What I Wish I'd Known Before I Became A Therapist
I've been a therapist for eight years and recently a supervisor. In that time, I've gained wisdom, experience, and confidence in helping people. Below are five tips or words of advice I wish someone told me along the way. It would have saved me a whole lot of anxiety, reduced my burnout, and I would have been a more effective therapist and coach.
1. You can’t fix anyone.
If you believe you can, then (a) you believe people are broken which they are not, and (b) you’re most likely pulling from your ego, which means you’re making it more about you and you won’t be as effective. This is the way I look at this whole "I’m-a-therapist" thing. I am a catalyst. I will only be one point in someone’s journey, so I try to be the brightest point that I can be. How “bright” depends on my knowledge, wisdom, experience, confidence, connection, whatever I bring to the table, especially my story, but most importantly my authenticity.
Once people smell falseness, they won’t trust me. Instead they will question me and my “bright” will dim very quickly. I was meant to collide with whoever I collide with, and this collision will leave us both changed in some way. After more than seven years in this field, working in various treatment centers, both private and non-profit, and my own practice, I have learned that this is the healthiest mindset and the one that makes me the most effective.
2. Focus less on getting hours/licensed and more on learning everything you can.
Absorb, explore your strengths and weaknesses. Stretch yourself. Work with populations you don’t want to work with because when you do get licensed, you won’t work that that population and you’ll miss out on all that growth. Looking back, I learned the most from situations, work environments, and populations I resisted the most. That’s where the true training is. Not in classrooms. Know that and lean into all discomfort, personal as well as professional.
3. Never criticize or judge yourself.
You’re going to make a shit ton of mistakes. But they’re not really mistakes. Unless you’re doing something unethical. Providing therapy is a never- ending learning process with no true formulas. You’ll never get to a point where you say “OK, I've mastered the craft and now I can help anyone.” Hopefully you’ll never say that because if you do, you’ve stopped growing as therapist. If I reviewed each session, I’d go crazy and start to doubt myself. Take a deep breath. Pick your intervention, hopefully your own spin or take on something. And punch as hard as you can. Repeat.
4. It’s OK to personally get something out of your sessions, as long as that’s not your main intent.
I’ve walked away feeling like I got more out of the session than my client did. That’s going to happen. You’re human and it’s a human exchange. As long as you don’t make it about you, it’s alright. Learning things about yourself through your clients is what’s going to make you a better therapist and make this a rewarding career.
5. Be fearless.
I remember how afraid I was after being pumped out of the therapy machine with my little DSM clenched in my hand and a forced neutral face. I think many therapy schools and trainee programs, whether they know it or not, inject fear into you. Then when you start practicing, you’re afraid to color outside the lines. You drive with both hands on tightly gripping the wheel and eyes straight ahead. If you do this, you’ll probably burn out fast. This is a really tough business. Play with it. Hug corners. Stick your face out the window. Look around. Or you won’t enjoy the ride.
I don’t even like the world "therapist." I approach it like it's an art form. It’s the only way I can get excited about it. And when I’m excited is when I do my best work. Always try new things. Question everything. Turn your dial from “I should” to “What if…”