When I was driven more by a sense of obligation rather than personal fulfillment, I knew being a therapist was not for me as an introvert.
Content warning: This article contains mentions of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and intimate partner violence.
I remember doing an assignment for a career planning class in high school. We were supposed to pick a job we wanted to pursue and interview someone in the field. I didn’t have to think twice about my answer: therapist, of course.
Even before then, in eighth grade, I would often accompany friends to see the school counselor when they were struggling with their mental health. As an introvert who had experienced a traumatic loss myself — my dad had suffered a fatal heart attack when I was seven years old — I could readily empathize with their pain.
Somewhere between dealing with grief and being the trusted confidant of my friends, I started seriously thinking about a career in psychology. I admired the way therapists could help people look inward to better understand their thoughts and feelings, and to overcome significant challenges.
My tendency toward being thoughtful and introspective made it seem like counseling was a natural career fit for me. The reality of practicing therapy, however, didn’t suit my introverted personality. After three-and-a-half years of training, here are four reasons I ended up leaving the profession.
4 Reasons Becoming a Therapist Didn’t Suit My Introverted Personality
1. Making plans didn’t ensure predictability.
Introverts like me are natural planners. It helps us feel calm when we can anticipate roadblocks and plan accordingly. For instance, I enjoy packing for a trip more than actually going on the trip. When someone suggests trying a new restaurant, I always check the menu online beforehand. Few would describe me as someone who “goes with the flow.”
One aspect of therapy where I did thrive was in setting the pace for my sessions. I learned this skill from observing colleagues and supervisors. With my own clients, I would start and end appointments on time. And I would ensure clients had an opportunity to debrief with me after a particularly emotional exchange.
In spite of these efforts, no amount of planning could guarantee a predictable day at the office. A high-stress environment and back-to-back appointments made it hard to sit down and eat lunch. Clients would arrive early or late for their appointments or no-show altogether.
After discussing goals for therapy (i.e., coping with social anxiety) and agreeing upon a treatment plan, some clients would arrive for a follow-up session in a state of crisis. At this point, I needed to switch over to crisis intervention strategies to de-escalate the situation and help them contain their emotions. It was as if their distress was contagious. On the outside, I appeared calm, but on the inside, I felt anxious and helpless, especially when a client’s welfare was at risk.
Sometimes this meant helping clients develop a safety plan in situations involving intimate partner violence, self-harm, or suicidal ideation. Suicidal ideation is a broad term that refers to thoughts of killing oneself, wishing for one’s suffering to end, or being preoccupied with death and suicide. These thoughts can come and go and can vary in intensity. When panic sets in, it’s difficult to think clearly, and this is true for both the client and the therapist.
2. Focusing easily spiraled into overthinking.
Normally, when we’re chatting with a friend or coworker, we pay attention just enough to carry on a conversation. Despite our good intentions, we’re not always hearing what people are actually saying. Instead, we may focus on what we’d like to say in response.
Although introverts like me appear quiet, it doesn’t mean that our minds are quiet, nor does it mean we’re automatically good listeners. Something I didn’t expect — until I started seeing clients — was the level of concentration it required to truly listen and understand someone’s experience. Having to focus for 50 to 60 minutes at a time was cognitively, physically, and emotionally taxing. After seeing three clients in a row, I would get migraines and sore neck muscles.
Something I normally did to help me focus was to take notes. In my training program, however, note-taking during a session was generally discouraged. My supervisors thought that doing so could be distracting for clients and an obstacle to developing a rapport with them. Instead, we would jot down notes after a session.
Another aspect of training I found stressful was watching, transcribing, and analyzing video recordings of my therapy sessions. As an introvert who is prone to overthinking, dissecting my videos frame-by-frame made me even more anxious and acutely aware of everything I said and did. Moreover, I would have to revisit these videos one-on-one with a supervisor or in a small group of colleagues for training purposes.
3. Being empathic didn’t mean I always wanted to talk about feelings.
As an anxious introvert, I readily take on the stress of people around me. Simply walking through a waiting room crowded with college students stressing over finals was enough to tighten the knot in my stomach. Other times, I would step out of my office and see a client throwing up in a garbage can or clutching at a fresh bandage on their wrist after an incident of self-harm.
In witnessing these scenes of anguish and desperation, empathy felt like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, empathy allowed me to connect with my clients in a way that helped them feel understood and less alone in the world. On the other hand, constantly sensing and absorbing their emotions left me drained and overwhelmed.
Our training as therapists taught us to debrief with a colleague or supervisor. After feeling many emotions, I was being encouraged — or even required — to continue talking about emotions. While debriefing was good practice from a professional standpoint, personally, I just wanted to distract myself and not dwell upon these difficult and unsettling experiences.
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4. Seeking genuine connections didn’t mean having intense relationships.
Like other introverts, I crave meaningful conversations vs. small talk and large gatherings. Accordingly, one of the most appealing aspects of working as a therapist was the one-on-one relationships. I liked the idea of being able to form a genuine connection with people.
One of the clinics I worked in offered solution-focused brief therapy. I was drawn to this type of therapy because it involves focusing on the present and coaching clients to find solutions to improve their life. Some client relationships lasted only a few weeks or months. But their relative brevity didn’t take away from the intensity of these relationships.
I encountered clients who wanted to develop a friendship or meet outside clinic hours. Some clients asked me about personal topics — like my age, marital status, dating life, and history of mental illness — which was inappropriate. Even more troubling, others openly expressed suicidal ideation and would no-show without warning. There were times when I found myself metaphorically taking clients home with me and worrying about them while eating dinner.
Another situation that left me spiraling and overthinking was when clients displayed anger, verbal abuse, or misogynistic remarks. I would end up ruminating about these clients and dreading the next time I would have to see them.
What I Learned From Being a Therapist
The image I had of myself as a therapist didn’t align with my introverted personality. There were weeks when I felt so tired and deflated that even my skin would hurt. Another sign that this wasn’t the right job for me was when I would see peers and colleagues after a long day. Unlike me, they seemed energized by their work and displayed a kind of joyfulness that escaped me.
Throughout my time working in clinics, I remained dedicated to my clients and delivering the best care possible. However, I was driven more by a sense of obligation rather than any kind of personal fulfillment.
In the months when my peers were applying for jobs and starting their clinical practices, I felt completely lost. I remember sitting on the couch cuddling my 8-year-old bulldog, who was immunocompromised and had developed a parasitic skin disease. For the first time, I found myself contemplating life without him and a career that didn’t involve me being a therapist. Every major career decision I’d made revolved around my dog and his health. I even completed a practicum placement close to home so I could monitor his symptoms and administer his medication for his skin and thyroid condition.
Career Ambitions That Are Better-Suited to Me
After ending my three-and-a-half years of clinical training, I sought comfort in the routines of getting up and going to school that had long sustained me since my dad had passed away. My university had an option to design our own PhD program. I started in a public health program and was able to incorporate mental health into my research on people and their pets. (Plus, introverts have a very close tie to their pets and animals overall!)
In conducting my PhD research, I once again found a sense of purpose in talking to people and learning about their personal, social, and emotional lives. I relished being able to spend large blocks of time alone with my dog while writing about the significance of the human-animal bond. Writing about human and animal wellness is still something I do now as a freelance writer.
For a long time, I had been focused on a job in search of a career. My current job in research and grant development allows me to use the writing, counseling, and analytical skills I learned while pursuing my PhD. Even now, I don’t have a clear image of what a dream job looks like for me. I’m not sure I ever will. The hardest lesson has been letting go of a singular career path and learning to live with this uncertainty. What I can offer someone who is struggling with burnout — and might be contemplating a career switch — are a few things I learned from two of my trusted mentors: my mom and a career coach.
My mom taught me it’s okay to change my mind, and I don’t have to have everything figured out right now. My career coach taught me a sentence that I often repeat to myself: “I’m a writer who currently works as a research grants facilitator.” My current job title isn’t who I am. I get to decide that. And as my mom emphasized, the “who I am” piece can — and will — change again and again.
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