I Want to Be a Therapist. What Personal Work Comes First?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

So I’ve heard that if you want to be a mental health professional, it’s necessary to do your own internal work in therapy first. I’m fine with that, but I also have a pretty boring past—no childhood trauma or issues with parents, or anything like that. I guess I’m wondering if it’s only necessary for people who do have issues they’re dealing with, or troublesome things from their past? How will I know I’ve done enough of my own work in therapy to be able to offer it to others? Is there, like, an ideal place of stability one needs to reach in order to conscientiously provide mental health services to other people?

Also, I want to be sure I don’t just want to be a therapist to “fix” people who have less fortune than me—not that I think anyone is broken, or anything like that. But I realize not everyone has had as comfortable a life as I have, and I don’t want to provide therapy from a place of privilege that demeans anyone who is sitting on my couch, if that makes sense.

Can you provide some insight about why therapists should be doing their own work, what I’d be likely to gain from it, and when in the process of becoming a therapist I should start going to therapy? Thanks! —Aspiring Good Therapist

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Dear Aspiring,

I don’t know what your educational and licensing requirements would be, as they vary from state to state, but in some cases therapy is a required part of training. Therapy is mandatory at my training institute, for example. I commend you for considering it, and advise you to seek it regardless of whether it is expected. Both you and your studies will likely be enriched beyond measure.

You ask why therapists should be doing their own work. We have all been shaped by our history. Our rearing environment greatly influences the development of our personality and how we experience reality. As therapists, knowing how our past and present experiences shape our sense of self is of great value for several reasons. First, it helps us see our biases (which we all have). If our mother was afraid of anger, for instance, we may discourage such an emotion in the people we work with. This can happen very subtly or even unconsciously. Our own therapy can help us bring to consciousness our conditioned patterns so they don’t interfere so much in our work as clinicians. Second, experiencing firsthand the process of going through therapy allows us to have a direct understanding of the therapeutic process. A great deal of the healing in therapy comes through witnessing people’s emotional experiences. Being able to stay open to the pain of others can be very challenging, and our own therapy can help us develop this essential quality.

You write that you don’t feel you need therapy, and then, in the second paragraph of your letter, you suggest that perhaps you do when you write you don’t want to “fix” people and you are more fortunate than others. Those are great self-observations. Right there, you have two issues that can be addressed in therapy: that of “fixing” and that of “privilege.”

You’re right. Therapists don’t “fix” people—themselves or others. Therapists do have to understand themselves and others from a place very deep within, however. That journey within works better with a guide. Such a guide can help you develop a better understanding of what you mean by “privilege” and how that might affect your work.

You’re right. Therapists don’t “fix” people—themselves or others. Therapists do have to understand themselves and others from a place very deep within, however. That journey within works better with a guide. Such a guide can help you develop a better understanding of what you mean by “privilege” and how that might affect your work.

You write, too, that you have no issues. Most people do have issues—bigger or smaller—of some sort, and I expect you do, too, even if you’re not fully aware of them. As a therapist, you would certainly benefit from knowing what they are.

Even more important, however, is this: Everybody looks at the world from their own individual perspectives, and the world is much bigger than that. Perhaps the most important quality therapists must develop, at all points in their careers, is the ability to look beyond their own viewpoints into the thoughts and feelings of others. Who you are colors how you see others, and you might even know it when it’s happening. Therapy will help you keep an eye on yourself.

You should know yourself very deeply and well to recognize when you are operating from your own private perspective, which we all do at times, and then, hardest of all, how to use that perspective to help another person. Where are you two alike? Where are you different? What hurts one or the other or both of you? That’s the most fruitful part of therapy and the hardest, too.

So, I suggest you do the following:

  1. Find a good therapist for yourself.
  2. Find a good supervisor, too.
  3. After you graduate, continue working with a supervisor for a time.
  4. Join a supervision group. A good group will help protect you from the isolation therapists often feel. A group will also point out when you’ve been triggered by something in the work you’re doing, and what to do about it. Supervision groups protect both therapist and person in therapy, help you do your best work, and provide guidance on what to do when you’re doing less than your best.

The benefit you and the people you serve may reap from your long and deep association with other therapists in a supervision group is incalculable. It will help you personally and professionally in ways that become clearer to you as your career develops. Individual supervision can be vital at times, too.

I’ve been a psychoanalyst/therapist for many years, and for much of that time I’ve been part of a group; we study and work together and listen to one another’s cases. We enjoy and thrive in this warm, accepting, and supportive atmosphere.

I wish you great success and happiness in your potential future career. I hope I’ve been helpful.

Take care,

Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, E-RYT, is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • 4 comments
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  • Nancie

    February 17th, 2017 at 12:18 PM

    Great question
    mainly because I have often though that this would be something that I would like to be involved with but I would have to give it a whole lot of thought and decide if I was doing this for the right reasons or if it in some way would be about exorcising my own demons.
    definitely something to think about though

  • Lorraine

    February 20th, 2017 at 7:49 AM

    I suspect that you first of all need to be comfortable with YOU before you could ever begin trying to help another

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    February 20th, 2017 at 4:41 PM

    Be comfortable or at least be on the road to self acceptance. Well said, Lorraine.
    Take care,
    Lynn
    Lynn

  • Brenda

    February 24th, 2017 at 4:40 AM

    I been with my Humber’s for35years.onr day he make love to me and told me how muchs he love me and what I mean to him.later on that day him and a friend where going some whefd my number told me he love very muchs and wood be right back and them he gave me a kiss abx hug.and never come home.why.is it becoulds of a good friend during my number was next to are friend when he die.did that part of it?will he come back home??it hurts so bad.

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