Some of my favorite questions I get from readers are from fellow social workers or soon-to-be therapists. So when a reader recently requested a post on the best advice for people who are in school to become a therapist, I was super pumped. I graduated with my Masters in Social Work in 2008, so needless to say, it’s been a while since I found myself in a classroom setting, dreaming big dreams about how I’d be changing the world someday as a therapist (nerdy, but true!).
I have learned a TON of valuable lessons over the last 11 years, working in various clinical settings such as schools, hospitals, hospice, and finally, my private practice. As such, I am more than happy to share my top five tips for future therapists (as well as a few stories from my early years as a social worker, if you’ll indulge me). These are the lessons I wish I could have asked someone about, or at least had the foresight to ask about when I was still a graduate student with a shiny new laptop and that starry new social work student look in my eyes. If you happen to find yourself in a similar situation (or, even if you don’t!), I hope these lessons, not learned within the walls of a classroom, will serve you well.
1. Learn how to leave work at work
You may have a professor or two touch on this topic, as I did, but looking back, I wish more time had been spent teaching us what exactly to do to leave work at work. Largely, I had to figure this one out for myself. In my first internship as an MSW student, I worked at an alternative high school, where I prided myself on my ability to connect with the students and get them to open up to me. We talked about music (I still knew what was cool back then), and parents, and partying…and I had no trouble whatsoever leaving the workday at work.
My second year internship was at a bereavement center, and I spent my days counseling young widows, survivors of suicide, and even murder. Needless to say, my heart was shattered pretty regularly and at one point, I found myself holding back tears during a session and feeling panic start to rise as a mother screamed and cried about her murdered son. Thankfully, I was merely observing this session and my advisor was doing the counseling. Afterwards, we debriefed in her office and I said, “I honestly wouldn’t have known what to say…and I really don’t know if this is something I’ll ever be able to do.”
She looked me square in the eye and said, “Well you can’t save someone if you’re drowning too, so you’d better figure it out.”
Afterwards, I went back into the office I shared with two other grad students to ponder her words. I remember putting on a playlist of some soothing, happy music. I began to write my note about the session. I felt the tears spring back up to my eyes.
Discouraged and anxious, I somehow made it through the rest of the day. I thought maybe I would feel better if I talked to my husband about it. But then something happened on the way home…I had put on more happy music and had this thought: I know I’m supposed to be a therapist.
I knew it with everything in me; I was sure that was my calling. So if that was the case, then that meant I DID have what it takes, and I COULD learn how to leave work at work. And I made the decision to start that very day.
I belted out the words to every song that came on and when I arrived at home, I took my time getting out of the car.
Here, I thought. Here is where I’m leaving what I heard and saw today. It’s not coming in the house with me.
It helped me to actually visualize leaving the tears, the panic, the poor mother right there at the car door. And that’s exactly what I did.
That evening, as I had dinner with my husband, I was surprised (shocked, actually) to discover how much I didn’t think about what had transpired earlier that day. We talked, and laughed, and enjoyed our evening together – probably watching America’s Funniest Home Videos or Jeopardy! because we were cool like that before we had kids.
The next day, I went back to my internship and happily told my advisor that I figured out how to preserve myself so I wouldn’t find myself drowning alongside the people I was trying to help.
The moral of this story? Figure out what YOU need to do to leave work at work, or at the very least, don’t bring it into your home with you. Music was a big part of what helped me, and I found myself creating playlists (ok, back then it was mostly burned CDs) entitled “Happy Mix” or “Joyful Songs,” and yes, even, “The Way Home From Work Mix.” Before you enter your house (or maybe even before you leave work), visualize yourself leaving everything about your day at work, or next to your car, or wherever works for you.
I used to think if I could put those tragic stories away for the day, it meant I didn’t really care, or I was cold or unfeeling. Now I know that I wouldn’t have lasted a year in the field had I not learned how to compartmentalize. In my opinion, it’s the most important thing I’ve learned as a social worker to date.
2. Find your own style and OWN it
This is another biggie. I’m a talker and extrovert by nature, so when I was told by my grad school professors that you aren’t supposed to tell your clients really anything about you, I scratched my head. That didn’t make sense to me. If I was going to therapy, I would want to know at least SOME things about the person I was talking to. Should it really be a completely one-sided relationship, wherein the client did most or all of the talking and I merely nodded and reflected back to them?
I searched in textbooks and found pretty much the same advice. Advice like: deflect any questions they ask about you – or answer their question with a question like, “why is it important to you to know how old I am?”
That just seemed SO unnatural to me. And so…I didn’t listen.
When I provide therapy for someone, I want to show up as authentically as possible – I want to be me.
As such, I share some personal anecdotes and laughs with my clients as often as I’m listening to them and providing guidance. Because that’s what I would want from a therapist – someone who is just a human being, who can relate on some level to what I’m saying and make me feel like it’s all going to be ok. And someone who can converse like an actual human, not a robot who says the same thing back to a person over and over again. No offense to Carl Rogers.
The point is, everyone is unique and has their own style, their own voice. Find yours, and don’t be afraid to own it.
Related: Why I Love Solution-Focused Therapy
3. Dedicate yourself to continuing education
As a therapist, you will have to have a certain number of continuing education hours per year to keep your license current. My advice is this: choose your CEUs wisely and never stop learning. You chose this field, in part, because the work fascinates you. Let it always fascinate you. There is always more to learn, and you will serve your clients best by dedicating yourself to ongoing clinical education.
4. Practice regular self-care!!
Ohhh, if I could go back and tell my graduate student/new therapist self one thing, it would be this. We have to model health and prioritizing self-care for our clients. We have to model it for our families and friends. We have to practice what we preach. Honestly, that’s why I started this blog in the first place – to further let it sink into my rather thick skull that the stuff I tell my clients week in and week out is actually based on science and perhaps I should be living it out a little more in my own life. So should you. If you’re looking for an easy way to plan your self-care (i.e. to make SURE that it happens), feel free to download my Weekly self-care planner.
5. It’s ok that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea
In our line of work (and as a recovering people-pleaser), it can be a struggle to know that as a therapist, I won’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea. I always tell clients to make sure they feel they connect with me or I probably won’t be able to help them much.
“If you don’t feel I’m a good fit, you should definitely see someone else,” I tell them. And I really mean it. After all, there are a million therapist fish in the sea!
For my part, I can tell you that there’s no better feeling than truly connecting with a client and using that connection to guide and validate them so they feel seen, heard, and understood. And if I’m being honest, that’s my specialty…connection.
But I don’t take it personally if someone decides I’m not a good fit for them – and you don’t need to either.
You won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Neither will I. But those people you come home to at the end of the workday? You’re their whole enchilada!
Best of luck to you, current and future therapists. You really are a world-changer, and I’m in your corner always.