So You Want to Be a Therapist?

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I am a 60 year-old-male considering a career change. I am interested in acquiring a degree and becoming a therapist. I am most interested in childhood trauma and its connection to PTSD if there is any.

Much of my current thinking has come from being introduced to ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics’ and the related book. As I come from a family of alcoholism I have come to believe that the chronic exposure (all of the formative years ) to parents who did nothing but assail each other and their children is with us today, and continues to negatively affect our lives.

I would enjoy your thoughts and any information regarding such matters.

Dr. Hurd replies:

If you’re like me, I’m sure you’ll enjoy being a therapist. When I first started college, an established professional told me, ‘No two days—no two hours—are ever quite the same,’ and it’s really true.

When approaching your childhood and your parents’ irrationality, it’s important to ask two main questions.

One, ‘What impact did this have on my present-day thinking, and therefore my emotions?’

Two, ‘Where can I make a plan of action, in the present and moving forward, to make changes in my thinking, emotions, and behavior?’

It’s really important to pinpoint things in this way. If you don’t, then you—as well as your future therapy clients—will end up talking about the past, but never really processing it.

Processing is different from talking. Processing refers to putting past events into some sort of perspective that can actually lead you to act, think or feel differently in the present.

Talking is simply relaying history. Your therapist might enjoy hearing people’s history, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to help you.

You mention that your parents assailed you and your siblings when you were a young child. Here are some questions to help you process that information.

‘What kind of attitudes did my parents project about life?’

‘How did my parents train me to think—or not think, based on what they modeled for me?’

‘What false beliefs did my parents hold, and which ones did I buy into, at the time? What’s the basis for my rejecting them now?’

False beliefs can refer to many different subjects. I’m primarily interested in false beliefs about personal matters. For example, your parents might have had a false belief that your job in life was to please them. Being alcoholics, they were probably not easy to please. As an adult, you now understand that their drinking brought out the worst in them, and led them to see reality in a distorted way.

The question, in this context, to ask yourself after the fact is, ‘What distorted viewpoints did my parents display to me? Which ones did I buy into?’ That’s important, because even if you intellectually reject those viewpoints now, they might still be present in some of your emotional reactions, or behaviors. By making these erroneous reactions and behaviors more conscious, you can seek to change them and replace them with more adaptive viewpoints that your intellectual mind already knows are wiser.

I reviewed some of the information online about adult children of alcoholics. Based on what I found, and what I know from similar reading I’ve done in the past, here are some mistaken beliefs that children of alcoholics (now adults) often absorb:

‘I am responsible for something even when I’m not.’

‘Personal criticism is always right, and always a threat.’

‘I’m a victim, and there’s nothing I can do to challenge the irrationality of others. I cannot hold others accountable for their actions, even if all that means is withdrawing my approval and support.’

‘I’m always looking for unhealthy or unstable people, like my parents, to meet my need for being loved, even though they’re no more capable of/willing to love me than my parents were.’

‘I view taking the initiative as always frightening and therefore always wrong.’

If any of these false beliefs are present in your emotions and behaviors, here and now, then that’s the area to help yourself—or your future clients—address.

It’s really important to process the effects of your past, on your present self, in this way. Otherwise, you’ll succumb to the vagueness of ‘working through’ your past, which will do nothing more than require you to talk over and over about what went wrong in your past, instead of trying to constructively improve yourself in the present. I address this throughout my book, ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference).’

I’m wary of the phrase ‘formative years.’ It’s true that your parents influenced you in a harmful way back when you were young. The reason it was harmful is that you did not yet possess the cognitive reasoning skills—or knowledge—to see your parents for the people they were, and the problems they had. You’re long past that cognitively, and that’s a good thing. But emotions can be slow and stubborn to change. Emotions based on previously absorbed, irrational or false beliefs are the remaining focus of change.

In my view, those years did not ‘form’ you. You aren’t ‘damaged goods.’ Nor should you encourage any future clients in therapy to view themselves that way.

Whenever someone asks, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I always attempt to challenge it. My reply to that is, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. There might be errors—even big ones—in any of your given actions, thoughts, ideas or emotions. But errors can be identified and changed. There’s nothing wrong with you that you cannot change, so long as you’re willing to look at your behaviors and emotions objectively.’


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