12 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Therapist

Read the original article posted on CareersInPsychology.org

Use this insider’s guide to contemplate whether this rewarding albeit challenging profession is right for you.

  1. Value Exposure & Manage Expectations: Prior to licensure, you’ll likely work with many populations to gain hours. This helps you figure out what your specialty/ies could be. If you already have an idea, bear in mind that you might not get to hone in right away.
  2. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself: Outside of professional ethics errors, it’s not helpful to worry about imperfect experiences with clients. Too much self-criticism will get in the way of good therapy. Listen deeply, follow your instincts, and remember you’re not in the driver’s seat.
  3. Trust Takes Time: Trust is foundational, but it takes months to years to build. Focus on being yourself, moving at your client’s pace, taking continued education, and providing good customer service (e.g. organized and timely scheduling and email responses).
  4. Building Your Client Base Takes Time: If you plan to work in private practice (you don’t have to), know that it often takes years to stabilize your business. Networking, referrals, and good business practices are important in maintaining a successful practice – so too can choosing a specialty that sets you apart.
  5. Take Your Own Advice: You’ll be a better therapist if your own needs are met (oxygen mask analogy)! Especially as a new therapist, be mindful of when you’re wearing thin, when to set boundaries and take self-care days. Intentionally reflect on your personal and professional goals and priorities, ideally with your own therapist.
  6. It’s Not What You See on TV: Therapy can be glamorized and idealized: offices with big windows and luxurious couches, questions that immediately lead to “aha”s. In real life, therapy happens in a variety of settings, depending on your employer and your clientele, and there might be many sessions where you’re not sure you got anywhere.
  7. Sometimes It Feels Hopeless: As just mentioned, sometimes it will seem like certain clients are stuck. While you can continue to restate your commitment to their success, also know that you are not the right therapist for everyone. A good therapist will put their client’s progress above their own desire to be liked.
  8. Body Language Is Crucial: Eye contact, fidgeting, breathing patterns…it is important to watch these cues for signals that might not be verbally mentioned. It is equally as important to recognize your own body language. A natural posture and smiling eyes can convey warmth that helps build trust.
  9. The Client Must Desire to Make Progress: Personal motivation and openness to change/vulnerability have to be present and cannot be forced by the therapist or other members in the client’s life. If your client is not ready for therapy, you need to evaluate before moving forward.
  10. Sometimes It’s Depressing: The struggle to develop trust, set goals, and encourage clients towards those goals is a constant cycle that can lead to some pessimism over time. Therapists must develop a thick skin and an ability to lean into ambiguity to have a sustainable career.
  11. Your Job Is to Help People Manage Their Problems at Their Own Pace: Your clients are all unique with different backgrounds and patterns that require different paths to growth. Sometimes progress will be quick and apparent, but often, it will be slow, non-linear, and difficult to measure. Pushing your clients can damage your relationship and their progress, so be sure to match their pace.
  12. It’s Not Your Job to “Fix” People: You do not have control or all-knowing over clients’ lives, and acting this way can have negative impacts. Therapy is one resource for healing, not the only one or the most important one. While some clients need referrals to specific resources, higher levels of care, or pharmacological treatment, it is most important to first and foremost honor their inherent strengths.

Many of these lessons take time and experience to learn, and the learning is never finished. However, knowing more about the journey ahead of time will help set realistic expectations. Contact local therapists to ask for informational interviews to gain more perspective from those on this journey.

By Erin Lee (She/Her)
Erin Lee (She/Her) Career Coach