew existed, and you will be confronted with them regularly. You will challenge everything you thought you knew about yourself, the world, and others. You will be more aware of your deficits and defenses more than ever, and while there is nothing wrong with you- these “flaws” are probably a contributing factor of your desire to get into this field- you better be willing to work on them.
- You need to be willing. With evaluating yourself, you have to be in acceptance that your relationship with every person you have or have had in the past will likely be scrutinized, analyzed, and refined. At the beginning, you will likely wear your “therapist hat” around your friends and family, and you will annoy everyone with your insights and interpretations. You will have to learn to check yourself hard because just as your clients are not your friends, your friends are not your clients. And as you teach your clients about healthy relationships, family dynamics, boundaries, asserting of needs, and acceptance of others, you will start to realize your own difficulties with this process.
- You will need to practice flexibility. Like yesterday. Take the flexibility you think you have, times it by ten, and that’s how flexible you’ll need to be on a given basis. Parts of you will be challenged with this: we like our ways, our rigidity, our routines, and our structure, but this will constantly be tested. You never know what kind of client is going to walk in your office, how your hour will unfold, or what skills you will be honing in on that day. You will have to learn the striking, supernatural balance between drawing insightful interpretations and making faulty assumptions.
- You need to have more than just passion. This means organizational skills, strong judgment, leadership, and even some (gasp!) science and math capabilities. Passion is the foundation, and it’s not enough to like helping people nor is it enough to be strong in conversational and interpersonal skills. Passion waxes and wanes, and there will be clients that test and challenge you, company polices that don’t make sense, and day-to-day stressors that arise in any workplace. Additionally, there will be note-taking, diagnoses, clinical assessments, treatment teams, referrals, supervision, treatment planning, meetings, utilization reviews, insurance claims, and funding as well.
- Patience, patience, and even more patience. Listening is not for the weak, and I believe good listening is harder than good talking. You will see clients move in circles, you will watch the ups and downs, the peaks and lows, and you will get frustrated and worried and upset, and you will have to be mindful of your own emotions and countertransference to avoid stunting theirs. I firmly believe substantial and lasting change happens at a very slow level, at a timing that is entirely up to the client, despite any light bulb moments that may manifest, and we have to be accepting of the process for what it is. Patience extends to your clients just as much as it does for yourself!
- You need strong emotional capacities and boundaries. Kids, couples, adults, it doesn’t matter: it’s not uncommon to experience the entire spectrum of feelings in a single session. People don’t go to therapy because they love their lives, and people don’t go to therapy to sit and brag about how good things are. You will hear about horrific traumas, the deepest of secrets, the web of lies and shame and terrors, and your emotions will inevitably be activated. You will feel protective over some clients, and there will be others you can’t stand. You will have to learn that even though your reaction matters, it’s not about you, and it’s not about your needs. You will be frequently out of your comfort zone, and you will need to know how to prepare yourself for that.
- You need to love knowledge and learning. Mental health is such an invigorating and expanding field. Human behavior is utterly fascinating, and we will never have the answers to why we do what we do or how we even do it. It’s exciting to learn and absorb, and so you need to accept the role of being a forever student!