Thinking about becoming a therapist? Here’s everything I wish I had known before becoming a mental health therapist.
I’ve been a therapist for the past 5 years and I couldn’t have prepared myself for all the ways that I would be surprised by the expectations I had vs. reality.
This post is all about what I wish I knew before becoming a mental health therapist.
1. School Is Just The Beginning
I didn’t realize before starting grad school that getting your degree is just the first step in becoming a therapist, and that the process to become fully licensed can take longer than expected. The pre-licensed requirements for MFTs, LPCs, and Social Workers (which are all different types of degrees) vary state by state, and you’ll need to find out the specifics regarding additional client contact hours, supervision meetings, location of services, and minimum time post-grad that you’ll need in order to meet the requirements for the state that you’ll be working in.
As a Marriage and Family therapist in Tennessee, where I’m located, you currently need 1000 client contact hours, 200 hours of supervision with an approved licensed supervisor, and be out of graduate school for at least 2 years (+ pass the National Licensure exam and Jurisprudence) to be eligible for full licensure.
You Are Your Own Best Investment
Because supervision is often costly (unless you land a job where you’re reimbursed or it’s provided for you) and you might understandably feel drained after ~2 years of graduate school, it’s easy to put off getting started on the licensing process right out of school…don’t do it. If you’re able to, find a supervisor and establish a regular supervision schedule before you’ve even graduated so that there’s no lapse in being able to see clients (not having supervision = not being legally able to meet with clients = not being able to make a living….you get it).
Additionally, make the investments in things that make you a better therapist, business owner, etc. Take the courses, make the website, get the business cards, hire the advisor…whatever applies to the path you choose. I saw a huge shift in my mindset and business when I invested in things that made me proud of myself and my practice.
Therapy Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
Until grad school, I had no idea that not all therapists practice the same type of therapy and that there are about a million approaches to choose from. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Internal Family Systems, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Gestalt, Emotion-focused…just to name a few, different styles resonate with different therapists based on their own preferences and the issues they offer support with (yes, there is research that says certain styles work better than others for anxiety, depression, relationship issues, etc).
While school offered an overview of a lot of these styles, it wasn’t until I had been practicing for a couple of years and discovered my niche that I became really clear on the styles that I use in my practice (which are ACT and IFS).
Know Your Options
This field offers so much opportunity for diversity and creativity when it comes to the kind of therapist you want to be and where you’d like to build your career. Depending on your goals and values, as a therapist you can offer something unique in settings like private practice, home-based agencies, nonprofit organizations, residential facilities, government programs, school-based, religious settings, hospitals and other medical facilities, Corporate America, nursing homes, home health care, retreats and workshops, telehealth, and so much more. Sometimes it takes trying several different ones out to really figure out the setting that feels right for you.
You Won’t Be For Everyone…And That’s Okay
Not all clients will be your ideal client. Not all ideal clients will want to work with you. And that’s okay and says absolutely NOTHING about your ability to be a good therapist. People have a lot of options now when it comes to choosing a therapist, which is great because more people than ever are getting the support they need, and it also means people can (and should) be a lot more selective with where they invest their time and resources. It’s okay for you to do the same.
As a therapist, you aren’t required to take on every person that finds you (in fact, PLEASE DON’T!!). Knowing things like your own boundaries, who you work best with, and your capacity at any given moment is crucial-more on that later- and means that sometimes the best thing you can do as a helper is refer someone to another therapist that will be a better fit.
There’s Room For Everyone
I don’t have much to say about this, other than if you’re in the mental health field, at some point you might have felt some weird tension between Marriage and Family therapists vs. Licensed Professional Counselors vs. Social Workers vs. CPTs…quit that. We all have the same goal of helping people connect to the internal and external resources they need to be their best selves. Yes, each takes a different approach. No, one type of therapist is not “better” than the other. There are therapists in each category who I refer to (and DON’T refer to). Enough with the competition.
You’re Not Supposed To Have All The Answers
Sometimes people come to therapy because they think therapists have all the answers to all of their “problems” and can teach them the art of living a pain-free life. Maybe you even thought of therapists that way before becoming one (I know I did). Irvin Yalom illustrated the therapeutic relationship in such a beautiful way in his book The Gift Of Therapy (which I HIGHLY recommend) by referring to clients and therapists as “fellow travelers”. The knowledge you have as a therapist doesn’t take away the fact that you’re human. Instead of feeling like you have to provide people with answers, focus on giving them the gift of a non judgmental, supportive, safe space to answer those questions for themselves from an authentic and aligned place.
You Can Be Empathetic And Rich
In grad school you probably heard something that implies that because you chose to be in the helping profession, you’re destined to barely make ends meet and scrape by out of the goodness of your heart. Well, that’s BS. Did I become a therapist to make a lot of money? Of course not. But do I expect to provide the life I want for myself as a result of the time, money, and effort I put into gaining clinical expertise and creating a profitable, fulfilling, impactful practice. Absolutely!! Everyone’s goals and values are different, but if you think you have to choose between being financially stable with a thriving bank account and dedicating your life to genuinely helping others…you’re wrong.
It’s Okay To Not Be Okay
I used to think I wasn’t affected by my clients…It’s funny now, that I thought I could sit with people on a regular basis, that I genuinely care about, watch them struggle and stretch and fight for better and not be affected by that in some way?! Although I now know ways to safeguard myself so that I don’t energetically take on the feelings of other people, I’ve also learned to show myself extra compassion in the times when things do get overwhelming, because I’m human.
You’ll be impacted by your clients and their stories and that’s okay because it’s just another indication of just how much you care. It takes a lot of energy to show up intentionally and support other people on their journeys of self-improvement, growth, and healing. Through no fault of your own, or your clients, it can get heavy…bringing me to my most important point…
Practice What You Preach, It Makes All The Difference
I refuse to admit on the internet the exact amount of time I spent as a therapist before actually taking my own advice…just trust me, it was too long. All I’ll say is that when I started utilizing the tools I talk about with clients in my own life, seeing my own therapist, practicing the techniques, reading the books, understanding the different parts of myself, setting the intentions, living in alignment with my own values…there was not a single area of my life (personally and professionally) that didn’t improve, including the way I was able to support clients.
You showing up as the best version of yourself with other people has more impact than just about anything else.
The program I went through: