Becoming a therapist of any model is not a decision that should be made lightly. There are many reasons that one might be attracted to such a profession, some of which are commendable and healthy and others that may for instance, result in poor outcomes for your clients, difficulty in establishing a credible practice, or result in compassion fatigue, burnout and vicarious trauma.
Successful therapists are more than just a nice person with a set of tools. It is not like being a builder, where you need very specialized and specific skills, but your attitude to life, your ranting when a supplier is late with a delivery, or your lack of personal hygiene is perhaps unpleasant, but unlikely to affect the quality of the building you are working on.
The therapist needs more than just skills
A therapist needs much more than specialized tools and knowledge. He/she will need a healthy, balanced attitude to life, compassion, personal awareness and the capacity to have positive regard for all people. They need to present well, cope with a range of unexpected challenges with patience and resilience, and most of all, be people that clients can warm to and trust. Trust is a tricky thing, but begins when the client is given complete unconditional positive regard. A therapist needs to truly believe that at any given point, each person is doing the best they can, and that their behavior and actions, no matter how dysfunctional we might see them to be, are in some way serving them.
Some people want to become therapists so they can offer their wisdom and support to help people change. This is a wonderful aim, provided it comes with an understanding that no one else is likely to be at the exact same point in their journey, that the therapists’ sum total of experiences will be very different to the client, and that advice and support can only achieve a small amount of therapeutic change. Therapists determined to ‘teach’ people how to think, feel and behave may well compromise their practice.
The therapist needs personal resilience
A therapist needs to have a level of emotional robustness and resilience that is mostly unshakeable. He or she would need to have worked through past doubts, trauma and sadness, and be able to be confronted by these things in the clients,’ stories and still remain attuned to the client’s needs. If the therapist is still grappling with these past events in their own life, their emotional responses and their stories may become entangled with the clients’ story, and the therapist may reactivate their own fears, doubts and anger. In this instance it is highly likely they would be unaware of how this is altering the trajectory of the therapy for the client.
Therapy also places an enormous toll on the therapist’s wellbeing. Empathy requires that when we hear someone’s story, we take it into our own mind and body, imagine it as our own, and then we allow the pain and fear to rise in us as if the problem were our own. Only then can we make sense of it. And then we need skills to release these empathic feelings, as they are not ours to keep. This means that every day, the therapist is exposed to many traumas, pains, fears, self-doubts and anger. The therapist requires particular capacity to separate the client’s stories and emotional responses from their own. It requires great effort to deal with the therapists’ feelings, to bring them back into balance, congruent with the therapist’s personal world. When a therapist consistently fails to do this successfully, he or she develops vicarious trauma.
Some people may want to become a therapist because they have had some terrible experiences in their lives, and because they know the pain and suffering, they want to help others in similar circumstances. What wonderful insights and support these therapists may be able to provide, but these very experiences may also put them at risk, of vicarious trauma and without good management this may interfere in effective therapy.
The therapist needs good care boundaries
In providing care and empathy for many clients, the risk is that we give too much of ourselves. Therapist guilt can be a type of “survivor guilt”; how is it that these terrible things can happen to a client, and yet the therapist lives a relatively easy life by comparison? This can cause a therapist to care less about his/her self and personal needs, than about those of his/her client. The therapist stops laughing with his children, because his client’s child has died. A trip for a haircut becomes riddled with guilt for the therapist whose clients are too poor to buy food. This leads to compassion fatigue. The only responses to compassion fatigue are to eventually give up the work because they simply cannot find the energy anymore to care, or to turn the caring mechanism off. In “turning off” the care mechanism, therapists become hardened, emotionally unavailable, and unable to demonstrate empathy for the client.
Some people want to become a therapist because they care so deeply for people. What a wonderful attribute! But beware, without good boundaries this career could be very short lived.
The therapist needs to be realistic
Therapists are human. They cannot solve the world’s problems. They may not be able to convince the young woman to move out of a violent environment, they may not be able to prevent a suicide. The therapist can offer time, strategies, care and understanding, but ultimately the decision about how people live their lives is not ours. We cannot judge another for their decisions, we have not lived their lives, been in their shoes, or seen through their eyes, the world as they do. We cannot honestly know how we would respond given their circumstances.
Therapists can often feel impotent, powerless and at times completely helpless. The work a therapist does is not to solve people’s problems, but to offer them options to solve them for themselves. If they choose not to take advantage of this, we need to respect their choice.
Some people want to become a therapist because they want to save the world; they want to rescue everyone. The best therapists support a client to save themselves.
Therapy is a field full of contradictions and checks and balances. Without some hardships, therapists may find it hard to find empathy for their clients, but too much, unresolved hardship can make a dangerous therapist, one who may unintentionally re-traumatize a client, or force a client into the role of caring for the overinvolved therapist. A therapist who cares, can care too much, and a wise therapist may trample over a client’s right to self determination.
Universities and training bodies can teach therapy skills, but the responsibility for the necessary personal attributes and attitudes for a good therapist, cannot be taught. That is the individual’s responsibility and one that cannot be taken lightly if he or she wishes to build a strong career in therapy.
If you want a deeper understanding of yourself, and to use that knowledge to assist others overcome their challenges and start enjoying life again – then learning to become a therapist is likely for you.
Too often we get drawn into a career that offers little personal satisfaction. Therapists are passionate about the important work they do. They’re often someone that friends and family naturally come to for assistance. And they get immense personal reward helping others.
Contact the IKON Institute of Australia to discuss your career goals and course options
Written by Glenda Needs