Mental health is inextricably linked to physical health. Almost no one can feel healthy and satisfied if they’re suffering emotionally. And although discussions of mental illness often talk about it as something that happens to other people, mental health issues can affect anyone.
One study found that just 17% of people reach midlife without experiencing a mental health condition. Overdose and death by suicide rates are skyrocketing, yet a mental health professional shortage means that the people who need help often cannot access care. A degree in counseling psychology can prepare you to support people struggling with transitions, mental illness and life’s many ups and downs.
But what traits make for a good counselor, and how do you know if this career path is a good fit for you? Paul Jones, licensed psychologist and director of SNU’s Graduate Programs in Counseling Psychology, suggests that these characteristics are key:
1. Sense of humor
Therapists need to keep things in perspective and shouldn’t take themselves or life too seriously. Sitting with pain and hurt can be difficult. Therapists who can laugh at themselves and see the absurdity in life are less likely to burn out. Their sense of humor can also help them better connect with their clients.
Counselors need to think creatively and intelligently about some of life’s most challenging problems. They need to have a deep understanding of human psychology and behavior and know how to read subtle cues. Counseling involves making invisible connections visible so clients can change their thoughts and behaviors. That requires a sharp mind.
3. Humility and Open-Mindedness
There’s no single right way to live. The role of a therapist is to help a person live life well in a way that is consistent with their values. Good therapists are willing to see and understand things from numerous perspectives and are humble enough to know that they don’t have all the answers and that simple ones may not exist.
People rely on counselors to help them direct their lives and assess their actions. Counselors who behave in confusing, inconsistent or unethical ways model unhealthy behavior and may harm their clients. And counselors who are late, unresponsive or ignore their duties to their clients can cause immense damage. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be ethical and responsible.
No one can live happily behind a mask forever. Many people seek out therapists precisely because they want to live more authentically, and they can tell when you’re being inauthentic. Clients know when you’re judging them, when you’re pretending to think something you do not or when you’re not honoring your own values. Being real with yourself is a necessary prerequisite to helping clients become real with themselves.
Good counseling isn’t about projecting your values and feelings onto another person. It’s about understanding how they feel. This begins with a deep emotional connection to the pain and struggles of others and extends to each client. You must be prepared to anticipate clients’ emotions and understand that no two clients will ever feel or behave exactly alike.
7. Insight and Self-Awareness
Understanding and relating to others begins with understanding yourself. Knowing who you are, where you come from, and why you do what you do, feel what you feel, and think what you think are the tools needed to truly understand someone else. You’ll also need to understand how others affect you and how your biases and shortcomings may affect your interactions.
Good counselors do not follow a script or a manual. You have to be able to imagine things differently and improvise. You have to spontaneously rise to a situation and offer something that synthesizes various ideas and offers something completely new.
Good therapists take nothing at face value. They ask thoughtful questions and dig deeper to get to the heart of client concerns. The desire to question everything and seek the truth amongst what is hidden is one of the most defining traits of a great therapist.
We live in a challenging world. Living with empathy and purpose requires courage. Courage is the grounding of all virtues, and counselors must have it in spades. You must be prepared to sit fearlessly with people’s intense and challenging emotions, without judgment or overreaction. And you must be comfortable living authentically in a way that is consistent with your values. All counselors get scared, but can the therapist stay present amidst that fear? That is what separates great therapists from the rest.
Do these characteristics sound like you? Are these attributes you aspire to live up to? If so, a career as a counselor could inspire you to make a real difference in the world. Consider applying to SNU using our five-minute application. You have the raw material already. We can help shape you into a great counselor who changes lives!