When talking to people about what I do, there are generally a few typical responses I get from them. The first is the usually playful “oh, are you analyzing me now?” said with a laugh. Often, people will share their story of how they took a psychology class in college, and how they learned “so much” about themselves and others (and maybe they will throw in a quick “diagnosis” of some family member). Finally, I often hear how it must be “easy” to have a job where “all you do is sit and listen to other people’s problems all day.” To the last, I often reply with a laugh and a quick “I wish.”
Being a therapist, at least a good therapist, is so much more than simply understanding human nature and listening to people’s problems. In fact, I believe the hardest part of being a therapist has nothing to do with the countless hours of education most of us have had, the massive student loans, the systematic devaluation of our profession, or insurance billing woes. The hardest part of being a good therapist is the constant self-awareness, growth, reflection, accountability, and humility that is required of the person.
People often think that individuals who specialize in psychology do so to figure out their own lives, and maybe there is some truth to that. Most of the good therapists I know have suffered greatly on their own journeys, and perhaps psychology acts as a beacon in the darkness, offering the hope of answers. May (1980) states that “we heal others by virtue of our own wounds,” (p. 100) which is one of the beautiful tragedies of being a psychotherapist. The good therapist has generally been wounded in some significant way and has, through their own work and healing, been able to translate their wounding into a means of healing for others.
Being a good therapist means that one is willing to engage in the hard work of healing. A good therapist consistently examines themselves, not just for professional competence but for personal and interpersonal wellness. The good therapist is willing to acknowledge when they are not at their best and seek the necessary help to get it. The good therapist is surrounded by trusted friends, colleagues, and advisors who are willing to hold them accountable when necessary. The good therapist is humble enough to be transparent with trusted others. The good therapist will ask questions when he or she doesn’t know the answer and is willing to be wrong. The good therapist knows that he or she can’t be entirely objective about oneself and is cautious about being too favorable in self-assessment. The good therapist practices what he or she preaches in the way of self-care and works hard to maintain balance in his or her life.
There are many good therapists available in this world and they do much good, but many of them are unsung heroes. Our profession generally frowns upon the therapist who shares too much of his or her personal life with their clients so clients generally don’t know much about the person they are working with. Thus, many have no idea of the pain the therapist has likely endured. To engage with life in an intimate way such as to grapple with the pain of existence is not easy…being a good therapist is so much more than what people often think. Here’s to those courageous enough to pay the price necessary.
— Lisa Vallejos