What’s it Like to Be a Therapist?

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What’s it Like to Be a Therapist?

Over the past two years, friends and new people I meet have often asked me questions about being a therapist, because they think it’s an interesting job (and they’re not wrong!). I’ve compiled those questions and my answers here. 

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a therapist?

No, not at all! I’ve always been enamored of people and I always knew I wanted to work with people in some way. I was a personal trainer for a few years. When I got into activism and volunteer work when I was 21, I started getting pushed in the social work direction. I moved to the west coast and was working in homeless shelters, harm-reduction housing, and in different facilities with people with schizophrenia, HIV, addiction issues, LGBTQ youth, and kids that had experienced some really terrible trauma. I was an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for a short stint, helping immigrants to learn English. 

Even in my first year of grad school, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly. My first semester, I almost switched programs to do a dual degree JD-MSW so that I could do public policy– I wanted to get police out of schools, do restorative justice stuff, work with cities on building tiny homes for homeless folk, that sort of thing. I’m glad I didn’t because I would’ve hated law school! But once I had an internship doing therapy with adolescents, it was like, game over. 

Q: How does therapy work?

That’s a really good question. And it’s a hard one to answer!

The primary driver of good therapy is the therapeutic relationship; the therapist-client relationship is really special. Over time, a person is showing you a really vulnerable part of themselves; you’re getting to witness a part of them that most people don’t see. That creates intimacy, or as some therapist dad-joke might go; in-to-me-see. And that is such an honor; I feel really blessed to be the person that my clients trust with this. I didn’t realize when I started that I would get so invested in my client’s lives and well-being. I genuinely like all my clients; I think they are brilliant, funny, interesting, insightful, motivated. For me, seeing my clients is almost like having that weekly or occasional hangout with a friend you feel really comfortable with and stimulated by. But at the same time, it’s like one-way glass, you know? They aren’t getting the same window into my life. That’s why therapists keep strong boundaries. 

Building the relationship goes both ways. The client wants to know if they can trust you, so they test you to see how you’ll react. Sometimes they’ll do that with a verbal warning (“Um maybe TMI? But…”) or they’ll just tell you something they think is shocking to see how you respond. They need to see what is too much for you, what you can handle, so that they know what is “safe.” If you never react negatively and just validate them, they’ll come to understand that nothing is “too much.” And that’s where the magic begins. 

On the therapist’s side, magic is happening too. When my new client is meeting a new person, I’m meeting a new person, too! I am a tiny bit nervous, thinking “Will this person like me? I hope I do my job well so they can be exactly who they want to be, and have exactly what they want to have in their lives!” Eventually, I become more comfortable with my new client too, and loosen up. When I’m more relaxed I’m more able to think creatively about the things they are telling me. That’s when I’m working my best!   

Q: What type of clients do you see?

Most of my clients are either part of the LGBTQ+ community, or BIPOC, or both. Long Beach and the greater LA area have tons of BIPOC queer people, so it’s pretty crazy how few BIPOC therapists there are who are also queer! I’m one, my friend Dr. Diem Nguyen is another. 

I also tend to attract activist types and creatives, and people in the helping professions. Several of my clients also either work for themselves or started businesses, so people with that entrepreneurial mindset. 

Q: How does privacy and confidentiality work? Do you go home and tell your partner or friends all about your clients?

No! 

I take privacy and confidentiality pretty seriously. For example, a few of my clients are somewhat famous within their industries, and I could easily Google them and learn more about them through their work, but I don’t. I refrain because I only want to know what my clients tell me about themselves, so I would consider that an invasion of privacy; I would only look someone up if they asked me to (and none of them has, yet!). Other therapists might view this differently, but that’s how I approach it.  

Q: What do you like best about your job? 

I find people endlessly fascinating, so therapy is kind of my dream job. I really enjoy YouTube and TikTok because it’s like a brief window into people’s lives, people you would never meet or know in real life. Therapy sessions are similar, only it’s with the same people again and again, so you start to build a relationship.  I’m a helper by nature, and I’m also pretty social and like being with people and talking to people. So if I can help someone through talking to them, bada-bing-bada-boom— DREAM JOB!! I’m so grateful that my job allows me to make a real difference in people’s lives!

I also enjoy giving a lot of positive feedback and acknowledgment to my clients, without being too syrupy about it. It’s not hard because I genuinely do see their good qualities and I’m happy to point them out in ways that people probably haven’t before. I think this is important because we’re all too hard on ourselves and maybe people aren’t taking the time to tell us how awesome we are enough, or tell us what a good job we’re doing at just kicking ass in life, because life is hard! And maybe the world would be a very different place if we weren’t so hard on ourselves and others did tell us these things.  

Q: What do your clients think about you?

I don’t know! Good things, I hope! 

For me, I always find it interesting whenever a little sliver of how a client sees me gets revealed. A client told me recently that they had bet I hadn’t had a pretty common (but slightly taboo) experience because I was “so serious.” I held my face together, but inside, I was cracking up. Maybe next time I see that client, I should wear my dinosaur onesie.

I rarely share anything about myself with clients, and when I do, it’s only when it’s therapeutically relevant. So it’s fun to ponder what persona my clients might cobble together out of my haircut, my mannerisms, my dad-jokes, and whatever they can see over video behind me on my kitchen counters.    

Q: Do your clients ever say things that make you cry? 

Once, when I was in my grad school internship, I was doing an assessment for a little girl with severe depression. She was telling me what was going on in her life and she was in so much pain, and she started bawling. I felt my heart lurch and tears well up in my eyes, so I quickly made up some excuse and left the room for a minute so I could compose myself. 

As far as with adults, it hasn’t happened yet, although sometimes people say things that stay with me for a while. I get that I’m not a robot and things touch me, but I would try never to cry in front of a client because I would consider it unprofessional. If it ever happens, though, it happens. I’m human, after all! 

Q: How do you cope with your own feelings about what your clients tell you?

On a good day I meditate to clear my mind at the end of a workday. I also watch a lot of movies. I probably watch a movie every night to clear my mind and decompress. And I exercise to stay emotionally healthy, and have many positive and supportive friendships to lean on. 

Q: Are all your friends therapists? 

Well, some of my friends are therapists!

People have this idea that all therapists are these mystical, enlightened beings, and it’s just not true. Sure, we’ve probably worked on ourselves more than most people, but at the end of the day we’re just people and we have our own issues. Like any other profession, some of us are great, and some of us are jerks. 

For example, a woman I went to grad school with was a Trump supporter and was openly racist and transphobic; she was going to be a counselor in juvenile detention, where (unfortunately) she would work with plenty of black and brown minors and her prejudices would undoubtedly impact their lives. And then, there are plenty of therapists who follow the trends and use all the right keywords like integrity and social justice, but those ideals don’t carry over into their personal or professional lives outside of trying to get new clients. So, several of my friends are therapists; but I’m not friends with them because they’re therapists, I’m friends with them because they’re good people! Their being therapists is just a bonus!

Q: What do you think your clients get out of therapy?

Well, that’s different for everyone! However, the purpose of therapy is to deepen the conversation and explore parts of ourselves that we normally don’t have the opportunity to explore, or don’t have access to. So at a minimum, they’re getting that. 

They’re also getting their own personal cheerleader and wise old man in the mountain, someone who’s in their corner and their’s alone, supporting them while they work things out. A therapist holds up a mirror to a client to point them to the answers they have within themselves; we’re not really here to give advice (although we sometimes help problem-solve, and provide psychoeducation and skill-building). 

Therapy can be a very freeing experience for clients, who can be themselves with their therapist, however “themselves” shows up that day– they can let it all hang out. Whether it’s bitchy or petty, self-loathing, miserable, in tears, a mess– the parts they’re afraid to show others. And the good stuff too, that also gets hidden! It’s remarkable how many people shy away from owning all of the amazing stuff they’re up to!

Q: What are your plans once you’re licensed? 

I plan to start a worker owned therapist co-op with other like-minded therapists. I believe that one of the surest ways to create lasting satisfaction in life is to live in alignment with one’s values, and for me, that means being neither exploited, nor exploiting others. Plus, it’s easy to see that the capitalist model of doing business has failed miserably, and thrust billions into poverty while managing to bring the earth to the brink of destruction in only 200 years. The only way to sustain life on this planet is to move into cooperative rather than competitive and exploitative business practices. It’s also the only way to avoid creating a world that only works for the top 100 ultra-wealthy and is a dystopian hellscape for everyone else. What I mean is, a factory that’s owned by workers in the community isn’t going to poison it’s own water supply, cheat themselves out of their own earnings, or send their own jobs overseas. There are actually hundreds of worker owned co-ops in this country already– big names like Ocean Spray– but few people know about them. 

Basically, I want to throw my hat into the ring in my bid to help save humanity and the planet. Every time you have a boss– every time— they are exploiting you for profit, and co-ops are a way to minimize this. I really feel that we diminish our own humanity whenever we degrade other human beings through exploitation. The research actually bears this out, in terms of studies that show that 1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths. But people used to think that psychopaths were born and just rise to those positions through their innate callous disregard for others, while new research suggests that psychopathic CEOs are actually made through the decisions they make in their pursuit of capital. Author Danny Katch puts this beautifully: “The citizens of the world would not be people but capital, a parasite that uses humanity as a host body to multiply itself even as it weakens our own natural instincts for love, compassion, and possibly even self-preservation.” Even in this industry, I’ve seen things that are pretty far outside my own moral code. Like, why would you even want a job in this field if you were going to treat people like that anyway? Why not just work in investment real estate on Wall Street, kicking old women out of their homes? 

Like the other therapists at Your Healing Begins Here, I’m a People Over Profit person, but there are plenty of therapists who just see this as a business opportunity, with Profit first and People way down on that list somewhere. That way of thinking is literally killing us slowly, like a vine choking a sapling, getting tighter every year. Those people are dinosaurs, and the future– if there is to be a future— is anti-capitalist. And of course, after starting a co-op, the next step is to pay it forward. I’d like to become a supervisor so that I can mentor other like-minded young therapists who also want to take a stab at saving the world!