For nearly 25 years, people in my office have shared their secrets, their fears, and their hopes. They’ve confessed wrongs, explored love and relationships, worked through childhood traumas, pondered dreams and nightmares; some lasted a few sessions, others stayed for years.
Every now and then, a person asks me, "How could you spend your life listening to people complain? I could never do it." They're correct—that statement alone proves that person would likely be a sub-par therapist.
If you're thinking of becoming a therapist, here are five essential personality traits that you'll need:
1. You’re a people person.
You enjoy time with people, feel energized by emotional exchanges, and are interested in people’s backgrounds. You relish a hearty laugh and a good cry. You delight in hearing stories and sharing a close bond with others. Even if you’re shy, intimate talks invigorate you.
2. You’re a good listener.
You’re the designated "therapist" in your social group. Friends tell you their secrets and seek out your advice and counsel. No doubt it’s because you’re a good listener. This skill is the bedrock of therapy—not advice, analysis, or guidance. People trust and open up to good listeners. When people feel heard and understood, healing begins.
3. You think analytically.
You’re fascinated with human behavior and question what makes people tick. You love a good mystery and enjoy piecing together clues about individuals. You take note of character traits and have an excellent memory for detail.
4. You’re an altruist.
You enjoy helping people. That’s right—you’re a do-gooder. Helping people recharges you, gives your life meaning, and boosts your self-esteem. Social justice is also a keen interest. For you, when you give to others, you give to yourself as well.
Many people worry that their own mental health challenges preclude them from becoming a therapist. But believe it or not, your struggles are welcome here. Many of the best therapists (but not all, of course) have battled mightily with their own emotional problems. Often, it was their own therapy that awakened a wish in them to be a therapist. Struggling with personal demons can empower you with greater empathy and the crucial ability to identify with others in pain.
The Next Steps
If you have most or all of these qualities, you've got the raw materials you need to become a great therapist. Now, with the right training, you can hone these talents into a profession that you’ll love.
These days, there’s a therapy for everything: drama therapy, dance therapy, art therapy, etc. First, figure out what kind of therapist you want to be. What area interests you? Next, think about the folks you want to work with: children, teenagers, adults? Couples, families, or groups? Community building or traditional social work?
Your Guide to Mental Health Professionals
Social workers, psychiatrists, and psychologists are all therapists. So how do they differ? They have vastly different training and unique specialties. Here’s a quick glance at their specifications:
- Clinical social workers have master’s degrees in social work and are generally trained in empowerment and advocacy. Social workers take a practical approach to problem-solving through talk therapy, counseling, or group work.
- Psychiatrists have medical degrees and can prescribe medication. For example, if someone was considering antidepressants or medications for anxiety, they would likely visit a psychiatrist.
- Psychologists have doctoral degrees and engage in testing and evaluations, such as neuropsychological evaluations. For instance, if they work with children, they may help identify learning differences, such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. They also may engage in research.
There are other licensed or masters-level therapists, such as Marriage and Family Therapists, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors, or Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselors, a certification that doesn't require a college degree. (If you're interested in being a group therapist, check out this excellent Positive Psychology article about group: Group Activities, Worksheets, and Discussion Topics.)
States often have different requirements and names for each profession. To find the right path for you, read up on the different helping professions in your area. If possible, talk to someone who works in the field or attend a lecture or workshop. Better yet, volunteer in an organization you like, or sign up for a class. You’ll know pretty quickly if this profession is for you.
A Life in Therapy
Loving your profession is a blessing. It adds years to your life and life to your years. Every day I look forward to seeing my patients. I strive to understand them; I celebrate their progress; I feel upset when they suffer. In session after session, we examine their lives like puzzle pieces on a tabletop and fit them together so they can start to feel whole again.
Ultimately, the goal of therapy isn’t about changing people. It’s about helping people to reconnect with their true selves. It’s about healing injuries and building trust. It’s about crafting healthier relationships and living more fully in the present. These are the true goals of therapy: helping people become healthier, stronger, and more empowered.
If this sounds like an exciting way to make a living—what are you waiting for?
(Unhappy with your therapy? See "5 Signs That You Have the Wrong Therapist".)
LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Facebook image: Kinga/Shutterstock