Dear Life Matters,
I am wondering what it takes to become a psychologist.
My friends all tell me that I should be one. I am currently taking some psychology and sociology classes at Santa Monica College and I think I like them. But most of all, everyone says that I am a really good listener and I think they are right.
I grew up an only child from a divorced home and my mother and I were best friends. I was her confidant; she told me all her problems with men, money and work. I even helped her make decisions. I handled it all very well.
All of this has made me the go-to person for my friends and I am thinking I am a natural to be a psychologist. What do you think? I am being urged to pick a major so I should decide soon.
It is certainly understandable that you think this might be a good fit. It is clearly a familiar and, I am assuming, comfortable role for you. But I am really glad that you wrote in with this question or what I am going to call a situation.
Becoming a psychologist requires a lot more than having friends and your mother come to you with their problems.
My first question to you is one you probably cannot answer just yet but you should definitely ask yourself and be thinking a lot about this. Is this “role” good for you?
It may have become a big part of your identity, I am guessing, because your relationship with your mother was so inverted. Questioning who you really are and what you actually want is an important place to start, not just for deciding on whether to become a psychologist, but for your own future wellness and happiness. If it is not right for you, you will end up feeling very burnt out sooner than not! And while you may have grown up quickly and developed some skills that most young people don’t yet have, you also do not sound like you had much of a childhood. You may need to give yourself some time off, some playtime, before you settle into adult responsibility again.
If you need help in getting to your own truth, consider a few therapy sessions to help you. A good therapist will have the right questions to help you know if this would be a good decision for you or not and to help you understand your own needs.
That actually brings us to another point, which is that being a psychologist, or another type of psychotherapist, is not just about listening. Being a really good listener is a critical start to helping patients but it is not an end in itself. You have to know what questions to ask and when to ask them. This timing can be critical. You also need to have the analytical skills to look at things in a number of different ways and then how to rule out non-essential issues and focus on the critical ones. You must be able to decide what the best treatment approach is for your patient or client.
So you see, it is not just about other people feeling good about talking to you. At this point, they may be coming to you because they sense that it is something you are open to. But as I already mentioned, this does not mean it is good for you. It may not be good for them either.
We tend to tell friends what they want to hear because we do not want them to get angry and/or we do not want to hurt their feelings. We often agree with them when deep down we really don’t. As a professional you cannot do this with the people you try to help.
The listening and being supportive is a nice thing to do for others, but if you were to become a psychotherapist, you would not be that friend, you would be a professional with a lot of responsibility and you would need to be comfortable with questioning and giving honest feedback.
Another thing to consider is how much you like the academic environment. You say that “you think” you like your classes. If you do not really love school, you might want to think twice because you need at least a master’s degree to be a professional therapist. That adds up to a minimum of six years. If you want to be a psychologist, you will need to earn a doctoral degree in psychology, which is anywhere from eight to 10 years.
Finally, career counselors have tests and skills to help you determine if this is the right path for you.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist with offices in Brentwood. Visit her at www.drbarge.com or send your anonymous questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Got something on your mind? Let me help you with your life matters, because it does!