The Accidental Therapist

Reflections on transitioning from journalist to therapist in the past decade.

Posted Jan 06, 2020

People often ask why I transitioned from a career as a television journalist to one of a therapist. The perception is working as a TV reporter is equated with being glamorous, well-paying, and highly prized. And while that may be true in big cities and at the national network level, we all yearn to find our true selves, make a difference in the world, and have the courage to leave our safety nets when a calling arises that stirs our soul.

This is what happened to me just over a decade ago when I made the decision to leave broadcast journalism behind and venture forth into the field of psychotherapy. But before I share about that transition, it should be noted that my love of journalism is rooted in one of the core tenets of the craft: storytelling. As a teenager, I spent a few years delivering the Seattle Times newspaper to homes in my neighborhood each day. As a side benefit, I was able to read the paper for free and was captivated by the myriad stories that graced the various sections, such as local, state, and international. During these formative years, before I had any inkling of entering into the field, I already was entranced by how words could make an impact on me as a person and the community at large. I was intrigued by the whole process of the journalistic endeavor. How do you find a story, interview people for it, and write it in a way that can be memorable, moving, and meaningful?  

Armed with a natural curiosity and a desire for excitement (i.e. I couldn't envision working in a corporate office setting), I set my sights on making a career of this. But being a first-generation, Asian-American immigrant and first-born son meant delicately traversing a cultural divide to reach my goal. In other words, I had to conceal my aspirations from my immigrant parents who did not view journalism as culturally appropriate, stable, or honorable. I even changed my major from communications to pursuing a teaching credential to placate their concerns.

Fortunately, I met another Asian-American in college who was establishing himself as a journalist. He worked for the student newspaper and was majoring in journalism. He encouraged me to apply for internships regardless of my major. One thing led to another, and even though I had limited coursework in journalism, I was offered a couple of internships that paved the way for a 12-year career in broadcast television news.

During that period, I invested everything into "succeeding," trying to ingest and learn as much as I could about the craft of TV news. Some of it came naturally, like interviewing people for stories. Other aspects were more challenging, such as on-camera performance skills of memorizing scripts but relaying them to the camera so it sounded unrehearsed and natural. While the work required long hours at times, I could never say it was dull. Everyday felt like a new adventure. But it all began to shift when my adventures at work were eclipsed by my personal drama on the home-front.

At the time, I was married to my first wife but embroiled in secretive compulsive behavior that began in childhood (i.e. pornography, one-night stands, casual sex, etc.). Without getting into further detail, this led to my divorce nearly 20 years ago. Keep in mind, as an Asian-American male, the divorce brought a significant amount of cultural shame and stigma to myself, my family, and my sense of honor to them. I saw myself as more than a failure. I felt I was flawed to the core: unloveable, inadequate, and shame-bound. 

My guiding light out of the darkness was my fierce desire for healing, wholeness, and understanding. Why was I doing what I was doing? Was I defective from birth? Could I even be "cured" of my affliction? Thus began my first forays into the world of therapy as a client searching for answers.

After a couple of years in both individual and group counseling, those experiences changed me. I became a new man. Actually, this is where I learned that being a real "man" meant being open and vulnerable with my feelings and learning to courageously share them with others. I was stripped of my past need to present my best self to the world. Instead, the raw, hurting, and authentic side emerged. It was transformative, to say the least. The emotional veil had been lifted, and I uncovered and discovered parts of myself I never wanted to acknowledge: the pain of growing up with limited adult supervision, the emotional and cultural divide between me and my parents. (They spoke Chinese, I spoke English. They saw the world from a collectivist and traditional Asian viewpoint whereas I was Americanized to prize autonomy and individuality).

Furthermore, when it came to my compulsive behavior, I was able to see how it was a means of self-medicating through tough emotions I had never learned to cope with: anxiety, fear, and shame. Beyond what I was "learning" about myself, my past, and my cultural background, I was also experiencing acceptance both from other men but just as importantly myself. It took more than 30 years for me to not just accept myself but to embrace myself with all my flaws, weaknesses, and shortcomings.  

Out of this cauldron of pain, loss, and shattered dreams emerged a new fire that burned deeply to help others. Whether it's an addiction, cultural shame, or trauma that needed grieving, I wanted to be a therapist to guide them out of their own darkness. But even as a therapist, I can still say my journalistic roots have stayed with me, as I now have the opportunity to rewrite someone's life story into something meaningful and memorable.