As a board approved supervisor in Texas, I keep an eye out for talented, developing professional counselors. I interview them, mentor them, supervise their work, and eventually help them get their clinical license to practice on their own. It’s great to see the growth progression of a therapist– from an enthusiastic student, disenchanted intern, to confident grasshopper, and finally, a colleague. As many of you know, I have my podcast, Through the Eyes of a Therapist, where I ask every clinician that I interview, “why did you want to become a therapist?” In my conversations with these growing pre-licensed professionals and even fully licensed ones, I’ve heard some interesting reasons why people choose this career. Out of all of their personal anecdotes, a few stand out to me. Here are five reasons why people should NOT pursue a career in therapy.
(5.) “I’m doing it for the money.” (In other words, to become filthy rich.)
There are economic reasons, as well as ethical ones, for why this is a wrong reason to become a therapist. For one, if you decide to become a Clinical Social Worker (CSW), Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), or a Professional Clinical Counselor (PCC), you will likely go through a rigorous process. This process can include the following: 4 years of undergraduate education, graduate school (2-3 years), state exams to become provisionally licensed, 18-60 months collecting hours to qualify for the licensing exam, passing licensing exam to get fully licensed, and then finally land a job where you can bill insurance companies for services and be seen as an expert. The issue with this trajectory is that the first few years while pursuing full licensure, you will likely not be making very much money. In grad school, most of the time, you do not get paid as a student intern. After graduation, the reality is that companies, both non-profit or private practice, will likely not pay you the way they would as fully licensed clinician. You will also more than likely have to pay an out of pocket weekly fee to your clinical supervisor while you are pursuing full licensure. So yes, the first few years of this career include huge time and monetary investments.
Working as a therapist to become filthy rich is also not realistic (to a certain extent). I’ve known many private practice clinicians who do make “good money,” but only if they are very strategic about their careers. They diversify where their money comes from meaning they don’t solely see clients. These entrepreneurs use blogs, books, e-courses, trainings, and consultation to make money. If a clinician chooses to work at a non-profit agency, they may make anywhere from $40,000 to $65,000 per year depending on experience and licensure. This flat rate salary is barely negotiable depending on the funding sources for the non-profit company. The more funding they have, the more you might make. However, the advantage sometimes is that you get lots of experience and training at these types of agencies…just not good ol’ money dollars in your pocket.
Ethically, becoming filthy rich as a therapist could be questionable. My opinion is that clinicians deserve to make money. After all, our work is intricate and requires lots of brain power, emotional investment, and time. When does having a lucrative career in therapy become pilfering? The answer lies within the individual therapist. I mean, if people are charging insurance companies fraudulently, this would be a violation of ethics. However, if an experienced therapist within a niche market costs $200 cash per session, who am I to judge? Their clientele would be limited to a specific pool of people, and maybe people who are under government insurance or below the poverty line would not be able to afford their sessions. It’s quite the quandary and a fine line.
(4.) “I want to help people.”—Yes, read that again.
This statement is a very common response to the question, “why do/did you want to become a therapist?” Look, the reality is that no human can emotionally or mentally rescue/save/change another human being. We, as therapists are privileged in that people may choose to tell us their deepest darkest secrets; however, we are only human ourselves. We don’t have special powers. What we may possess as a therapist are tools that help another human hear themselves and an ability to build a relationship which can foster healing. You cannot magically heal. You cannot fix people. So, if you have any false notions about your supernatural or superhuman abilities to heal or fix a person, you will be a sad, frustrated, and disillusioned therapist. People are too unpredictable and have freedom of choice. In other words, even the most skilled and gifted therapists encounter clients who will do whatever the hell they want anyway.
(3.) “People constantly tell me their life stories, like when I’m in line at Wal-Mart.”
This reason alone does not mean you should become a therapist. Sure, you may be a good listener and open minded, but becoming a therapist takes much much much more than that (see reason 5 above, training and hours of experience). Clinicians dedicate hours upon hours of listening to people tell their stories and believe me; these stories contain more detail than the Wal-Mart edition of therapy sessions. In real therapy sessions, there are likely in-depth details about sexual assault, abuse, domestic violence, community violence, blood, guts, and other gory details about people’s most horrific experiences. There are also disclosures and secrets that you can not—I REPEAT—can not react to. In the Wal-Mart version of an encounter, the time is short lived, there’s no privacy, and it’s likely a casual conversation, so you’re free to react however you please. In a therapy encounter, a therapist’s reactions are calculated and non-judgmental. This skill takes experience, restraint, and self-awareness. So, sure if people tell you stuff, and this is motivation enough to get you the training you need to become a therapist, then go for it…but remember, in the therapy room, the time, space, and emotions spent are very different than listening to a stranger, acquaintance, or friend.
(2.) “What could be better than getting paid to sit and listen to people’s problems all day?”
Well, this one is always a shocker. I don’t care who says it. When anyone misconstrues my profession and whittles it down to “simply listening to problems all day,” it boils my blood. The skill, endurance, self-reflection, self-work, self-awareness, intuition, brain power it takes to “listen” to someone’s problems is highly underestimated. The statement above is probably one of the main reasons why mental health care is so undervalued in our country. Believe me, if I “sat around and listened to problems all day” and could make it into a career, I would have done this by the time I was 9 years old. If you decide to become a therapist, be prepared for the intensity and rigor of this work. It’s not easy, nor is it for the faint of heart.
(1.) “I’ll be better qualified to help my family.”
Okay, I’m sure you have some baggage. Everyone does in one way or another. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a hard history or having a rough upbringing. Family can significantly influence our lives, relationships, and careers in many ways. I, personally, have a few family members who live with mental illness. While I was learning about psychology in undergrad, and learning about counseling in graduate school, lots of things about my family system were put into perspective for me. This education did not heal me or even equip me to help my family. Sure, it gave me a new lens to look through. I see them differently and understand them more. I even understand myself a little more and can put some coping skills I’ve learned about into practice in my personal life. So you may be asking what the big deal is…why you can’t help your family when you’re a therapist. Simple. It’s a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest in the counseling world (and other helping professions) refers to the notion that a professional is not objective when trying to intervene with family members and friends clinically. If someone is too close in proximity to you, their problems are less clear. Your objectivity and accuracy become compromised. You may also inflict judgment upon them because you know too much. Like I said earlier, non-judgment is essential in this line of work. This is why, even on Grey’s Anatomy, doctors are not allowed to perform surgery on their coworkers or family members. The best thing to do here is to refer your loved ones (or anyone too close to you for that matter) to another therapist so that they get the unbiased help they need and deserve.
If you’re still contemplating on becoming a therapist, I hope the reasons above delivered clarity and busted some myths for you about this career. If you already are a therapist and you recognize any of the above reasoning in yourself and your colleagues, it may be a great discussion topic while you are in consultation. Bottom line, it’s great that you have a compassionate nature, but remember the realities of becoming a therapist because it’s a robust and challenging profession.
Cristal Martinez Acosta has been serving as a mental health clinician in the El Paso, Texas Borderland area since 2011. Cristal is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Approved Supervisor (LPC-S) in the state of Texas and a Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) through the National Board of Certified Counselors. She graduated with honors from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Sociology. Then she attended New Mexico State University, where she earned a Master of Arts in Counseling and Guidance with a 4.0 GPA.
Cristal has experience working with youth and adults who have been affected by traumatic events. Her areas of interest are parenting support, childhood abuse, domestic violence, anxiety, high-risk youth, depression, Reality Therapy, and immigration issues. She is certified in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and the region’s only Level One Trainer in Parent Child Interaction Therapy (via PCIT International). She is also trained, and pursuing certification, in EMDR. She has taught licensed professionals, school counselors, and other community members in the areas of Trauma Informed Care, PCIT, and TF-CBT. She also supervises developing counseling professionals and students and is currently accepting applications for LPC-Interns. To learn more about Cristal, or to listen to her free mental health podcast, please visit www.throughtheeyesofatherapist.org.