By Jay Reed, MSW, LCSW-QS
I recently finished reading “On being a therapist” by Jeffrey Kottler. It was apart of my personal and professional growth goal for the year…reading more that is. This book came highly recommended and as I enter my tenth year in the profession, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the reasons why I became a therapist. Jeffrey Kottler’s take on the counseling profession rang true to my own take on helping others. I particularly found his take on his experience of being a therapist like my own. I appreciated his view on the mystery and challenges of this work. I also found his take on a therapist’s vulnerability familiar. This book led me to reexamine my own reasons for entering this seemingly civilized and controlled profession that in fact at times left me with third degree burns.
Why did I become a therapist? I have asked myself that over and over throughout the past ten years. I have more than once thought of changing professions, but I have found my passion always return to the career I have chosen. Others have often asked why I choose the helping profession. My answer is complicated and is usually different depending on who asks me. If a client wonders what led me to become a therapist, I say because I enjoy people and helping them find solutions to their problems. If a friend asks, I explain that I believe in the science behind my profession. If an employer asks, I tell them helping people is my passion. When new grad or a student asks, I tell them it is the most rewarding of professions. All these answers are true but are only the beginning of the story behind my journey to becoming a therapist. I, like many of other therapists was inspired by my own therapist. At the age of 14 I met my first therapist, who interestingly is the only other female named Jay I’ve ever met. She taught me the value of my own voice, she helped me find the courage to voice my concerns and opinions and she made me feel special at a time in my life I struggled with who I was. I can remember thinking how cool she was and how I hoped one day I could help people find themselves just like she helped me. She was the catalyst for my own journey into therapy; as a therapist and as a client.
I continue to do this work because I value my profession. I find joy in watching people grow, heal and change. I feel pride as I watch my clients discover themselves, almost in the same way a parent feels joy watching their baby take their first steps. When new friends ask what I do for a living I will almost certainly get the look of admiration and pity. I know that it’s hard for people to understand the pull of helping people. I know they think I’m must either be a saint or a little peculiar. I genuinely love my work; is it sad? Of course, I have at times cried along with clients. I have gone home in tears, having to be consoled by my family who usually shake their heads and tell me to find a new job. I return because the sadness is just a small piece of our journey. I have sat and watched as people have progressed in ways they couldn’t imagine. I have watched as those very same people who once doubted me have proclaimed, they are happier and healthier because of their decision to seek help. I have been amazed by someone’s ability to hold pain and live through things that many of us imagine would be impossible. How amazing is it to be able to bear witness to someone’s ability to grow and become someone new? It is a privilege and an honor.
When I think back over the challenges and triumphs of my career, there are many faces that come to my mind. I remember early on in my career, in the very beginning during my time as a graduate student I had the great pleasure to work with a wise and beautifully poised therapist who taught me a valuable lesson. During one of our supervision sessions I can vaguely remember processing (or complaining) about a client who I found to be “difficult” and unwilling to do the work. My supervisor, Laura sat back quietly and all knowing as I stumbled and felt concerned about my ability to help my client. She taught me then the most valuable lesson, “your clients are the best teachers”. I still get goosebumps when I think back to this moment. Not because it made any sense to me then, but because of what it would later become. I learnt in that moment, even though I was unaware that each client will teach you something you need to know for the next client. I have learnt many great lessons from the people who have trusted me with their pain and struggles. I have learnt that a person has the ability overcome almost anything. I have learnt that sometimes being a therapist does not mean you know everything, but that you are willing to listen and learn more. I have discovered that people are inherently good and kind, even if the exterior is a little rough. I have learnt that people will tell you everything you need to know about them, you only must listen.
As a student I remember first hearing the term “active listening”. I have since come to appreciate that “listening” is the foundation of the helping profession. I am now in the position of helping cultivate and teach new therapists (this still blows my mind, I am humble enough to acknowledge I am still learning myself). In this role I try to help new therapist figure out what took me years to realize. My first student taught gave me the gift of complete trust; to her I was the expert. Little did either of us realize that she was also going to teach me a lot. Her enthusiasm and drive allowed me to revisit ideas and theories I hadn’t considered in years. Her questions pushed me to think harder and longer about my approach and in turn pushed me in new directions. The lesson I valued most was her doubt and anxiety about counseling; it gave me pause. I was reminded that the work that we do is sacred. I would remind all therapists, old and new to remember our work is sacred; we are left with someone’s biggest secret, most difficulty journey and biggest accomplishments. Remember them…remember each client’s strengths and growth. It is vital for any therapist to remember that to be apart of someone’s indigenous healing you must respect and honor them. I am reminded everyday of the great gift I am given to be present as someone discovers themselves and unwraps traumas, they only trust to you. What a privilege and honor!
As a therapist there are certain things, I want clients to know. I’d like to start by thanking them for trusting me, for listening to me and for honoring me with the gift of being present. I recently had a client tell me she loves me and hates me. Ten years ago, this would have confused and hurt me, but today I am honored by these words. I can appreciate that my presence comforts her, sooths her and calms her storms. I can also appreciate that my presence means she must face her demons and battle with the traumas that brought her into counseling. Our relationship causes pain, but it also creates growth. We both acknowledge that, and I am thankful to her for allowing me to be her companion through her journey. I’d like all my clients to know I am forever grateful for the opportunity to witness their change. I am thankful to the lessons that Laura promised they would teach me. I am honored that they choose me, among so many other choices. As a therapist I hope you remember the great privilege you are given every time a client sits down beside you for the first time.