My supervisor doubted whether I should be a therapist!

“Dear Jon, My past supervisor doubted whether I should do therapy. Now as I begin a new placement, I doubt myself and I’m afraid of how I will make mistakes and that I will become anxious with patients. What if I stutter to death? What if I mess up?”
All of us have had doubters in our lives. Their opinions mattered to us. I have had doubters in the past say that I had “shit for brains” and that I was a “dumb shit”. I had a music teacher who said that I sounded “like hogs rooting in the mud in a barnyard in Iowa.” Doubters doubt all of us.
Even though they are gone, we can always bring them and their opinions into the room to torture us. We can always misuse our memories for the purpose of self-punishment. This will be true no matter how much further training you or any trainee seeks. Let’s face it: you have decided to break the law of the doubters and discover your potential instead. When we break their law, our anger rises. When our anger rises, we might protect them by continuing to doubt ourselves, punishing ourselves for having broken their law. But we must leave their prison if we are to become free.
When you start seeing patients, your anger will rise toward previous doubters. You may protect those doubters by letting the anger go back onto you in the form of self-doubt. That will probably happen for a while. You will not always know what to do (like all therapists at all stages). And at those moments, you might punish yourself for not knowing what to do (the failure to be omniscient). You might stutter with your first patients. That will be a sign that you are anxious in front of your former therapist, when in front of you will be a patient even more anxious than you are! And for some patients your anxiety will be a relief: “Oh. Thank heavens. My therapist knows what it is like to be anxious. She will understand me because she is a suffering human too!”
Now, as for stuttering to death, what will die? You? No. What will die will be a perfect image, an image of a supremely calm figure, an image without flaws, an image that is omniscient, an image that every mind creates but no one has ever become. As you begin to treat humans in therapy, you will begin to accept yourself as a human, someone who gets nervous, who hates herself at times, who can have irrational ideas, who stutters, who….you name it.
Patients don’t need ideal therapists; they need real people. They need you: your compassion, your understanding as a fellow sufferer, another imperfect person who messes up—your humility. If we needed to be “cured” before doing therapy, no one would be able to do therapy. The more you embrace your flaws, your neurosis, and your humanity, the more you will be able to embrace the flaws, neurosis, and humanity of your patients. They don’t need you to be ideal; they need you to be real. They don’t need someone who sits up above them on some throne; they need someone who can sit next to them on the ground.
You worry you will mess up. I guarantee it! I have messed up many times. I still do. And I am sure I will mess up in the future. In life, we mess up. We mess up in friendships, in love, and in therapy. That’s what we humans do. And through our mistakes, we learn, we apologize, and we try again. There is no other way. We don’t become perfect and then magically go through life handling everything just fine. We make mistakes, learn, make more mistakes, learn, and repeat the cycle. That’s how we learn: through living.
You worry you will mess yourself up. I guarantee that too! Therapy messes us up. We get stirred up. And that’s also how we learn: through living. But, to be clear, we don’t get messed up in therapy. Our illusions get messed up. When emotions and the truth mess up our illusions, we might think we are getting messed up, when our former illusions, ideas, and lies are getting messed up. And, as a result of this messy experience, we grow. This happens repeatedly through the life cycle of therapists. Countless times I have been overwhelmed with some feelings, some puzzling experience, some mess with a patient. And over time, by living through it, I learn something more deeply about myself and my patients or my supervisees.
So I invite you to join the rank of humans who do therapy: people who don’t always know what to do, people who make messes and learn from them, people who get messed up by these experiences, people who get scared: therapists.
Thanks for sharing your concerns about being human,






3 responses to “My supervisor doubted whether I should be a therapist!”

  1. Shirley Avatar

    Hi John, I’m an early career psychologist and have really enjoyed reading your written material and watching your videos. What you have written about here – what it means to be human and real is so touching and I can tell that it comes from a place of sincerity, lived experience and generosity. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with clinicians and humans such as myself! ISTDP really speaks to me as a powerful means of making contact with real parts of the self. I also love that it upholds a respect and hope for the person’s highest capacity for living. I hope to have more opportunities in future to engage in training and development in ISTDP.

    1. istdpadmin Avatar

      I’m so glad you found this useful! I. hope you will have a chance to read my book, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, since it will give you a deeper sense of what therapy can be.

      1. Shirley Avatar

        Hi Jon,

        Yes I have been reading Co-Creating Change. The Lies We Tell Ourselves is up next!


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