Life Lessons from Being a Psychologist


My path to becoming a licensed psychologist wasn’t one that I chose growing up, despite being the therapist among my friends. People came to me when they needed advice or a shoulder to cry on, but I had no idea that a psychologist was even a career option because I was taught, ‘what happens in our house, stays in our house.’ My decision may seem serendipitous to some, but I truly believe that I was a called to this field. Enrolling in a psychology course pretty much sealed my fate and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. In hindsight, being a psychologist has changed my life because of the lessons I’ve learned which I’ll share with you today.

Being present for people is more important than giving opinion or advice—have empathy.

Too often, we react to the struggles of others with advice or opinion, when more often than not, the person just wants to be heard. People need your ability to be present in their pain and discomfort more than they need you to tell them what to do. Some of the most powerful moments of growth and change come in the space simply made open for people. The more we create opportunities to be vulnerable, the more we witness others as their true selves and experience more intimacy in relationships. In addition, giving your presence saves you the frustration of the other person not taking your advice. People often do what they choose to do, rather than what you tell them to do, so help them find the decision on their own, and they are more likely to follow through with it.

Be open to other people’s experiences—you have no idea what someone is going through.

I sit with people as they share some of their deepest, most personal stories. I help people piece together different aspects of their lives in order to understand themselves better. But most importantly, I allow people to be who they truly are and validate them in that space. Doing this significantly impacted my personal life and is one of my biggest areas of growth. We all approach situations with our own biases, backgrounds, and experiences. Therapy is no different. When I first started as a therapist, several of my beliefs were steeped in oppression, particularly related to the LGBTQIA community. Becoming a therapist and witnessing people’s experiences have caused me to view the world from a much larger lens and to recognize where my own biases and privileges lie. Now I continuously strive to use my privilege to advance the causes of others, to help them create new experiences, and in turn, to develop a level of compassion I wouldn’t have achieved had it not been for my career.

Respect the humanity of people—focus on building community.

Fundamentally, I believe that at everyone’s core is goodness. Accepting that everyone is human, and therefore, everyone is flawed reduces your stress when other people don’t live the way you want them to, and it permits them to be authentic without fear of judgment or shame. Most everyone struggles with insecurity, wanting to be accepted, so making people feel connected and a part of something larger than themselves, allows them to discover their role to play. Treating people with respect and allowing them to embrace their identities is the only way that we can build community with one another.

Change and growth only happens when you commit to showing up and putting in the work—be motivated.

In the first therapy session with a new client, I set the groundwork that only when they put in 100%, am I able to put in 100%. I can’t get into people’s heads and “fix” them. Therapy is work and progress only happens when both people show up to work together. This is also relevant to areas of life beyond therapy such as work, relationships, spirituality, and family. Being committed to growth and progress may not be an intrinsic feeling but the more you get up and push through, the more motivation will come. Make the commitment to the effort.

Compassion is a greater motivator than criticism—be kind to yourself.

Most of us were conditioned to believe that harsh criticism of ourselves is the primary means of self-motivation. We think that without being hard on ourselves, we become lazy and unable to reach our potential. But consider how you approach talking to a friend you want to support and help grow. Do you use compassion or criticism to motivate them? Unless you’re just a cruel person, you would use compassion because typically, that’s how we handle those we care for. However, when it comes to ourselves, we tend to be more critical. I’ve learned to be more compassionate with myself and to talk to myself in a way that I would talk to a friend. Trying to get others to do this is challenging, but practicing self-compassion can been life changing.

Practice patience.

If you only take away this one thing, I’ve done my job well. The work of therapy is all about being patient because all of the results take time—growth, healing, development, grief—you have to be patient with it all to progress. This is one of the most challenging parts of the process but it’s also such a large part of life. Going through life is all about being patient because the important things don’t always happen immediately. Being frustrated when things don’t happen quickly or on your time, means you are going to be disappointed during much of your life. Take your time, go with the flow, allow yourself the opportunity to experience life, and take in the journey. Even if it takes longer than you expected, appreciate the small steps that get you there. Each part of the journey is worth it.

While providing therapy is all about the client, I must admit that being on the other side has been transformative. I’m truly thankful that I was brought to this field because it’s made me a better person.

Ashlee NicoleComment