I wrote last time about how I agonized over the decision to become a psychotherapist because I just couldn’t find a crystal clear sense of certainty about it. I imagined, though, that once I had made the decision and actually started school, then I would know. Then all would be clear.
And of course—you see this coming, don’t you?—that is not how it was.
I loved the whole school experience: the reading, the writing, the discussions, the immersion in the vast and fascinating world of inner experience. The passionate belief that our inner worlds matter. That we can trust our inner figures and voices. That they do not lead us wrong.
At the same time, I had so many questions about actually being a therapist. How would I make enough money? Where would I work? How would I pay for my student loans? How would I ever make the transition from my 20-year technical writing career into being a therapist? And looming even bigger than all those questions: could I truly help people who came to me with real, big problems? What if someone had a problem like <insert imagined catastrophic scenario here> or, even scarier, a problem like <insert an even more catastrophic scenario here>?
I often had the thought that, yes, I was enjoying the coursework, but I was the one in my cohort who couldn’t actually be a therapist. I was the one who didn’t belong.
And yet I still had a fire in my belly for what I was learning and the experience of learning it. I inhaled it. I wallowed in it, like a pig who has found a glorious, cool mud hole on a hot day. It was divine. I adored it, even though I had to juggle it with full-time work and do homework almost every weeknight and weekend. Even though I had to fly to California once a month for two years to attend school. Even though my schoolwork required me to deeply examine all of my own issues through the lens of everything I was learning. Even though I had to write a Masters thesis—an excruciating but rich process! —in the third year.
I loved it.
And I wrestled with uncertainty the whole time.
I struggled with uncertainty so much that I choose it as the topic of my thesis research: therapists’ experiences with uncertainty. I interviewed therapists at length, all of them oriented in depth psychology. And I found that they all experienced uncertainty in their work. Every single one. In fact, they all said it was crucial to embrace it in their work. Most of them said it was hard to do at times but absolutely crucial. To do otherwise, they all agreed, was to lapse into assumptions and shut down possibilities for their clients. So, quite often, their work was to help their clients be more comfortable with uncertainty too.
Finally, all of it started to sink in. My studies were teaching me that I could trust my internal voices. My thesis research was teaching me that I would lose something if gave up this process for the hollow safety of certainty and that, if I just kept going instead, I would find what I needed. This is how I finally learned that the passion I felt for my studies was enough. It was enough to start with. My inner voices, the very voices I was learning to be the guiding light for clients in therapy, were also the guiding light for me as I found my way in this massive career transition. They were saying, Yes! More! That was all I needed to know at that moment. I might not know The Path ahead, but what I was learning felt right. And I could find my way from there.
I had to return to that idea, that sense of rightness, again and again, each time the process of becoming a therapist required me to step into something new and I felt scared:
- Doing practice “therapy” for the very first time with acquaintances and friends and also in front of my classmates
- Working with actual clients for the first time
- Studying for and taking the oral exam for my Masters degree
- Writing my thesis—formulating the idea, setting up and carrying out the research/interview process, reading the existing literature, analyzing the interview material, and finally, shaping all of this into a concrete, coherent, and very long piece of writing
- Studying for and taking the state licensing exam for my intern license
- Seeing my first clients outside of school, as a licensed intern, which didn’t even get to happen first thing because I was… (see below)
- Waiting for clients to contact me—to want to do therapy with me, an intern, not some other therapist in the therapist-saturated city of Austin, which stirred up mountains and oceans of angst and self-doubt
- Waiting for more clients to contact me
- Starting work in a chemical dependency treatment program
At every one of these points, facing yet another challenge and another round of fear caused me to think about going back to my old tech writing career. Sometimes they were mild, passing thoughts: I could go back. Other times, they were frantic or terrified longings for that old, familiar world: I have got to go back, I can’t keep doing this, this is way too hard and scary.
And at every point, I re-chose my new path. Every time, I actively weighed the two careers against each other, and I realized AGAIN that being a therapist lit me up in a way that technical writing never had and never would. Returning to tech writing would only feel good temporarily—it would mean I could stop pushing to make this new thing happen. I could stop doing the hard, scary stuff. But then I knew the reality of tech writing would quickly set in again. And my soul would feel trapped again. And I would have lost—abandoned—the new thing. I knew, I KNEW, I would deeply regret turning back. And so I chose to forge ahead and do the next hard, scary thing. Again.
Sitting on this side of it now, having just received my full counseling license a few weeks ago, I know that I’m glad I kept saying yes to each challenge. That seems obvious, I think, in the way I am writing about this. Less obvious or understandable, perhaps, is that I also know now that my process of becoming a therapist needed to be like this. I needed to be afraid and yet choose to keep going, again and again. That is how I cemented the decision for myself. That is how I knew I wanted it.
It is also how I’ve learned deep down that I can do it—I can walk through scary places and stay upright and emerge, stronger and more deeply rooted, on the other side. It is how I learned that those scary challenges will keep coming. And it is how I finally learned to let myself lean on others.
It is also how I have learned to be with my therapy clients in their scary places and to be a sturdy support for them.
Does this feel familiar to you? Have you pursued a light through the darkness, even though your knees were shaking? Or are you trying to find the courage to do that now? If so, I hope you will share in a comment. The more we share our struggles, the less alone we feel with them.