So You Want To Be A Therapist

I love teaching. I’ve taught one or two classes a semester at the Rutgers School of Social Work since 2011 and have co-taught a senior seminar at the Rutgers School of Communications each semester since 2011 as well. On top of that, I also teach professional courses for the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the National Association of Social Workers. I talk to a lot of aspiring therapists. A number of them express their doubts, concerns and fears to me about becoming a counselor. I received three emails from endeavoring professionals today, and each one of them clearly needed a little pep talk. Let’s get some help from William Shakespeare:

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt. – Measure For Measure, Act I Scene IV

Last fall, I wrote a post about what people can do to help when it comes to alcohol and drug problems. Points 7, 8, 11 and 12 were specifically for people who want to become therapists – but those points just instructed people on how to go about becoming a therapist, and not how to deal with the doubts nor how to avoid some of the most common pitfalls. The Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies Summer School is an extremely important institution to me. I took classes there from 1998 thru 2007 (and again in 2012) and I have taught there for six of the last eight years. I learned a great deal from both the instructors and the other students. At a meeting there in 1998, about a half dozen therapists told me that:

– No one wants a 22 year old therapist, and they especially don’t want one whose only work and life experience involves training to be a therapist. We need to bring a variety of life and work experiences to the table.

– Your first few supervisors will have a profound affect on your style and career. You need to approach the decision of whom to work for like you would when buying a house or choosing a spouse. You need to find someone who is skilled, ethical, hard working, well respected and even-keeled. As a new therapist, you are supposed to lack skills and have doubts. Your supervisor will help you through this period. Choose wisely.

– Do not use the job as substitute for therapy and/or 12-step meetings. Many therapists are terrible at self-care.

– Every therapist should be in therapy, at least for a few years (I prescribe to the notion of on-going therapy). Every counselor gets into this line of work for a reason, usually because of some intense personal experience or because of a friend or family member. We need to continually address and take care of that issue(s), or else it will bleed out in our work and make us less effective.

– Do not think that you have all the answers. Be confident enough to tell people that when you don’t know something and consult with other therapists on a regular basis. Be ready to refer clients to other therapists who specialize in areas that you lack expertise in.

– Try not to become power hungry, and watch this especially in your own relationships.

If you don’t follow this advice, you will risk ending up like this guy or this guy.