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What Is a Therapist? [Psychotherapist]
A therapist, or psychotherapist, is a licensed mental health professional who helps clients improve their lives, develop better cognitive and emotional skills, reduce symptoms of mental illness and cope with various challenges. But that’s only the beginning of what it means to be a psychotherapist. To completely understand the definition of a therapist, you need to learn much more.
This article breaks down every part of what therapists are and what they do. Keep reading if you’re interested in working with a therapist, becoming one or simply learning about an interesting profession.
How Therapists Define What They Are and What They Do
To better understand what a therapist is, we asked the titular question of this article to several therapists in and outside of the Talkspace network. Each answer is at least a little different. Together they paint a picture of what a therapist is.
“A therapist serves as an authentic, genuine, empathic individual who is unbiased, supportive, and, can provide objective, nonjudgemental guidance, assisting clients with desired changes as well as achieving their maximum self.”
“A psychotherapist is someone who offers support, positive regard, compassion, guidance, a level of accountability, advocacy at times, a listening ear and sound clinical advice.” “A psychotherapist is someone who helps others find their strengths and courage to confront and make sense of difficult emotions and experiences so they can learn and thrive in their lives”
“A clinically trained helper who uses an integrative approach to help others heal”
“To me a psychotherapist is an objective sounding board, a perspective shifter, game changer, a truth teller.”
“A psychotherapist is someone who helps people to remember they are worthy.”
What Does a Therapist Do?
Therapists primarily help clients, whether through in-person or online therapy, improve their mental health. Some of them work in research and consulting as well.
Here is a list of common services therapists can offer clients:
- Analyzing present issues
- Analyzing the influence of the past on the present
- Comforting clients
- Helping clients without the kind of a bias a friend or family member might have
- Diagnosing mental health conditions
- Reducing symptoms of mental illness
- Helping clients manage symptoms of mental illness
- Helping clients change maladaptive behaviors and thinking patterns
- Helping clients understand themselves and other people
- Teaching emotional, cognitive and communication skills
- Teaching clients how to effectively resolve emotional, relational and professional conflicts
- Guiding clients through crises such as breakups, abuse, suicidal thoughts, grief, trauma, infidelity, sexual assault and more
- Teaching clients how to improve current relationships and build new ones
- Teaching clients self-help skills such as deep breathing, meditation, thinking exercises and more
- Offering non-directive advice and suggestions (depending on the therapist)
- Referring clients to psychiatrists, mental health facilities or medical professionals if necessary
- Helping clients learn to love and accept themselves
- Reducing the stigma and shame of mental illness and therapy
Is a Therapist the Same as a Counselor, Psychologist, etc?
When people say “therapist,” they are usually referring to a psychotherapist, psychologist or counselor. In the context of working with clients to improve their mental health, these terms have the same meaning and are interchangeable.
Using one over the other is a matter of preference. “Counselor” and “counseling,” for example, are more common than “therapy” and “therapist” in certain parts of the world.
Here is a short list of terms people often use as a synonym for “therapist”:
- Mental Health Counselor
- Psychotherapist (The meaning is the same, but some people regard “therapist” as a shortened and more easily useable version of “psychotherapist.” The term is useful because “therapist” could refer to a massage therapist or another type of professional.)
The differences between some of these terms lie in their connotations outside the context of working with clients. “Therapist” only refers to someone who treats clients. On the other hand, a psychologist could spend a lot of time seeing clients but is more likely to work in research as well.
Some mental health professionals call themselves “psychologists” simply because they prefer the term. Their work doesn’t have to be different than a therapist’s. Others use the term to emphasize a background in research or imply they have a lot of education. There are even some psychologists who don’t spend any time working with clients.
There are also psychiatrists who can act as a therapist or who identify as a therapist in addition to their primary profession. There isn’t any evidence to suggest someone who identifies as a therapist would provide significantly better care than someone who identifies as a psychologist or other mental health profession.
Misconceptions About What a Therapist Is
To fully understand what a therapist is, we need to talk about what it isn’t. There are many misconceptions people have about what it means to be a psychotherapist. Here are a few of them:
Misconception: A Therapist Is Like a Friend You Pay to Listen To You
Misconception: A Therapist Tells You What To DoThinking a therapist is only a friend for hire discounts the amount of education and training therapists complete so they can improve clients’ mental health. Most therapists have around six years of education. Some have more than a decade.
Most therapists will not tell you what to do. They’re not like sports coaches for your life. They don’t sit on the sidelines and shout instructions.
Therapists work with clients to give them the skills to live better lives and make good decisions. They are supposed to empower you, not make you dependent on them.
Misconception: A Therapist Can Read Minds
Therapists aren’t trying to guess what you’re thinking or analyze you for kicks. No one is looking at your life like a Dateline documentary or a Lifetime movie.
Your therapist will be interested in what you are thinking because he or she is trying to help you. Therapists are much different than prosecutors, psychics or interrogators.