I just finished my first semester in a practicum placement, and I have begun to doubt my decision to become a therapist. I decided to enroll in graduate school because I liked to talk to people and heard from my friends that I was a good listener. Seeing clients this semester was much harder than I expected, and I didn’t feel like I was able to help them very much. How can I decide whether to stay in the program or leave to pursue a different career?
The experiences that lead us to enter the field of counseling or psychotherapy are varied but often include ways we have taken a helping role in our personal relationships. The topic of our motivations to become a therapist, covered in Chapter 1 of my book, is complex because it includes emotions outside of our awareness as well as thoughts and feelings that we can identify directly. I’ll discuss some ways you can identify aspects of your motivation that may be influencing your doubts, then recommend how to approach your career decision.
Your enjoyment of conversations with your friends and feedback about your listening skills are common factors in leading someone to consider the psychotherapy field. An initial step in identifying more about your motivation is to reflect on what aspect of these conversations was most enjoyable to you. Did you like the process of getting to know someone more intimately, did you like to follow their stories, were you attracted to analyzing their problems or understanding their feelings? Getting more specific about the experiences that led you to this field will give you more information about your choice to enroll in a graduate program.
Next, it is important to look at aspects of your motivation that are less obvious and may not have entered your conscious awareness. Reflect on what you didn’t do or say in your social interactions or what you avoided by being a good listener. It’s possible that you are uncomfortable with the vulnerability that comes with sharing your own thoughts and feelings. You may have adopted a caretaking role because it was expected and/or rewarded in your family and culture or you may focus on others in order to avoid facing painful memories or being alone with your struggles.
Once you have looked more deeply at your motivation, examine the benefits that have come with your interpersonal style. Being a good listener may enable you to feel effective and empowered, and it may be a source of positive self-esteem as well as praise from others. If you help your friends and family members solve their problems, you can be less worried about your own difficulties. It is natural to assume that you will feel the same rewards with your clients, but clinical work is slower and more complex than personal interactions. It can be discouraging to face the difference between your expectations and the reality of working with clients whose problems involve psychological distress, sociocultural stressors, and mental health conditions. If you decide to stay on your path to becoming a therapist, you will need to adjust your expectations and find rewards in clinical work that are different than in your personal relationships.
Having engaged in self-reflection, I recommend that you reach out to others who can assist you in addressing your career question. Discouragement and doubt is often part of the learning process, and you are likely to feel understood and reassured by talking with professors and fellow students in your academic program and with supervisors and colleagues in your practicum setting. If you’re not already seeing a psychotherapist, this is a good time to begin personal therapy to learn more about the experiences that contributed to your career choice and to explore the meaning of your disappointment as a new therapist.
I hope you found this helpful in understanding more about your motivations for becoming a therapist. If you’re interested in reading more about this and related issues, click here to order from Amazon or here to order from Routledge.