What it takes to be a psychotherapist

These are just my opinions, based on my thirty-plus years as a psychotherapist. I suspect that the first thing it takes to be an effective therapist is to feel a calling to the profession, as in a religious calling, or vocation.  I may be wrong in this belief, but I don’t think many people enter the profession with the goal of becoming wealthy or famous. (I think the same is true of the best teachers.) A basic qualification is that you’re a compassionate person by nature. I grew up thinking I was going to be a career Army officer, like my father and his father; but at the end of my service obligation I resigned my commission and decided to study psychology on the GI Bill. I knew I wanted to be a healer, not a soldier.

One factor in my calling to be a therapist was the gratitude I felt for having been raised by loving parents, in a loving family. I had a happy childhood, and the older I became, the more aware I was of my good fortune. My father felt called to lead men in combat; I felt called to help people who hadn’t been blessed as I had been, to heal and grow.

That’s not to say that a happy childhood is a prerequisite for being a good therapist. Sometimes the compassionate nature that’s a basic requirement for the profession comes from painful personal experience, and empathy for others. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly effective therapy for people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, was the brainchild of Dr. Marsha Linehan. It was born from her own struggles with mental illness, and her own painful road to recovery. I’ve known a number of good therapists who were themselves in treatment for a mental illness.

Therapists are flawed human beings, like everyone else, and I’m not saying that your life has to be in anything-like-perfect order for you to be an effective therapist. But in order to be able to separate your own needs from those of your clients, you need to have the kind of self-awareness and insight that come from leading a balanced life, in which your own basic needs are being met. Any blind spots about your own personality and needs will be blind spots in your understanding of your clients’ personalities and needs. (In my opinion all therapists have blind spots; it’s a matter of how many and how big. That’s where good supervision – and an openness to being supervised – comes in.) If you  have significant unresolved conflicts in your own life, you probably need to be in therapy, yourself. Having the experience of being in therapy (some therapist training programs require it) will surely help you to be a better therapist.

You have to have the ability to be present and caring with many people who are in pain, without becoming functionally depressed. This is another reason why you’ll need to have your own psychic house in order, if you’re going to be able to help other people. In most clinical settings, being a psychotherapist carries a lot of responsibility with it. It’s a very stressful profession. If you work with clinically depressed people, you have to be prepared for the possibility that one of your clients may commit suicide. Especially if you work in the public sector, you may also have to work with violent people.

If you have a tendency to be judgmental, you can’t be a good therapist. You’re bound to encounter clients whose values are very different from your own. You have to accept the client as he is in order to help him change. Carl Rogers called this “unconditional positive regard,” and maintaining this radical acceptance may call for frequent attitude adjustments on your part. This requires self-awareness and emotional stability. It’s okay for a therapist to be a flawed human being, as long as you have some awareness of your flaws.

You need to enter the profession with an awareness of your limitations as a helping professional. You’re not there to fix people or to solve their problems. There are people entering therapy who are looking for a rescuer, because they think they need to be rescued and nobody in their social support network has been able to rescue them. (The “rescuer” is a role played by certain people in many dysfunctional families.) All you can do as a therapist is to try your best to establish a helpful relationship with your client(s) and to work with them in good faith on goals that were mutually agreed-upon. Among the appropriate roles you may play as a therapist are teacher, facilitator, coach, and even cheerleader. But you aren’t going to rescue anyone.

Sometimes you’ll fail to be helpful, despite your best efforts. Sometimes a client you thought you had a good relationship with, and were helping, will abruptly drop out of therapy; and you’ll never discover why. Sometimes you’ll feel “in over your head” with a client, not knowing what you should say or do next in your efforts to facilitate positive change. That’s when you need to appreciate the limits of your abilities to help alleviate suffering in a person you’ve come to care about. You may find that you’re not able to help someone you really, really want to help. These are humbling experiences. These are times when you need a good supervisor.

Those are the human qualities I think you need in order to become a psychotherapist. In terms of academic requirements, generally you need to have a graduate degree in psychology, sociology/social work, nursing, counseling, or a related field. If you work in the public sector, you may be “credentialed” to deliver specified clinical services, without having to be licensed in your profession. If you want to work in the private sector or have your own private practice, you’ll have to be licensed.

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