Hardest Part of Being a Therapist (“7 Questions Project”)

Being a therapist: what’s it really like?

Several years ago psychologist Ryan Howes conducted The Seven Questions Project in which he asked “big names in the world of psychotherapy” a series of pertinent questions. Although not everyone answered his request to participate, the ones who did were thoughtful in their responses.

When I recently found his series of Psychology Today blog posts about this and reviewed his queries, the one I found most interesting was the fifth: What’s the toughest part of being a therapist? (For the others, click on the link provided above.) And then I read Howes’s own conclusion regarding the project, which included the following:

“Best Question: I thought it would be questions one, four or seven, but question five (the toughest part of being a therapist) turned out to be the most revealing.”

Below are selected excerpts of some of the therapists’ answers to this specific question.

Thomas Szasz (1920-2012)

Individual psychotherapy — that is, engaging a distressed fellow human in a disciplined conversation and human relationship – requires that the therapist have the proper temperament and philosophy of life for such work. By that I mean that the therapist must be patient, modest, and a perceptive listener, rather than a talker and advice-giver…

Even if the foregoing conditions are satisfied, the therapist’s task may not be easy or enviable, as he may be required to be passive in the face of the client’s self-destructive behavior and tolerate the client’s choosing to stick to his familiar, self-limiting life strategies and not risk entering on the path of liberation.

Harriet Lerner

The toughest part of being a therapist is that you constantly run up against your limitations.

Jeffrey Barnett 

One major challenge of being a psychotherapist is to pay attention to our own functioning, monitor our effectiveness, and to practice ongoing self-care…Just like our clients we must deal with life’s challenges and stresses.

Nada Stotland

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of doing psychotherapy is listening to and absorbing patients’ psychic pain.

Irvin Yalom

Well, I think it’s just holding so much pain at times. Worrying about my patients. Seeing some people that I really can’t help, who in some ways are beyond help. Or seeing a sociopath knowing I can’t really do anything for him or can’t reach him. Or watching some people who are throwing their lives away on drugs and there’s so little you can do about it.

James H. Bray

Not taking client’s problems home with you. Many people come for psychotherapy with significant emotional distress and pain. It is important to leave that with the client and not take it home with you.

John Gray

…Whenever I even start to notice a sense of frustration within myself I recognize that I’m not giving a very good message to my client. Whenever you’re frustrated with someone you’re telling them, “you’re not enough, you’re not doing it right, you’re not living up to my expectations.” That’s not helping the client, it’s not helping yourself.

Glen O. Gabbard

The toughest part of being a therapist is being truly “present” with the patient. The demands placed on a therapist in a typical day of psychotherapy are truly extraordinary. The therapist must be present in a way that allows the patient to feel heard, validated, and understood.

Donald Meichenbaum

The toughest part of being a therapist is how NOT to get caught up with all of the questionable psychotherapeutic “BULLSHIT” that pervades the field.

David D. Burns  

…Learning to accept failure on multiple levels is, to my way of thinking, the key to become a world-class therapist. But that means humility, and setting your ego aside, while you develop superb new technical skills.

One thought on “Hardest Part of Being a Therapist (“7 Questions Project”)

  1. I can see how emotional pain would be a real issue for a mental health pro. There are a lot of distressed people out there. I think I might look for someone to talk to just because I’ve been stressed out lately.

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