What makes (or doesn't make) you a therapist?
October 18, 2007 6:50 AM   Subscribe

How did you know that you wanted to be a therapist? What made you feel that you could do it? What doubts did you have, and how did you deal with them? If you changed your mind, what persuaded you to do so? What would you tell someone if they were considering becoming a therapist?

I'm in my early 30s, and I've thought of working towards becoming a therapist or counselor for a long time. When I was in university I was struggling with a lot of destructive behaviours, and I pushed that desire aside because it didn't make sense to pursue it at the time: even though I had insight, I couldn't seem to help myself. I took some psychology classes, which I loved, but ultimately I graduated with an unrelated degree. Since then, with continued reflection, therapy for awhile, and supportive partner and friends, my overall patience and happiness with myself has greatly improved and those destructive behaviors are in the past. And so now, I find myself considering this old desire to go back to school and to really give myself a chance to learn how to be there for other people. Scares me a bit but I kind of fell into the career I thought I chose, and this potential new direction feels like something worth struggling for. I'm quiet, very patient, really enjoy listening to people, hearing their stories, trying to understand how and why they see the world the way they do, sharing all that pain and emotion. I've volunteered on distress lines. I remember what it was like to be truly heard when I needed to be and I really see the power in offering that to people. This is why this is important to me.

I guess I'm wondering, how much of this is realistic to expect to learn? I know that one doesn't have to have everything figured out about life to be a therapist, but I have these nagging doubts: Is it possible to not be extraverted enough? I still get critical about myself - does having such a destructive streak or a tendency to doubt one's abilities make it audacious of me to consider this? Are these good intentions truly not enough? Are there things about myself that I don't realize should preclude me from trying this? How did you know that you were capable of doing this heavy work?

Deep down, I know that this is a question of self-confidence more than it is a question of checkboxed external measures to help evaluate myself by. I've been wanting to ask you all about this for awhile and I'd truly appreciate all perspectives and gentle or brutally honest advice. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should pursue it. The doubts that you raise are all standard doubts, both to the profession and to most professions. Your concerns about personality and temperament are similarly not unique to you.

I know a lot of therapists, and am one myself, and they range all across the spectrum in terms of both self-awareness and being well-adjusted. They're just like all other people. There is certainly a myth that therapists are a bit crazier than other people (What do you call someone who needs therapy all day who can't afford to pay for it? A therapist.), but it hasn't been true in my experience. What is true is that therapists are in general more attuned to problems in emotional functioning in themselves and others. Therapists tend to be pattern matchers, who focus very quickly on the problematic repetitions that occur in all lives.

There are three ways that you learn how to be a therapist: from your patients, from your therapist and from your supervisor during training. There is a lot of internship time in most training programs that will allow you to learn how to do the job in (hopefully) a well-structured and supervised way. Even if you feel that there are no issues of immediate distress that would indicate that your training time would be a good time to engage in therapy, I think it's central to the education of a therapist to engage in treatment at the same time that they're learning to give it. It not only provides another model from which to learn, it also provides a place to discuss the more troubling aspects of the job that you're learning to do. Ultimately, however, doing good therapy comes down to listening to your patients and trying to provide what they're asking for without compromising the ethics of the relationship. Most patients give you many chances to get this right.

I don't think of therapy as magical, or spiritual, or as a calling. Yes, it's a helping profession, and patients do have a very intimate type of relationship with their therapists, but I think it's a mistake to frame that in too precious a way. It can get in the way of just doing your job.

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst whose work I quite like, once said that "The [therapist] holds his (sic) place in horror." This can be really true. On the one hand, patients tell us all kinds of fucked up stuff, much of it really difficult to listen to. They frequently come for therapy when the only other choice they can see is death, which makes it a relationship fraught with all kinds of intensity and demoralization. On the other hand, they often efface the person of the therapist, replacing the kind, interested and loving person that you're trying to be with a therapist-manque who is guilty of all kinds of imagined slights. In the very worst cases they elicit bad behavior from you through their own bad behavior (which should never be an excuse for unprofessional behavior on the part of the therapist). Part of learning to be a therapist is learning to manage these difficult aspects of the job. Some people find it difficult and decide that therapy is not for them, but most people learn how to handle it.

Finally, I think that any good-natured reason is a good reason to train to be a therapist. I don't think you have to worry about motivation or suitability unless you want to mold patients into a hypnotized zombie army of death, in which case you should probably consider another profession, because molding patients into anything is just not gonna happen.
posted by OmieWise at 7:27 AM on October 18, 2007 [7 favorites]

I think the best way to find out if you're cut out for it is to just go back to school and jump in. I have degrees in psychology and was a counselor/therapist for a while before I discovered that I simply get too emotionally involved with others' problems to be an effective therapist. I still love psychology and I wish I had been able to handle the emotional stuff. It sounds like you can (you've done the crisis lines and seem to be good under that pressure) so I say go for it.
posted by cooker girl at 7:36 AM on October 18, 2007

I have a lot of the same history that you describe, and the things that draw you toward that work are pretty much the same things that drew me. I went a certain distance into becoming a therapist--got a Masters in counseling psych and about halfway through a PhD, and did a bunch of practica--and then I ended up bailing, and I now work in academic advising instead, which has its points of similarity (helping people along their path in life) but much less pressure.

OmieWise makes excellent points, which I won't repeat. I'll just add that, for better or worse, therapy is one of those careers where you will truly never stop learning and getting better; you'll never have it all figured out and be "good enough" in the sense of being Super-Therapist who does everything perfectly, so it's important to learn to deal with any tendencies toward self-criticism. The difficulty is that one's mistakes can hurt people, which is something one needs to come to terms with. At the same time, it's important to realize that one is *not* omnipotent and that there are a myriad of things going on in clients' lives that may well affect their mental/emotional well-being far more than you ever will, and which you may never know about. Which is to say, if you're someone who really needs to see clear, direct, unambiguous results from your work to maintain a sense of efficacy, this might not be the path for you.

That was a negative for me, and the other big one, on a more pragmatic level, was that I just couldn't deal with the idea of (essentially) working for the insurance companies for the rest of my life. You need to understand and find a way to cope with the ways that financial realities limit or shape the ways you can work with clients. Such limitations exist in pretty much every career, of course, but for whatever reason they don't seem to get covered as clearly in training programs for therapists/counselors.

Good luck to you, whatever your decision!
posted by Kat Allison at 8:13 AM on October 18, 2007 [5 favorites]

Whoops, I should add that my comments above re: insurance companies are US-centric; not sure to what extent this might apply in other countries.
posted by Kat Allison at 8:15 AM on October 18, 2007

Volunteering on help lines is an excellent way to find out if you'd like being a therapist. You've done that and apparently liked it, so that's a huge piece of "due diligence" that you've performed.

The fact that you've had personal struggles and have been working through them is also an extremely important positive factor in favor of you learning to become a therapist. The main issue is *not* whether you've overcome all your issues, but that you've cultivated a way of thinking about them. Your struggles will help you feel empathy towards your clients. If you get good supervision, you will learn how to use your experiences productively in working with clients, rather than being overwhelmed by them. I've supervised a fair amount of students, and there's no question in my mind that people who have worked on their issues tend to do better work. They listen better, they're more humble and respectful, and they understand that personal change can be hard work.

Be aware that the business of being a therapist is different from the work of doing therapy. Like any other business, if you want to be in private practice, you're going to have to market yourself and all that. Most therapists are fairly introverted and hate that part of the work. There are many options other than private practice though, such as working in agencies, hospitals, etc. I think more graduate schools are offering classes in the business end of the profession these days, so hopefully you'd have an easier time of it than people in my day did.

You're posting anonymously, so it's hard to give you other advice about which kind of schooling you should get, as licensing laws tend to be local. Out here in California, there are master's and doctorate level licensing options. Since this kind of education is a big investment in time and money, you should start to look around and consider those options. Professional associations often have good resources (see for example this on the American Psychological Association website). I'm sure other disciplines have similar resources.

Good luck to you! Feel free to email if you'd like to chat further.
posted by jasper411 at 8:54 AM on October 18, 2007 [3 favorites]

I asked a similar question last year. I am now enrolled in an MSW program, doing an internship using group therapy with men who have been arrested for abusing their partners.

I've often considered myself to be empathetic, but in these classes, there are actual textbook chapters on how to convey empathy--and it's a little more difficult than I thought. I'm surprised at how many specific techniques there are to learn.

So far, I'm really enjoying my practicum and classes. It feels like it's coming naturally to me, in spite of how much I have to learn. I am finding my colleagues to be gentle and understanding and fallible. It's a very human profession. The best we can do is create good relationships with our clients, which means we can't really ruin them if we're behaving ethically. And I believe that people pick up on genuine empathy that comes from our own personal experiences, whether or not we ever disclose that experience.

Finally, I'll say that I have already made use of my experience and ability to be introspective, as you seem to be doing, in working with my supervisor to improve my ability to do therapy. It is an asset to be able to observe your own faults and use that understanding to respond appropriately to clients.
posted by aimless at 4:00 PM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

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