Why Do Therapists Become Therapists?
I have had a lot of response from the public about the article I wrote about career pathways for becoming a therapist in British Columbia. In fact, it may just be my most popular article, which tells me that there is a lot of interest in the counselling profession.
But, training to become a counsellor has a related question: why do people become therapists in the first place?
This article can’t possibly cover this question entirely, as counsellors are as diverse as the clients they serve, but I have a few theories, borne out of my own personal journey as well as meeting people in the field, over the years. Some of these points will resonate for counsellors or those who want to become one, while others won’t. It’s also hoped that those considering a counselling career will find points in this article to further reflect on.
Let’s look at some of the possible reasons for why folks choose to become counsellors:
Desire to Help Others
This sounds cliche, but more often than not, counsellors will tell you that they got into the profession out of a desire to make a difference in the world. This can range from working with individuals, to large-scale social change.
Many who choose counselling struggle to understand how we could do anything else, because of the need for meaning or purpose in employment. Some therapists describe it as a calling.
Previous Experiences in Counselling
One of the biggest inspirations for me going into counselling was the therapists I had over the years that helped me through some very challenging times. I didn’t know much about how counselling worked in my late teens and early 20s, but what I did know for certain was that counselling helped me. A lot. And if I could be helped to that degree, could I then give back and help others in a similar way?
Previous Life Experiences
Have you ever noticed how some counsellors—particularly if they express some transparency in their profiles—have personal experience with the problems they help with? This is certainly not always the case but it can be our own specific, personal struggles that drive us to help with particular areas and lend an additional dimension of empathy.
As some of you know, growing up I had a family role where I did a heck of a lot of listening— more than was appropriate for someone of my age and (lack of) life experience. Ironically, it was an early training ground for becoming a counsellor. While I wish I never had those childhood experiences, I can’t say for a minute that I regret becoming a counsellor and I acknowledge that these experiences were part of my pathway to the profession.
Personal suitability for counselling is a very important thing. Sometimes potential counsellors have thought deeply about what positive qualities they could bring to the profession, while others have been tipped off about possible suitability after repeated comments from others such as “you’re a great listener,” “you’re so good with others,” “I feel better after I talk to you.”
While this list is far from exhaustive, important counsellor qualities include:
After looking at a number of definitions of empathy, I prefer the simple explanation on Wikipedia: “The capacity to understand or feel what another being is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.”
In adding to this, I feel strongly that counsellors should be humble in their empathy: we can never know exactly how a client is feeling or experiencing the world, nor should we express this to our clients. Doing so is both inaccurate and presumptuous.
Self-Aware and Self-Reflective
It’s commonly believed that counsellors are all about reading others. Sometimes this is expressed defensively, as in “Don’t analyze me!” but from a positive perspective, it can include things like emotional literacy, reading clients’ non-verbal cues and responding sensitively and carefully to difficult issues and situations.
Just as important, if not more, are counsellors’ ability to read themselves and determine how they are helping or hindering clients’ counselling experiences. Here is where clinical supervision can be especially valuable.
Ability To Help Clients Feel Comfortable
Some counselling professionals and counselling clients will argue with this, stating that clients need to be challenged, and while this could be an important feature of a particular person’s counselling, if clients don’t feel emotionally safe and supported, the therapy will not successfully progress to the point of challenge.
Personal Warmth and a Love For Helping Others
Similar to the desire to help, if there is not enjoyment or love for the work, or the people being served, clients are left with cold sterility, no matter how much a therapist wants to make a difference in the world.
Active Listening Skills
Listening sometimes has the reputation of “saying nothing” or “doing nothing,” but this is far from the case. Done well, it’s a process where clients feel deeply heard and understood and when done poorly, can leave clients feeling interrupted, misunderstood, minimized or rushed. Listening creates human connection and is a reminder that we are not alone in this world. It is also the basis from which future counselling interventions take place.
Practice Cultural Humility, Sensitivity and Anti-Racism
Race, ethnicity, culture, life experiences, privilege (or lack thereof) influence our life perspective and experiences and are unique to each and every one of us. We should never assume others’.
It is also important to note that counsellors are in a position of power. This means that how counsellors behave in session, including any suggestions they make in session, often carry more weight than conversations between peers; clients who are seeking counselling are inherently in a position of vulnerability which increases the impact of counsellors’ behaviour.
With power comes privilege and counsellors have a duty to learn as much as they can about the effects of this privilege on folks that don’t share in it and to take active steps to make the counselling more inclusive, welcoming and safe.
Psychology power is intensified for counsellors who are white. First, there is a preponderance of white people in the profession (including preeminent figures in psychology and the founders of most therapies) and white counsellors have both consciously and unconsciously have used this privilege to accentuate and further their careers and authority in the field. I see ongoing antiracism work—which, if practiced sincerely, as being deeply personal and radically self-reflective—as an essential part of ongoing counselling practice.
Adept With Emotions
Counsellors should have a good basic understanding of emotions and the ability to learn, build and refine their emotional repertoire. Counsellors need to also be comfortable around others’ emotions and have the fortitude, sensitivity and willingness to bear witness to them, particularly when what is being expressed is particularly painful for clients.
Those pursuing a counselling career should be interested in registering with a professional college or association and following their code of ethics and standards of practice for that college. This is important because professional colleges’ and associations’ mandate is to protect the public. Clients who, often inadvertently, hire an unregulated counsellor will have no such protection in the event that they are harmed by their counsellor.
Openness and Non-Judgementalism
As I’ve said above, counsellors are in a position of power which increases the importance of not judging clients, as the impact of doing so can be profound.
I often feel that the only certainty in counselling is uncertainty! Counsellors must become comfortable at navigating situations and circumstances with clients which could become suddenly unpredictable, or where there are no immediate answers or ways of fixing a situation.
Much gets written about different therapies that counsellors use and how they will benefit clients. As I’ve expressed before, however, no one therapy benefits all clients so therapists must diversify in order to be able to effectively collaborate with clients on an approach that works for each unique client. Having a philosophy of ‘always learning’ can also help to guard against therapist egocentrism and pride which can create significant therapist blindspots, which may cause emotional harm to a client. Regular professional development and clinical supervision is key.
Caveats and Tips
This is not to say that all people who are counsellors should be counsellors. As I’ve mentioned many times, counselling is unregulated in BC and anyone can call themselves a counsellor, even with no training. This also means that not all counsellors are governed by a professional college or association whose primary mandate is to protect the public.
In other situations, some counsellors start working as therapist with no previous, supervised counselling experience and continue to work with no clinical supervision, which increases the likelihood of therapist error and harm to clients.
Potential counsellors may even read some of the points I’ve made above and be more interested in the fact that these qualities “sound good” in their counselling school applications rather than points registering personally or prompting self-reflection. This doesn’t mean that connecting on a deeper level with reasons for entering the profession isn’t ever possible—it just may mean that the time to embark on it is not now.
If you are a person receiving counselling and you believe that your counsellor is working with you in an unethical manner, is not professionally trained or is promoting an agenda that seems dubious or counsellor-serving, I recommend that review your rights as a counselling client.
If safe to do so, the first step is to initiate a conversation with your therapist to see if there was a misunderstanding that can be cleared up. If you are still unsatisfied, If they are regulated or a member of a professional body, you may contact their professional college or association with your questions or concerns.
And don’t forget the power of trusted friends, family members or other health professionals in your life. If something about your counselling is feeling sketchy, run it by someone you trust to get their take or cancel your appointment for now and reflect on whether or not you would like to rebook.
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