Why become a psychotherapist?

The answers to this question are complex. No matter how much I write, much will be left unsaid, but I will try to answer the question of "why become a psychotherapist?" in this post.


Ian Felton, psychotherapist
Ian Felton, psychotherapist

The Five Wounds to Heal

The Capacity to Believe

Hamman (2001) writes that those who become therapists try to heal five wounds. The first wound relates to a capacity to believe. According to Hamman, this isn’t a belief in God, per se, but a capacity of belief that allows one to bring one’s entire being into life. In other words, it’s something internal rather than external. I relate this concept to my own struggles against nihilism. The effects of chronic developmental trauma can create intrapsychic conflicts which perpetuate a continuing fight to be present. A larger capacity to believe helps one grow beyond old wounds.


Being a psychotherapist places one in the position of healer, where the focus is on another. In the process of creating optimism for clients, I strengthen my own optimism and capacity to believe. This relates to my philosophical conclusion that if I can conjure something within myself then it exists. In other words, if I truly love, truly have faith, truly am honest, truly am empathetic, then since I am part of the universe, then the universe must also have within it love, faith, honesty, empathy. I don’t have to find these qualities anywhere but within myself to prove that they exist. In other words, I can force the universe to exhibit the virtues I want to believe in when I manifest them within myself. Being a therapist helps one to conjure the emotional elements that counteract despair, meaningless, and the other companions of nihilism.


The Capacity to Imagine

The capacity to imagine means that the therapist can penetrate beyond the physical, subjective world into that place not yet manifest. In Daoism, this would be the Dao, the formless void where all forms come from, the mother of all. This source is inexhaustible, mysterious, and profound.


D.W. Winnicott describes three worlds, the autistic, the illusionistic, and the realistic. The illusionistic world is like the Dao and is the realm the psychotherapist seeks to explore. Unlike the uncontrolled fantasy and omniscient thinking in the autistic world, and the logical, hard, undeniable facts of the realistic world, the world of illusion explores controlled fantasy, inspiration, and symbols. Being a therapist means one can live more in the world Winnicott describes, where there are realities, but ones that live on the fringes of fantasy, possibility, and optimism. The illusionistic world is the wellspring of psychological health. Becoming a psychotherapist means spending more time in this realm and sharing it with others.


The Capacity for Concern

The capacity for concern, according to Hamman, means reconciling the guilt of being a creature that both loves and hates, creates and destroys. As a wounded healer, I’m very aware of my shadow, the source of much of my creative energy in my pursuits. By being a therapist, one can actively integrate the shadow into consciousness, endeavors, and work with clients. By integrating aspects of oneself, we can better help clients stop rejecting parts of themselves. Many times, the parts of ourselves that we reject become the scapegoats for our shame, judgment, and anger. If I block myself from going to these places, I’m limiting my ability to be a guide for others. Only when I accept my capacity for violence, weakness, self-preservation, envy, and so on, can I face and hold the shadow of "the Other." Orange (2011), when quoting Emmanuel Levinas, claims that the face of the Other says one thing: "You shall not kill me." When we don’t integrate our shadow, we limit our capacity for concern, and as a result, we categorize our clients, keep them at a distance, and "kill them."


The Capacity to Be Alone

Fourth, as a therapist, we work on the capacity to be alone. Hamman describes this as the ability to contain ambivalent emotions within oneself—to be a container. Being attuned to my own emotions while containing the emotions of the client will certainly be an epic achievement of maturation. Hamman points out that the capacity to hold erotic feelings is vitally important when seeing clients long-term when there is sexual transference and countertransference. This pursuit of emotional maturity can inspire one to spend as much time working with clients in this capacity as one can without burning-out. This capacity must be developed while also maintaining awareness of possible therapist impairment. If we're emotionally drained, no matter the level of experience, it's much easier to slip into states of emotional attachment with client feelings and needs rather than manifesting the capacity to be alone. I hear of full-time therapists with 30+ clients a week and I wonder how well they can be doing.

The Capacity of Object Usage

The final capacity that Hamman describes as motivation for those who become therapists is the capacity of object usage. Hamman describes Winnicott’s views on object usage as being pivotal in establishing the feeling of being real, of being able to enter relationships with clients and objects. If the psychotherapist doesn’t develop the capacity of object usage "the therapist may use the defenses of splitting, projection, and projective identification to manipulate relationships, whether they are personal, professional, or spiritual." It’s easy for me to see how much I used to fumble through relationships as a result of not having fully developed the capacity of using myself as a relational object. By becoming psychotherapists, we can realize immense developmental gains by exercising this capacity on life's journey.

Realness

By developing these capacities, the therapist attempts to manifest realness. "Realness is not possible without the capacity to believe, the formation of a creative imagination, experiencing reparation in one’s own person and in one’s key relationships where one does not try to manipulate the other person," writes Hamman. This is something many who want to become psychotherapists should truly want. This search for realness can be a selfish reason for becoming a psychotherapist.

I will never forget the fact that what people need the most can be found in what I learned in a basic counseling skills class. People have feelings and needs and it’s my job to explore them with the client in a safe space, where I hold their emotions. Psychotherapists will walk this unique journey with each client. We have to try not to muddy the path with maps that only worked in a certain territory, a territory that we're not currently in with the client. As much as our Western society wants to control and predict everything, life is still uncontrollable and unpredictable. When life is experienced as uncontrollable and unpredictable by us all, doesn’t it just hurt clients even more when we promise that will all change once we get through the manual or when the model says we are finished? Life is circular and rhythmic. I believe my therapy should also be circular and rhythmic. It’s my job to be soft and centered with the client and to stay in touch with these rhythms coming from the client. If I do that, and do no harm, I just might succeed as I continue to grow as a psychotherapist who is becoming more and more real each day.


Why become a psychotherapist references


Hamman, J. J. (2001). The search to be real: why psychotherapists become therapists. Journal Of Religion And Health, 40(3), 343-357.


Orange, D. M. (2011). The Suffering Stranger. New York, NY: Routledge.

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