Are You Called to be a Therapist?

People experience their calling to become psychotherapists in a variety of ways. This article presents several examples and then looks at some important components in the professional development of psychotherapists.

Some people know at a young age that they want to become a psychotherapist. Perhaps they observed someone conducting therapy and found it fascinating and inspiring. Maybe they were attracted by the idea of helping people or were just naturally curious about the psyche, why people behave the way they do, the meaning of dreams, etc.

Sometimes people experience the calling to become a psychotherapist during the course of their own therapy for a psychological issue such as depression or anxiety. In every society certain individuals are called to see beneath and beyond the surface of ordinary life and conventional perspectives. Their illness, which may be experienced as a wounding, serves as an initiation to a another world–the world of the unconscious psyche, of symbols, transformation, and healing. Their psychic and emotional wounds are their teachers, inviting them to become healers. This is the significance of the story of the “wounded healer.” To paraphrase Jung, it is the healer’s own hurt that gives the measure of his power to heal.

Sometimes people receive their calling partly through their dreams. A college student dreamed of a woman’s name with which he was unfamiliar. The dream indicated that she worked at a nearby university. Curious, he contacted her and found that she was a professor in the Counseling Department. Although his bachelors degree was in no way connected to psychology, he took the dream as a sign and decided to enroll in this university’s counseling program. His leap of faith turned out to be a wise decision, guiding him to a fulfilling career as a psychologist.

Another dream comes from a woman who had a life-long interest in psychology and spirituality but never pursued any formal education or career in psychotherapy until she had the following dream on her 71st birthday. “I am a priestess in a temple. I am wearing a long, flowing garment, scarlet in color. I also have a headdress. People bring me important objects and artifacts, and I help them to understand what they are and what they mean. Strangely, I am able to walk on the interior walls of the temple room in apparent defiance of gravity. About 15 feet above the floor, I can clearly see all of the people in the room.”

To be a priest is, symbolically, to be a messenger between God and man. From a depth psychology perspective it represents someone who helps people develop a living relationship with their unconscious, the soul, and their spiritual core. The artifacts which people bring her are precious aspects of their psyche with which they seek relationship. Her ability to walk on the walls and see people from above may symbolize that she is able to perceive people from a spiritual perspective while still remaining connected to the earth.

Certain people find their calling through the sometimes strange proddings of their intuition. A 19 year-old soldier felt an urge to go to the army base library. He did so, eventually following his inner voice to a particular bookshelf.  Reaching up he removed a book by an author he had never heard of. The book was a collection of Carl Jung’s writing on dreams. Intrigued, he started reading but could not make heads or tails out of Jung’s interpretations. Nonetheless, the experience stuck with him. After his tour of duty he pursued an education in psychology, eventually becoming a Jungian psychologist.

Although the birth of psychotherapy is often associated with Sigmund Freud’s development of psychoanalysis, its deepest roots may actually be traced many centuries earlier to what the Christian church called “the cure of souls.” The cure (or care) of souls describes the process through which a pastor would attend to the soul needs of his parishioners for the sake of healing, development, and relationship with God. This earlier origin is reflected in the etymology of the word psychotherapy for “psyche” is the Greek word for soul.

Over the years, psychology has progressively distanced itself from the cure of souls perspective. As the field has become increasingly medical and mechanistic in its outlook, the term soul is rarely used. In mainstream psychology, the psyche is increasingly associated with the mind, the brain, neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, and genetics. Coincident with this ideological shift has been the gradual transition of psychotherapists from the role of healer to that of a trained technician implementing “evidence-based” (usually cognitive and behavioral) treatments.

If you have thoughts of becoming a psychotherapist, or if you are in the process of becoming one, it is important to be aware of the worldview that increasingly dominates the fields of psychology and social work. Ironically, your formal education may pose the greatest threat to your love and enthusiasm for the practice of psychotherapy. Although there are exceptions, over the past twenty to thirty years most graduate psychology and social work programs have become infatuated with the medical model of the psyche and research. Persons drawn to the field with a sensitivity for the depth and wonder of the psyche, who sense the reality of the unconscious, or who seek to become healers at the most human, heart and soul-based level should approach their formal education with a discerning spirit. Perhaps especially at the bachelors and masters level, the education of aspiring psychotherapists should provide an objective and broad-based examination of the major personality theories of the past 120 years. Examining or emphasizing only more recent, establishment-approved approaches yields not only a limited awareness of psychological theory and history, but, more importantly, a very truncated and distorted picture of the psyche, therapy, and what it means to be a human being. Refined focus on a particular area of psychotherapy may occur at the doctoral level, when the student is better position to make a more educated, objective decision.

Perhaps the most important component of your development as a psychotherapist involves something that will not even be required of you in school or by a state licensing board. This is your investment in your own psychotherapy. Although several years of individual psychotherapy in the modality of one’s choice was once required by training programs, it is rarely required now. This is a genuine loss to the psychotherapy profession, the practitioner, and the consumer. The notion that a student can complete a psychology or social work training program and, without several years of his or her own psychotherapy, reliably provide quality care of substantial depth is highly doubtful.

Every profession utilizes its own tools and instruments to accomplish its work. In psychotherapy your mind and heart are the tools and instruments of your trade.  Not only is it important to experience in depth the process you will ask of your clients, your therapy will help you to become more conscious of the issues and attitudes within yourself that inevitably impact your work with clients. The better that you know yourself, the greater the insight, understanding, and clarity of perception you bring to bear upon your relationships. As Jung observed, “Every psychotherapist not only has his own method–he himself is that method.”

Undoubtedly the most valuable thing that a therapist can offer a client is an inner attitude of genuine love, caring, honesty, and integrity. The various interventions and techniques you use–no matter how skillfully implemented–are unlikely to sustain a significant therapeutic relationship if these core attributes are not present. Say what we may to our clients, it is what we live that they intuit and ultimately respond to. Do yourself and your clients a favor, become a quality instrument of change.

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