Becoming a successful therapist would be so much easier if you were told exactly what to do to make it all work out. So often we get thrown off course by the growing pains or obstacles that are actually fairly predictable.
Here are some of the common growing pains we see at each stage of a therapist’s career (and tips to move past them):
Stage 1: I can’t do it!
When you’re a helping professional, what you do is critical for another’s well-being. You’re training has given you a deep respect for this work and at the beginning of your career, you’re afraid you’re going to mess it up. It’s hard to imagine the time when you’ll be an “expert” in anything.
Manage the Growing Pains: When you’re new, it’s expected that you’ll make mistakes and need supervision. That’s why supervision is often required. Use this time to learn the ropes as well as where your strengths are. Incorporate self-care and self-acceptance at this stage (as much as you can). Don’t hide when you make mistakes. And please don’t pretend like you know what to do when you really don’t. Seek supervision and support – this is the best time to get it. As you get more experienced folks won’t be so lenient when you make mistakes. Make your mistakes now.
Stage 2: I’m never going to get paid enough!
Entry level jobs don’t usually pay well (if at all). So, you get to balance anxiety about the work with anxiety about the income. You can tell yourself that you’re not in this for the money (most of us aren’t), but you can’t keep doing this work if you’re not able to sustain financially.
Manage the Growing Pains: Figure out your numbers (i.e., your budget and what you need to earn to keep on track). Continue to look for paid work after you sign on for some volunteer work. Know what you need to make and set your fee accordingly (and stick to it). If you cannot ask for adequate compensation, you’ll struggle to make a living. This is a systemic problem, but it is also your problem. If you work for free or constantly slide your fee, you are keeping this broken system in business.
Stage 3: “I’m so overwhelmed!!”
At this point, you’ve started seeing success. You’re making more money and your career is thriving. However, you’re working 6-7 days a week (and possibly 15-hour days) to keep it all rolling. You don’t have time to think and you’re so overwhelmed you start worrying about quality of life. You may even have started experiencing some health problems. You’re running on empty, you’re lonely (you only have time to talk to your clients, after all), and you know you can’t keep this going.
Manage the Growing Pains: You must set limits and delegate. Only take the clients you know you can help best and charge your full fee. Make sure you’re in the right position at work and reassign tasks that don’t require your level of expertise. Say no to much more than you do now. A bookkeeper, biller, house cleaner, gardener, etc. can make your life a whole lot easier. Yes, we know you can do a lot of those tasks, but you don’t need to. Invest in your quality of life by delegating whatever you can.
Stage 4: “I hate people.”
Once you’ve started delegating the tasks you can, you may also hire prelicensees or others to do services for you. You might move into a leadership position at work or become a manager of others in your own business. However you get there, you’re now responsible for the performance of others. This is super hard. So often, employees don’t do what you ask them, don’t do it how you would, or don’t do it on time. It feels like you’re screaming instructions into an abyss. You start telling yourself, I can’t trust anyone else to do this. I’m never going to hire another person again.
Manage the Growing Pains: Make sure that you’ve set aside enough time to manage other people as well as the business or program as a whole. You can’t expect to do the same amount of service provision and teach others to provide those services. You can’t expect that a single sentence in an email is effective delegation. Truly leading other people requires time to communicate effectively, nurture their skills, and to clarify what you expect. You can’t do that in extra minutes. When you can clearly communicate, enforce accountability, and be a boss (i.e., not their friend or sworn enemy), you’ll have employees who perform and who you might even like.
Where are you along the path? Do these growing pains seem familiar? Navigating through your career is challenging, but successfully overcoming these obstacles can mean the difference between burning out and creating a meaningful and sustainable career.