The Ethical Therapist

A guide to right and wrong psychotherapist behavior.

The Right Choice?

Have you ever wondered: is there a mismatch between me and the profession?

The right choice or mismatch with the profession?
The Right Choice?


When Mitch and I worked on our book "Ethics for Psychotherapist and Counselors: A proactive approach" we struggled with whether or not to write a section raises the questions: "What if this profession is not for me? How do I back out gracefully?" I have mentioned more than once to students in my ethics class, "Not everyone who applies to be in a training program should be a therapist. It's just not the right niche for them." In the end, Mitch and I decided to "be honest and not hold any punches". We titled a section, "Mismatch with the Profession?" Here we encouraged our readers to be honest with themselves and their needs so to consider the possibility that being a psychotherapist is not for them.

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 As you'll read below, this is just what one student needed in the journey. (You'll notice that I have used the plural pronoun ("they") because I don't want to identify the student. Upon reflection, you might find it interesting to check out your assumptions about the student's gender.


I have had an atypical experience as a faculty person and advisor. I met with a student who, after taking an ethics course, decided that being a counselor did not match their passion.


The student was one of my advisees in the counseling program and had called me to set the appointment. I was assuming we'd talk about why they hadn't enrolled in the counseling practicum course for the spring semester and how to rearrange their timeline for graduation. The semester before we had talked about them taking the practicum class and the last I had heard they were slated to take my section of practicum. When I didn't see their name on the class list, I assumed my advisee had just decided to wait until the fall semester to take the course. So when the person walked into my office I said, "Hey, what happened? I thought I'd see you in practicum." The advisee sat down and said, "I took the semester off. I've decided that being a counselor is not for me."

While taking the ethics course last semester the students had used the book that my occasional co-writer on this blog, Dr. Mitch Handelsman and I had written. When the class got to a section in the book where we encouraged readers to really think through whether counseling and psychotherapy was the right profession for them, this student had to admit to themselves that counseling was not their passion that they didn't want to work with people on personal issues or crises. I could see a sense of relief on the student's face as they spoke. The student finished by saying they just wanted me to know that they would be pursuing another profession (one that they were clearly passionate about) and that they appreciated my time but advising services were no longer needed.


As the student stood to leave my office, I said, "Good for you! You are making the right choice. Let me know how this next step works out. " As they walked down the hallway, I thought back to the conversations that Mitch and I had had about including "Mismatch" section in the book. We wanted to provide a way, a gracious avenue out, for a person to decide that being a psychotherapist or counselor was not for them.


I believe my student's decision took real courage. It's often very easy to set one's sights on a goal and not process information that conflicts with that goal, or not see ways to change course. Mitch and I have both seen students who say, "I'm not a quitter," not realizing that there is no glory in entering a profession as challenging and involving as psychotherapy when there are other ways to fulfill one's larger life goals. It is possible that becoming a psychotherapist while harboring feelings of dissatisfaction and even resentment-without the compensatory feelings of passion and fulfillment-is a red flag that could lead to ethical lapses. Of course, I'm not saying that every day needs to be bliss. I'm saying that self-awarness and self-reflection are important in being a psychotherapist, and this student was able to engage in very productive self-reflection at a very important time.


I felt blessed to see the benefit of our being honest with the readers and twice blessed to see my now ex-advisee being honest with themselves. The person had made a good decision, an ethical decision.

Mitch Handelsman has a blog "The Ethical Professor".

(Thumbs up pic by kaymoshusbandphoto stream)

Sharon K. Anderson, Ph.D., is a Professor of Counseling and Career Development at Colorado State University.

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