Can a reserved, somewhat shy person be a good therapist?
June 12, 2011 10:57 AM   Subscribe

For much of my life I dealt with rather severe depression and anxiety, which I've recently overcome with nearly 3 years of therapy. I'm 24 years old, trying to find a meaningful career that's more than just a paycheck. At this point, all I want to do is be a therapist. I want to help others the way that I've been helped. However, another issue I've been working to overcome is crippling social anxiety. It's gotten much better; I hardly consider myself shy anymore. Still, though, I'm not sure if I have the warm, trust-inspiring personality a therapist should have. Could I be a successful therapist if I'm far quieter and more reserved than the norm? I do love people and want to help, but sometimes I might not come across that way. Can a shy person be a good therapist?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
From what I have gathered, listening and really 'hearing' what the client is saying is one of the most important aspects of therapy. Allowing people to find their own way. A shy therapist would be much better then a gregarious, self absorbed therapist. You also have the experience of having made it through many of your issues.

You sound perfect for the job.Go for it!
posted by Vaike at 11:26 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't see why not. We all have different types of people that we feel more comfortable around; they all need to be represented for people in therapy.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:31 AM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Absolutely, a shy person can be a good therapist. Shyness is not a defect or deficit; it's more like a preference or a style. The introspection and receptiveness that usually go with shyness could be great assets for a therapist. As a shy-ish person myself (who was a successful trial lawyer), I would be much more comfortable opening up with someone I could identify with, rather than with a charismatic, bubbly party-person.
posted by Corvid at 11:33 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a soft-spoken, somewhat reserved therapist. She was a great listener and when she did speak up it was generally to ask really good questions. I liked her!
posted by ootandaboot at 11:34 AM on June 12, 2011

I know plenty of people who complain about their reserved therapists who seem to be withholding. Perhaps these shrinks/psychologists/counselors are just shy, but it's not coming across?
I wonder if there's another helping profession that you might be better suited to, without having to change your entire personality?
And at least here in the US, setting up your own practice as a MSW or psychotherapist means you need to drum up work, get referrals, etc. That part of the job might not be terribly appealing to you.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:35 AM on June 12, 2011

My therapist is so reserved that I don't even know if she's married or has kids, and I've been in therapy with her for two years now.

I really like her, she's helped immensely. She takes in everything, and when she asks a question or makes a suggestion, she's right on. She's never been off. I trust her because she's genuine and clearly has her patients' healing at heart.

So yes, being quiet and reserved can be great qualities for a therapist, as others have said!
posted by fraula at 11:54 AM on June 12, 2011

As a therapist, you'll have a goal for most of your communications, which as a fellow shy person, I find helps a lot. By using visual cues to show your active listening and wearing a (genuinely) concerned look on your face as your potential patients tell you their troubles, I can't imagine you coming off as cold.

As J. Wilson said, there need to be all sorts of therapists out there.
posted by smirkette at 12:37 PM on June 12, 2011

Ok, hold on.
However, another issue I've been working to overcome is crippling social anxiety. It's gotten much better; I hardly consider myself shy anymore.
seems to me a totally separate point from
Still, though, I'm not sure if I have the warm, trust-inspiring personality a therapist should have.

I think a lot of people might be misreading this question. You say you're no longer "shy" but that you're quiet and reserved, and you express concern that people may not feel inspired to trust you. What some people mention above (not knowing whether their therapist is married, a therapist seeming "withholding") are actually separate issues from whether a therapist is shy/not shy, but more related to the subtle dynamics of the therapeutic relationship (respectively, whether a therapist is comfortable with and/or feels it appropriate to self-disclose, and how the transference/countertransference of the relationship appears to the client who labels a therapist 'withholding'--neither of these have to do with shy vs. not shy, or warm vs. not warm, in my opinion).

I'm sure that a shy person can be a therapist, because many therapists are so-called "shy" people, or introverts, or just not bubbly and chatty people. It'd be very difficult to be a private practice therapist, because networking is absolutely necessary for your financial survival, and if you are shy, that might be difficult.

Without a doubt, research supports the idea that the most important aspect of the effectiveness of therapy is the quality of the alliance and relationship created with a therapist. Different people want different types of relationships with their therapists, of course, and different people fulfill those different roles. Some people want a warm, motherlike figure. Some people want a younger, close-to-their-own-age, same-gender, someone relatable as a peer figure. Some people want a cheerleader, some people want a "tell it like it is" realist. Again, all different types of people fulfill these roles, and all different types of personality characteristics are necessary to create the right fits for different people. No one type of personality is the "therapist personality."

One thing you said really struck me, though: "I'm not sure if I have the warm, trust-inspiring personality a therapist should have". It's most likely that this is a case of skewed self-assessment because you have doubts about your abilities here, and you probably are realistically more than capable of being trust-inspiring. This is something you communicate both verbally and nonverbally when you're a therapist, and it takes some practice to get comfortable with yourself, just like with anything. I'd be curious to hear about what characteristics you think you have that would specifically NOT be trust-inspiring, or what you think you lack that would inspire trust more easily. But if you are not exaggerating, and literally aren't sure you can communicate to a potential client that you can be trusted, that's a pretty definitive mark in the "don't become a therapist" column.
posted by so_gracefully at 1:25 PM on June 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

As someone who just terminated a therapy relationship due to the reserved/gentle/shy nature of my therapist, I caution you to remember that your personality may make your a poor candidate to treat more all types of patients.

I don't know your situation, but would not recommend this career to a person currently struggling with social anxiety, shyness or a natural tendency to avoid conflict.
posted by cior at 1:37 PM on June 12, 2011

Are you shy and anxious one-on-one with people or mainly shy in groups? If it's just in groups, don't do group therapy and you'll be fine!

No therapist is a perfect fit for everyone but as long as you can be empathetic, calm and supportive for 50 minutes at a time, one on one, it should be OK.
posted by Maias at 2:40 PM on June 12, 2011

Aw man, not another cliche of a social worker trying to work out their own issues by becoming a therapist. Seriously. There are many ways to support healthy mental health solutions. Becoming yet another working in the field is not the only choice. Just because someone else (with skills) helped you doesn't mean you'll be anywhere near as capable to help others. I know this isn't politically correct. But I've dealt with do-gooders before and they often do more harm than good.

Here's an idea, talk with people in the field and get their take on the idea.
posted by wkearney99 at 4:47 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think when looking for therapists, people want to find someone they can trust and relate to. If you think that your social anxiety would stop you from being that person, maybe it's something you need to work on for a while before you make a career decision.

On the other hand, as a formerly shy but still kind of socially anxious person myself, I have to say that I would appreciate finding someone who can relate to me on those levels if I was looking for a therapist. I just don't know if that would be the case for everyone looking for a therapist.

I would say try what wkearney99 says and talk with people in the field. That's good advice before making any career move.
posted by Rinoia at 5:35 PM on June 12, 2011

I couldn't describe my last mental health professional as 'warm' but it was helpful to me to not be in a dynamic of 'I want her to like me so don't mention all that shit you do'. Professionally distant works for me. I saw her for over three years and I don't know a single thing about her, I assumed this was standard.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 6:54 PM on June 12, 2011

As a therapist-in-training, I can tell you that a lot of those factors like warmth and concern can be enhanced through practice. You already have enough to start given that you want to help others. As you begin seeing clients, you'll learn the best ways to convey your information and the sense that you truly care. You wouldn't want to start with no empathy or people skills at all, but that doesn't sound like your problem.

Any trainee is going to be nervous when they start, you may just be more nervous than most. As long as you're willing to push yourself to "fake it til you make it" you'll be fine. One student in my program is what I would consider shy and had a considerable amount of anxiety. She ran into problems because she avoided some necessary social interactions. So be honest with yourself and assess how willing you might be to push yourself to do what's best for the client, even if its at the consequence of some of your shyness. You'll be surprised how little clients notice the errors or lapses you think are glaringly obvious and painfully embarrassing.
posted by gilsonal at 8:13 PM on June 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do not underestimate the transformative power of the training itself. I'm guessing programs vary according to where you are, but here in the UK, the emphasis is very much on experiential learning -- that is, training through interaction with other students and, later, clients, and reflecting on those interactions -- as much as or more than lecture-style learning. Programs take a while -- qualifying as a counselor or therapist takes 3-6 years. And most require you to be in therapy for most or all of the duration. Training in psychotherapy is not simply a matter of acquiring facts and techniques; it's prolonged, gradual training and experience in becoming aware of your own issues, addressing them honestly so that they don't constitute barriers to good therapeutic relationships and learning to relate to people the way a good therapist should. I am in year 1 of a 6-year program and I can see the process in its various stages at work in students in years above me. Years 4 and 5 tend to be visibly more calm and confident than the n00bs.

What I'm getting at is that as far as I can tell, there is no single innate, correct "therapist personality"; you can discover and develop yours through training. And you do not need to be completely ironed out to go into training as a psychotherapist. If this were so, therapists would be pretty thin on the ground. The training itself is designed to help ordinary flawed human beings confront and work through their own barriers to good communication and connection. You may find it helps with your social anxiety.

As for the comment about do-gooders, if people with issues of their own are morally ineligible to practice in the mental health field, I'm not sure who that leaves.
posted by stuck on an island at 8:41 AM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes, you can help others even though you're quiet and reserved. I believe that the challenge for health professionals is maintaining an attitude of caring and empathy over the course of a work day that involves seeing multiple patients, some of whom are stressful to deal with.

I once read that an interview question for medical school was "can you cope with being around sick people all day?" Sounds simple but it's a critical question. Some people handle it very well while others don't seem to be up to the challenge. It's all about whether you have a real passion for your work. If you have that then your reserved nature hardly matters.
posted by gilast at 6:19 PM on June 13, 2011

« Older How do I become a more interesting person?   |   futile devices? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.