By Esther Mann, LCSW
I remember watching a movie, when I was a teenager, in which a psychotherapist played an important role. She was a special woman who was extremely helpful in changing the lives of the patients who came to see her. She had a wonderful knack for listening carefully to what was being told to her and also for being able to say just the right words that made all the difference.
At the time, my secret fantasy was to become a therapist when I got older. I related to that woman and felt I had what it takes to be a great psychotherapist someday. I never spoke about this to anyone. Maybe because I thought it would always just remain a fantasy. Maybe I wasn’t used to things working out for me and I didn’t really expect this dream to come true either.
As expected, this dream never did work out for me. By age 20 I was married, and by age 21 I had my first child. I walked down the aisle at my wedding before I even got my college diploma. My pregnancy was rough and I had to drop out of school. From that time forward, going back to school was the last thing on my mind. I never had sufficient support with taking care of my children to be able to juggle motherhood and school.
My children are now teenagers and I’m finding that my old fantasy has been returning with a vengeance. I keep thinking about what it would be like to go back to college, get my degree, and then go on to graduate school, so that I could eventually fulfill my dream. I can’t imagine anything right now that would make me happier. I want desperately to help people, but I also believe that I would be so happy spending my time in such a meaningful way.
I have a few serious concerns that have been getting in the way of my taking on this major commitment and change in lifestyle. The first issue is about how old I’ll be by the time I’m finally able to start helping people. So many years in which I should have been productive have already passed me by, during which time I took on silly little jobs here and there, that were neither interesting nor fulfilling. Just jobs to make a few extra dollars. When I think about what my age will be by the time I would get started, it seems almost ridiculous. I missed the best years of my life in terms of being a productive member of the working world.
But that’s not even my real concern. The real problem is that my own life is such a mess. Besides the fact that I grew up in a nutty family, I used little wisdom when it came to picking a husband. I’ve stayed in this creepy marriage all these years. If that were not bad enough, three of my four children have been challenging to me. I know that many of their issues have to do with the genes they were born with. It’s obvious to see the links between them and other members of our extended family. Nevertheless, I always feel as though there should have been a better way to raise them. That I missed something and that, had I been more aware, I might have “fixed” them.
I ask myself, “Who would want me to be their therapist? Who would believe in my ability to help them fix their own lives, if I can’t even fix my own life?” It makes me feel like a phony or a hypocrite. Like I’m trying to sell something that doesn’t work for me. This thought process is what is really standing in my way more than anything else. I’m having a hard time getting over this hurdle.
What are your thoughts on this? Does it make me a hypocrite if I were to someday call myself a therapist while my own life is in a shambles? Do you think that I have to first focus my energy on my own issues before I take on strangers? How do I get over my insecurities that are holding me back?
What a great letter and specifically a great question, as it touches on several subject matters that are dear to my heart.
First, I’d like to address the easy stuff—how old you will be when you are finally able to set up shop as a therapist. You did not mention exactly what that off-putting age would be upon receiving both your B.A. and master’s degree. Based on the little I know about you, I would guess that age would be somewhere in your fifties, or maybe even younger. G‑d willing, you will reach that age whether or not you go back to school. Wouldn’t it be a lot more exciting to reach that age with a diploma or two in your hands? It’s never too late to accomplish and expand your horizons.
Furthermore, we are not talking about a career that values youth above life experience. If you said you wanted to become a fashion model, I would certainly agree that you missed the boat on that one. However, the profession you are interested in applauds the mature individual whose well-earned wisdom enables them to identify their signature strengths, which ultimately are used to recraft their own lives and subsequently can be tapped into and used as catalysts for helping others. Therefore, I would view your age as a positive and, if used wisely, even as an advantage. Not to say that a younger therapist can’t be excellent, but there is something to be said for walking the walk and personally working through challenges within one’s own life, which often establishes a deeper level of insight that is not always so easy to teach in a classroom or express in a book.
Regarding your insecurities toward the state of your personal relationships within your family and the very essence of the life you have created for yourself, I would like to make three important comments. Firstly, I think it would do you a tremendous amount of good to get yourself into therapy before you do anything further. Besides getting a better handle on what ails you, and gaining insights and proper tools that will allow you to change your life for the better, it’s helpful for therapists to have gone through the process themselves, in order to be the best therapists they can be someday. For a therapist to feel and know, firsthand, what it’s like to be on the sharing end of the therapeutic alliance, an added layer of awareness is incorporated into the work.
Secondly, empathy is definitely one of the most important tools that therapists make use of to help their patients. A therapist doesn’t have to have personally experienced every issue that is presented in a session. However, the therapist who has crawled through the fire and come out the other end is uniquely qualified to have a deep understanding of the struggles their patients bring to them in a very personal way.
Which leads me to my third point. Healers don’t have to be completely whole in order to do wonderful work. That would be an unrealistic expectation both from patients and from therapists themselves. If, like the woman from the movie whom you were so mesmerized by years ago, you have a gift for listening and truly hearing what another person has to say, and you have a knack for seeing people deeply, kindly, and with total compassion, and you have the gift of connecting with others, then living a perfect life is not relevant to the work. I will take a risk and suggest that a perfect life (if there even is such a thing) can get in the way of doing really exceptional work.
For all of these reasons, I encourage you to embrace the idea of joining the world of the walking wounded who, despite their trials and tribulations, have made a career of reaching out to others by attaching themselves to a healing profession. This is definitely one dream that can come true if you believe you are deserving and are willing to do the work.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.