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Most of us are looking for the kind of life where pleasure and enjoyment are built in, not anomalous, and preferably intertwined with what we do for a living, which is also something that gives us a sense of fulfillment.
Everyone has seen some version of the Venn diagram for finding purpose; it’s ubiquitous because it elegantly illustrates how to build the lives we want, but it also makes it look deceptively easy. What if the circles don’t line up so neatly? What if some of them remain stubbornly blank?
Becoming a therapist, like becoming a nurse, a teacher, a mom, or any of the “helping” professions, is appealing because for many people it seems like that might be the thing that lines up and fills out our circles. That’s certainly one of the main reasons I gravitated toward counseling.
But as much as it was the right answer for me, there were lots of things my overly simplistic Venn diagram left out about the job, the things it takes to do the job, and the best kinds of individuals for the job.
And it wasn’t just me—about half of the people in my master’s program either dropped out or didn’t end up using their degrees because doing therapy is far different than one imagines it might be.
If being a therapist is on your radar, here are some things to consider:
It is imperative that therapists have had, and healed from, some serious struggles of their own (and that they have done therapy to process them).
It seems weird that suffering should be mandatory to competently do any job, but if a therapist is looking at someone else’s issues from a purely academic perspective, they can’t offer true empathy—and true empathy, in my opinion, is the most valuable and unique thing that counselors provide.
It is for this reason that I also believe that clinicians in their 30s should only see clients who are the same age or younger. Once we get to our 40s, most of us are seasoned enough to understand the challenges that encompass a life span, but it’s hard to imagine a 25-year-old counseling a 65-year-old well. This doesn’t mean if we are young we shouldn’t endeavor to do the work, but that we should be humble about what we can offer and take on clients accordingly.
Someone who starts young will of course have the advantage of many more years of clinical experience, which is a great asset as long as they work with people appropriate to their strengths at any given time.
Because the tool of therapy is the therapist themselves, it requires a meticulous level of self-care.
This came as a big surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have. The mental and emotional expenditure for the work clinicians do is both profound and constant. Clients remain in our hearts and minds long after their sessions have ended, and during sessions we (ideally) provide a level of attention that is similar to a nuclear physicist trying to split an atom.
In short, as wonderful as the work is, it is also exhausting. Even our bodies wear out from hours of sitting and neural mirroring—a resonance we feel in our bones in response to clients.
To balance these effects, and to model healthy behavior for clients, counselors should practice what we preach. It’s not helpful to encourage spiritual practices if we are spiritually bereft, or a healthy lifestyle if our diet is poor or we’re sedentary, or talk about healthy relationships without actually being in one (or more), or promote any type of self-improvement whatsoever if we are not on a path to better ourselves.
Personally, I love this about my work—that my own health becomes an ethical consideration—because it means I can give myself permission to shamelessly pursue it. But that won’t be the case for everyone, and for the clinicians who don’t take care of themselves, the job eventually becomes a torment. Not only do we end up hurting ourselves, but we hurt our clients by not serving them as well as we could.
Therapists have to get used to not having the spotlight.
On average, clinicians see 20-24 clients a week—possibly more—for 50 minutes to an hour apiece. All except maybe five of those minutes are dedicated to talking about everything in the world except ourselves. If you’re an introvert like me, that may sound like a relief, and it can be, but sometimes it can get pretty lonely too. Even if you have a great support system at home, talking to someone else exclusively about their stuff is a relationally unique situation that takes some getting used to.
I sometimes feel like I’ve lost the ability to talk about myself entirely and revert to “therapist mode” even when I’m off the clock because it feels easier, and other times I really want to monopolize a conversation because I so rarely get to just ramble. This is one of the reasons counselors should have their own counselors—but even when we do, the reality that we have chosen a profession in which we must, in many ways, come second to our clients can be a difficult thing to wrap one’s mind around.
Counseling, at its best, is a life of service—and that doesn’t come without sacrifice. Of course, the payoff is knowing that what we do matters, and that we are literally a force for good. (I like to think of myself as part of a secret society of superheroes dressed in ultra-comfortable clothes that may or may not include flowing scarves, wacky jewelry, and some sort of clog.)
Therapists often don’t make much money.
Part of the reason I decided to go back to school in my 40s was to achieve a life goal—not of becoming a therapist, but of becoming an independent woman. It bothered me that though I had done many valuable things in my life including being a mom, a writer, a yoga instructor, and a reiki practitioner, none of them enabled me to support myself. I imagined my husband dying and me being relegated to eating cat food in some grim, government subsidized studio apartment.
When I signed up for a degree in counseling, I assumed that any job for which people commonly charged upward of $150 per hour had to be reasonably lucrative, and I didn’t bother to do any research to confirm or deny it.
Here are some things I didn’t know:
We may charge upward of $150 per hour, but lots of times we don’t get paid anywhere near that, either because insurance decides they don’t feel like remitting our full fee, clients flake out, we agree to sliding scales, or we take on pro bono cases.
In private practice, if we’re not our own boss (which we are legally not allowed to be for at minimum the first two years of clinical work) we typically give away 60 percent of our earnings to the practice for which we work.
Unless we own our own practice where other clinicians are working for us, we only get paid when we work, and we often don’t receive benefits.
If not in private practice, our salaries rarely exceed $70,000 annually and are usually closer to $35,000-$50,000.
This was a real slap in the face to me—not because I expected to get rich, but because I had hoped to at least make a living wage. While it is possible to do so, it requires a lot more time and ambition than I realized. Therapists are rarely taught how to be good business people, which does us a terrible disservice. The sense of empowerment that comes with being financially competent would benefit not only us, but our clients, as that is another way we can experience and model health.
There are many different degrees and levels of education you can pursue which allow you to become a licensed mental health professional.
Look at any registry of clinicians and you’ll find a number of different initials after our names. We might be social workers, counselors, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, addictions specialists, psychiatrists, and more.
Some of these titles require master’s degrees and/or certifications, and some require PhDs, but most will land you in an office doing one-on-one psychological work with people in need. The amount of schooling required, and the money needed to afford that schooling, vary greatly from title to title.
Therapy is rarely about giving advice.
The word “counselor” is actually a misnomer, as our primary job is not to counsel, but to be an objective, empathetic, and hopefully wise companion on whatever adventure it is our client is taking.
I remember discussing in one of my earliest classes in graduate school (okay, I wasn’t discussing, I was bragging) the fact that I used to write an advice column. My professor said, “It’s going to be difficult for you to shift gears. That may work against you,” effectively shrinking me to the size of sad little mouse cowering in the corner.
But she was right. It took me a long time to learn that though clients may want a clinician’s advice, and though that clinician may give the best advice on earth, it’s usually not what’s going to change anyone’s life on a deeper level.
Further, it can be a bad sign therapeutically when therapists get sucked into giving advice—it often means we are frustrated and losing hope that the client can do the work themselves, or that we’re out of ideas as to how to help them think creatively and feel authentically. The bottom line is: if you’re someone who likes to give advice, you’re better off becoming a coach, a priest, a parent, or a boastful advice columnist.
But if you’re someone who likes to contemplate the eternal mystery of the human condition, and work collaboratively with clients as you both stumble through the dark together, counseling might be your jam.
My best advice to anyone considering this unique profession is to do what I didn’t do—seek out and talk to individuals who are actually living the life. You just have to look up a few therapists online, and ask if they can spare 10 or 15 minutes on the phone to chat with you about their work. The worst they can say is no. The best they can say is yes—and a whole bunch of other words that will illuminate one of the more mysterious occupations in the world.
With the stigma of mental health care diminishing day by day, more people are openly and eagerly seeking help. It’s a great time to be a clinician and meet this need—maybe you’re one of the lucky ones that fits inside the circle.