Have you ever considered a career as a therapist? In this interview, a female marriage and family counselor shares how her anger about the destruction caused by HIV/AIDS in the lives of her friends drove her to volunteer, and eventually pursue a professional career in the field of counseling as a psychotherapist.
Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
A: I am a Marriage & Family Therapist/mental health counselor and work in social services. I have been working in the field of social services for 10 years at this point. I would describe myself as passionate, nurturing, and thoughtful.
Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?
A: I am white and Native American (Cherokee). In some respects being bi-racial has helped me understand some of the challenges that are faced by people of color, as well as the importance of seeing people as simply being humans. Being of Native American descent also helped me with educational opportunities. Since I have a graduate education, educational assistance was easily available to me. Without it, I do not know that I would have been able to afford school.
However, since I do not look Native American, it has been difficult at times to walk within both worlds. I have experienced discrimination within the Cherokee community at times, oddly enough, because I do not “look Native American enough,” for some people. For me, the best way of dealing with discrimination has been to try and educate people about Cherokee history and simply be who I am as a person.
As a woman, I have found that working within social services is relatively accessible. The most difficulty I have experienced was when I was doing internship hours in a jail system. Working with males with violent offenses was difficult from many perspectives: it was necessary for me to hold boundaries and be direct with them; I was often placed in a position where I could potentially be injured; and sometimes had to hear difficult stories from my jailhouse clients. It was also challenging to be female working in a jail system in which my particular skills as a psychotherapist were not valued by the correctional and parole officers with whom I worked.
Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
A: At this point in my career, I work primarily with women clients. I conduct individual counseling sessions with women or their partners. I help my clients answer questions about themselves, and find ways to develop better coping skills for the challenges they face. I also work closely with other related professionals, such as doctors and psychiatrists, consulting them about medications or potential organic or physical problems that may account for a client’s symptoms.
I think that one of the most common misconceptions about being a therapist is that the therapist tells a client what to do and solves their problems for them. In reality, the therapist mostly listens and provides a space for the client to come to their own answers. The process of therapy is one of having a safe space to explore your own thoughts and feelings.
The work of the therapist is not always easy. It is not just simply listening – there is a strategic thought process that happens behind every comment and every question the therapist poses. While it may not look like I am doing anything more than listening, in the back of my mind I am thinking of previous sessions, information that I know from the client’s history, observing facial expressions and body movements, looking for patterns of behaviors, considering the content of what the client is saying, looking for subconscious meanings and a whole plethora of other actions. Before I ask any question or make any comment, I also am asking myself if the comment is about my own idle curiosity or if it will help the client move forward to a realization or better understanding of themselves.
Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
A: I would rate my job satisfaction as an 8 out of 10. I love what I do and I am good at it. Its is very satisfying to me to be able to help people conquer the challenges they face in their lives. The primary thing I think I would change is the related paperwork involved with being a therapist. Unfortunately, if you choose to work with insurance companies, you end up doing a great deal of paperwork and spend a great deal of time writing reports. This cuts into the actual time I could be spending working with clients.
Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
A: I love what I do and am passionate about it. For me being a therapist is about being a conduit to help clients better their lives. All my life this is what I have done and I get to be paid for the pleasure of nurturing and helping someone. At times it can be painful. One of the things you have to learn is how to have internal boundaries and recognize that a client’s problem or issue is not your own. For many new therapists this is a hard thing to learn. For me, being a therapist is definitely a calling. I know in my heart it is what I am supposed to do in life.
Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
A: I think for me being a therapist is about bringing my life experiences and natural talents and abilities into play to help others. With each challenge that I face of my own, it deepens my compassion and ability to help my clients. I have found that there are themes that occur in my own life that are reflected by the clients that come to me. I decided to become a therapist in my late 20s and put myself through school on my own. I had adult responsibilities and obligations, but my passion and determination made it possible for me to remain focused on my goals and earn two graduate degrees.
Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
A: I actually got started in this line of work because I got angry. I had two friends die of AIDS in the 1980s and became very angry at how they were treated. It pushed me into doing volunteer work at the local AIDS community organization. I very quickly went from bagging groceries to training to become a peer counselor. After peer counseling for a couple of years, it was suggested to me that I should be a professional therapist and actually get paid for what I was good at. If I had to do it over again, I think I would take the same path. I came into the professional with a good understanding of what I was going to be doing and what the job would entail.
Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
A: I learned the hard way that working in social services as a therapist can be dramatically impacted by governmental budgets. Unfortunately, in our society, many social services are not valued and when budgets get tight and are being cut, social services are often the first to be cut or eliminated.
In my case, I was working as an AIDS educator and test counselor when the state budget was cut and funds for our program were eliminated completely. In my opinion, the services we were providing were for the benefit of public health and not a luxury. As the issue of HIV/AIDS has fallen from the public eye, so has the perceived need for such programs.
Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
A: The most important thing I have learned is that theory is a great deal different from practical experience. When you are training to do something like be a therapist, you take many courses on the theory of how to work with clients. The reality is that you do what you need to do to help the client, despite the theory behind why you are doing what you are doing.
Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
A: Sometimes the stories clients bring me are strange and different. I have had to learn how to mask my own personal reactions and perfected the skill of looking neutral, even if what the client is telling me is something that strikes my funny bone or turns my stomach.
Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
A: I get up and go to work each day because I love what I do and I know that I am making a difference in someone’s life. At one point I was working at a juvenile hall facility and working on the girls’ ward. We had a young girl who had been traumatized try to hurt herself severely by cutting up her arms with a staple she had found. I was able to take charge of the situation and help get her to a medical facility where she could get better treatment than we had available at a correctional facility. What made me feel good about this was that although this was clearly a young girl in desperate trouble, I was able to help her get out of a correctional facility and into a mental health facility where she could get more appropriate treatment. It was only my skill and knowledge that allowed that to happen.
Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?
A: Probably the hardest cases for me involve children, especially if there is abuse involved. We have a system for working with child abuse, but it is a flawed system. Sometimes it is disheartening to realize that it is simply not possible to eliminate this problem from our society.
Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
A: The job can definitely be stressful at times. In large part, it depends on how many clients I am carrying, and how difficult the issues are for the client. One of the keys to finding balance for me is to limit how many difficult client cases I take on at a time. One of the things I was taught early in my career is that self care is extremely important, so I make an effort to not bring my work home with me and have interests outside of work. I have a very good support system around me and do not think about work when I am at home if I am able to avoid it.
Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
A: The salary range is so very dependent on what aspect of social services you work in. When I worked for a county at juvenile hall, I made approximately $50,000 per year. When I moved into private practice, my income went up substantially, but I also took on having to market myself to gain clients and all of the business overhead that comes with running and owning my own business.
For me, I am making enough, but I also did not go into this career expecting to become wealthy or make a great deal of money.
Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
A: I take two, two-week vacations a year and a week off at the end of the year between holidays. I would like to be able to take more vacation time off, but it is difficult to leave clients for extended or frequent amounts of time.
Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
A: At a minimum, you need a Master’s degree in counseling or clinical psychology or social work. If you have additional post graduate education or a Doctorate-level degree you will go farther in this field.
Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
A: I would tell a friend to make sure they are able to handle it emotionally. Sadly, many very good therapists become burned out after a few years because they are not able to emotionally disconnect from their clients’ problems.
Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
A: I would be lecturing and writing about women and women’s issues and still seeing clients.