Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP

In Therapy

Psychology Graduate Students in Therapy

Future therapists have more speed bumps.

Posted Mar 27, 2014

"Excuse me, you dropped your $250 textbook."

I try to avoid telling people they “should” do anything. People usually do what they want, not what they should do anyway.

But I make a few exceptions. You should exercise. You should eat more vegetables. You should attend at least one Renaissance Faire, if only to behold this slice of humanity and devour a turkey leg. And if you’re going to be a therapist, you should spend some time in therapy.

Many therapy graduate programs agree with my superego-esque proclamation and require students to attend 30+ sessions of therapy with a licensed clinician. Others strongly recommend therapy. If you’re about to embark on a profession where your own psyche is a primary tool, it’s worth some time and money to clock some hours in the other chair.

I’ve been fortunate to have seen a few dozen such students as well as a number of practicing therapists, and I’ve found it to be fascinating and rewarding work. These are people who are interested in the process of therapy. They already see the value of looking inward to find healing insights. They speak the language, understand the roles, and are ready to do some work. Furthermore, they know that the more they understand their issues, the better they’ll be able to help others.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a cake walk. Psych graduate students actually have a few additional obstacles to overcome as clients. The fact that this is their chosen vocation is often a blessing in therapy, but initially it can feel like a curse for them. The majority of the work looks like any other course of therapy, with three additional speed bumps—two for the clients, and one for me.

Student Speed Bump #1: Self-Consciousness. Nearly every student (and most practicing therapists) I’ve seen has a challenge with self-consciousness in early therapy sessions. They’re working hard to tell their own story, while at the same time observing themselves, self-diagnosing, wondering what they would think if they were me (often with harsh critiques), and trying to predict my comments and observations. Sometimes they'll censor their story out of fear that I'll think they shouldn't become a therapist. I call this “sitting in both chairs”—and it's unnecessary, exhausting extra work. I encourage them to relax into their role as the client, and I’ll take care of the therapist role. Once they realize how tiring it is to spend time in both chairs, how I'm not here to judge or evaluate, and how my reflections are not nearly as harsh as their own, they’ll usually ease up and allow themselves to just be the client. That's hard enough work.

Student Speed Bump #2: Therapist-Consciousness. Once they’ve grown more comfortable with who they are in the room, the focus often turns to me. They become curious about my knowledge and skill and want to size me up. We read Lacan in class, are you familiar with him? We’re learning EMDR at my practicum training, have you been trained in it? We just read research about Münchausen’s by Proxy, do you have any experience with that? It’s a unique evaluation phase where they assess my knowledge and wonder how I measure up to their professors. They’re also wanting to know how they measure up to me. I see this as serving two goals: they want assurance that I am competent and have the ability to help them, perhaps that I know a little more than they do, and they want to know the position I hold is within their grasp. They want me to know more, but not so much more that they can’t ever sit in my chair. I’ll honestly answer their questions and ask to look at why that data feels so important for them. After all, being a helpful therapist is about much more than the quantity of psychological knowledge. Again, once they know I’m knowledgeable enough, and get a sense that the quality of the relationship is really the most important factor, this speed bump passes.

Now we typically join regularly scheduled programming and resume our work together like any other course of therapy. However, there’s also this....

The Therapist Speed Bump: Invariably, a significant portion of grad students’ material in therapy revolves around being a grad student: coursework, training experiences, ideological conflicts, etc. As a former psych student myself, and as a current supervisor and professor, it can be very tempting for me to slide into a non-therapist role. The “back when I was a student...” stories flood to mind at times, or I’m drawn to backseat drive on their supervisors or professors. Slipping on those hats occasionally can be helpful, even quite beneficial for building rapport, but they’re here for therapy. Rather than hearing my advice and boring stories, my job is to help them understand who they are, what they want, and how to get there. They don’t need me to argue with their supervisor from afar, they need someone to help them explore their feelings about the supervision, what this says about them, and eventually what they want to do about it. Teach them to fish, not commiserate about fishing.

There’s one final bump that may come later. As I mentioned, some programs require a number of sessions for their students, usually 20 or 30. But this doesn’t always correspond to the work we’re doing. We may be right in the middle of something deep and powerful when session 30 rolls around. Now they need to reflect—I've finished my requirement, can I continue the work? It’s a dilemma, one that requires an evaluation of their time, money, and energy resources versus the value of the growth and change they’re experiencing. Some find a way to continue and that’s great, they often find they’re even more invested in the work when they don’t have to be here. Others can’t or don’t want to continue at that time, and I don’t begrudge them that decision. If the work we’ve done had meaning but had to come to a close prematurely, I trust they’ll resume the work later, with me or someone else. Hopefully, the speed bumps will be smaller the second time around.

As with any other issues that arise in therapy, my advice is the same: talk about it. If one of these bumps or any others arise and get in the way of the work you came to do, make that top priority. Bringing up the challenging topics is good for you now and good practice for your future—in the other chair.


Grad students might find my facebook and retro website helpful, you're welcome to drop by. But you and your classmates should join us over at National Psychotherapy Day, the future of the profession depends on you!

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