Some people say to me “You’re a counsellor? That’s a cool job! I wish I could do that!” Others say “How can you stand listening to people whine all day?” Here is a brief sketch of what it’s like to do therapy as a career.
Do Your Own Work
Counsellors in training are often admonished to “do your own work,” i.e., get therapy themselves. I believe this advice goes double for those considering a career in therapy. Doing your own therapy pays dividends in two ways. First, you get to see first-hand what therapy looks like from the client’s perspective. It doesn’t take long to learn if a therapeutic conversation is something that resonates with or grates against your personality. Second, doing your own therapy raises your self-awareness, which makes you a better therapist should you decide to go forward. I made it a point to see a therapist before making my own decision to become a counsellor, and it cemented my resolve through all the obstacles I had to overcome in order to work in the field.
Is the Talking Cure in Decline?
When choosing a career, it pays to hitch yourself to a rising star as opposed to a has-been. All other things being equal, working in mobile devices is probably smarter than working in print media. In recent times, talk therapy has taken some lumps on this account. Right now, many people would rather pop pills or buy self-help books than take an hour out of their week to meet with an experienced professional and hash out their problems.
At least in the United States, insurance companies aren’t much help. While psychiatrists can bill top dollar for writing prescriptions, getting paid for doing talk therapy is a lot harder, even though providing therapy is shown to reduce the overall costs of healthcare. The practical result is that there is a limited number of potential clients who want the kind of treatments therapists offer. The good news is that such clients do exist, and finding people who understand and are willing to invest in the therapeutic process can be powerfully affirming.
Meaningful by Design
People find many nine-to-five jobs crushing, not because they are difficult, but because they are nearly devoid of meaning or significance. I spent years in cubicles living with the clear recognition that the work I was doing had no practical importance. While grateful for a steady income, I felt like I was cheating my employer, even though I was open about the “work” I was doing; and my peers’ work was just as meaningless as my own. Surely my employer was about to discover that I had no actual value to the organization and I would be out on the street any day now. Yet that day never came. I don’t think I was alone in what I experienced or what I felt.
Therapy, on the other hand, holds unlimited potential for meaning, both for the therapist and the client. I live with the fundamental belief that as a therapist, I have knowledge and skills that people can use to make their own lives better. As long as I keep this belief front and center, the ennui I remember from cubicle life has no place in my present mindset.
Meaning is also a central tenet of my therapeutic approach. I agree with Friedrich Nietzsche when he said “Given a big enough why people can bear almost any how.” If a client comes to me without a “big enough why,” I’m going to strongly press them to search for one before we go much further.
During my Information Technology career, I used to complain about sitting in three hours of meaningless meetings a day. Now I sit in “meetings” (individual therapy sessions) for six or more hours a day, and come back the next morning ready for more. Meaning made all the difference.
Can’t Rush the Hour
With a lot of careers, the focus on “productivity” can be overwhelming. Therapy is different. A therapeutic hour takes an hour. No one can push you to do more hours per hour. Client progress or failure is attributed to the client, not the therapist, so that’s not a yardstick that can be used to crack the productivity whip on a counsellor. While burnout is a risk in doing therapy, it doesn’t come from pressure to produce.
Some professions are at great risk of being sent overseas, where wages and standards of living are far lower than in the employers’ homelands. In this respect, counselling is a safe bet. All therapy is built on a foundation of rapport: trust and positive regard between the therapist and the client. It can’t be productized, exported, transferred or outsourced. I believe that most clients would prefer to keep working with a good-enough counselor that they know and trust, than transfer to the “best therapist in the world” if it meant having to start over.
A Different Kind of Wealth
“Don’t count on getting rich doing therapy” is another frequently-heard piece of advice that is handed out liberally to counselling students. While the Internet abounds with books and seminars that promise to undo this generality, most therapists I know are not that wealthy or if they are, have other sources of income. At least partially because of the limited appeal and insurance backing of talk therapy, it is harder to become wealthy by simply doing therapy, not matter how good you are. On the other hand, I have a suspicion that the modest income of many therapists owes less to their limited income than to a change in perspective.
For me, and I believe for many therapists, working with clients pays out intangible dividends, like meaning, autonomy, and the ability to change one life at a time. From this work comes a peace of mind and satisfaction that makes material wealth seem to shrink in importance. Even if I don’t have as much as some of my neighbors, I know I have enough for me. I can think of few career paths that would allow me to find this perspective for myself.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by