As an NYC therapist, I get a lot of questions about my choice of career. While there are plenty of good reasons to become a therapist, there are also a significant amount of bad ones too, eight of which I’ve highlighted here:
1. Because you like to give advice
Here’s the thing: People don’t come to therapy for advice (really!), even if they say they do. If therapists’ primary tool was advice-giving, we’d quickly be put out of business by parents, well-meaning friends, bosses, mentors, supervisors, Instagram influencers, and well, the entire Buzzfeed corporation. While, sure, advice is sometimes a small part of what we do, therapists don’t presume to have a cache of answers as to what’s making life hard for our patients.
2. Because you’re a good listener
Yes, therapists listen. Yes, there is a way to listen well. Yes, if you pride yourself on your listening skills, therapist might be a good career choice. However, it’s not the golden ticket. Patients need us to not only listen, but think, feel, and respond to them at any given moment in session. A therapist isn’t merely an observer, but an active participant in this relationship. While a part of that participation requires listening, it also requires a lot of active exploration.
3. Because you like doing things for other people, often at the expense of yourself
Therapists have needs in their relationships with their patients, such as consistent scheduling, getting paid, and a baseline of respect and willingness to do the work. Patients push back against these needs all the time, both consciously and unconsciously, and for a number of reasons, most of which are devoid of malice and usually protective. In order to create safe relationships that benefit both your patients and yourself, you have to be able to enforce boundaries on your own behalf, sometimes at the expense of a patient’s comfort or pleasure.
4. Because you like fixing things (and people)
The greatest–and most agonizing–way patients suffer is from conflicts that are deeply entrenched in their lives, relationships, careers and family units. These conflicts might have origins from decades ago, but tend to be alive and well in the present. If these conflicts were “all bad,” they could be easily “fixed” with the relative ease of an Ikea manual. Unfortunately, people and suffering are not meaningfully understood through a fixing mindset. Inherent to something being fixed, something has to be broken. However, people aren’t broken. Relationships aren’t broken. Instead, people have parts of themselves that have developed in order to work well within systems that were designed to under-protect, manipulate, exploit or harm. These cannot simply be recalibrated or “fixed” when an environment of health or safety is presented. Therapists need to respect, understand, be curious about, and open to defenses and resistances that patients present. A focus on fixing shuts down opportunities to explore.
5. Because you’re not willing to take some good, hard looks at yourself
A huge part of being a therapist is understanding what you’re bringing into session. You’re not a blank slate; you’re a living human being with privilege, pronouns, fashion, values, beliefs, ideas, and your own history. It’s important to examine what you offer to your patients, especially in order to understand if it’s in service of treatment, or in service of managing something happening within yourself. Admittedly, this can be painful. Relationships bring up hot spots for all of us, therapists and patients alike. Sometimes it takes getting knee deep in your own shit to understand what is preventing you from getting closer to your patients and their pain.
6. In order to heal from your own pain
Becoming a therapist cannot preempt your own exploration and understanding of the ways in which you’ve encountered pain and suffering in your lifetime. This doesn’t mean you have to be fully healed, or a walking picture of mental health (what does that even mean?). Therapists struggle with pain and suffering the same way patients do, similar to how doctors can struggle with high cholesterol or asthma. However, while helping other people–people whose pain looks a lot like yours–might make you feel better momentarily or allow you to distance yourself from your own pain, it won’t work in the long run. And it certainly won’t be productive for your patients.
7. Because people (even strangers on the subway!) tend to over-share to you
Good for cocktail parties, bad for business. If this is happening, there is a chance you’re too open to the world and too inviting of other people’s pain. This is under-protective of you, and will likely leave you depleted, even if your ego is pumped full. In therapy, patients need leadership around disclosure, particularly related to trauma. It’s up to you, as the therapist, to understand how to facilitate disclosure in a safe way, rather than just absorb it as it spills out.
8. Because you’re nosy
Nosiness won’t get you very far as a therapist. Once things are out on the table, then you and your patient have to do something with it. You’ll run into a lot of dead ends if you’re just in it for the dirt. Besides, there’s that whole confidentiality thing…