Gifts of the Emerging Therapist

Tapping into the Power of Starting Out

Magazine Issue
November/December 2023

I was on the phone with a woman named Cherise, who was describing her ideal therapist in the hopes that I might be able to refer her to someone in my clinic. Cherise had lost her mom to cancer a year earlier and was looking to work though some heavy grief. “I’m looking for someone who’d be compassionate and energetic,” she said. “And well-trained. I work at night, so a flexible schedule is also a must.”

“I do have a therapist who fits your criteria,” I responded.

“Has she been with you for a while?” Cherise asked.

“A few months. She’s a psychology intern, and she’s wonderful,” I said.

“Wait—a student?” she stuttered.

“She may not have years of clinical experience,” I said, “but she has what you’re looking for—compassion, energy, a flexible schedule, and she specializes in grief. I’m her supervisor, so in a way, you’ll have two therapists working with you.”

“I guess I can talk to her,” she said, clearly disappointed. After a moment, she added, “I hope you’ll give me the contact information of a few seasoned therapists too.”

“I can do that,” I said. “But keep an open mind. New therapists are often highly effective. They’re passionate, engaged, and on top of the latest research.”

“Uh-huh.” Cherise sounded unconvinced.

Two weeks later, she reached out to me again, saying, “Unfortunately, none of the people you recommended can see me in the morning. I mean, other than the new therapist you told me about—Bertha?”

“Martha,” I corrected her.

“She’s very nice,” she assured me. “I’m just not sure we’re a good fit.”

A few days later, Cherise reached out a third time. “Just calling to let you know I’ve got an appointment with Martha,” she said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Seasoned Isn’t Always Best

Many clients are hesitant to sign up for therapy with an intern or beginning therapist who’s in the process of accruing supervised clinical hours for licensure. I get it: feeling confident about the mental health professionals treating our most intimate, vulnerable issues is important. But while experience matters, it’s not—in my view—the be-all and end-all of good therapy. Why? Brand-new therapists can bring surprising advantages to their work with clients.

Training. Although they may not have a lot of clinical experience, new therapists are often better trained than experienced professionals in how to explore issues related to gender fluidity, sexual identity, complex trauma, and nontraditional romantic and sexual relationships. Though all counselors are required by licensing boards to stay up to date on the latest research and treatment methods through continuing education, interns fresh out of graduate school tend to be well-informed about advances in our field.

Open-mindedness and flexibility. Regardless of their age, beginning therapists are willing to learn. They aren’t yet overly attached to pet frameworks or techniques that may be outdated. As a result, they’re better at pivoting and incorporating new information. They often bring a nuanced awareness of cultural and social issues to their work, tailoring therapy to clients’ unique backgrounds and identities. They tend to have a more flexible mindset, with fewer clients to see, and a more flexible schedule.

Passion, enthusiasm, and empathy. Whether someone decides to become a therapist right after their undergraduate studies, when they’re in their early 20s, or later in life, new therapists bring their whole selves to this work. They’re passionate and enthusiastic. Burnout isn’t yet an issue, and they usually have a vast reservoir of untapped empathy to draw on when it comes to clients’ struggles.

The Right Fit

Over the next few months, I met weekly with Martha, Cherise’s new therapist. Martha was a former teacher in her mid-30s, who’d grown disillusioned with the school system but wanted to continue in a helping profession. She’d been devastated by the loss of her father when she was a teenager, which influenced her desire to specialize in grief work. Most of the time—though Cherise occasionally questioned her expertise—she reported their sessions went well.

“How do you feel when she doubts your ability to help her?” I asked.

“It taps into my fears,” Martha responded. “I worry I won’t have much to offer until I’ve been in the field a long time.”

“You’re going to learn a lot over the years,” I said. “But I think being new to the field actually gives you certain advantages.”

Martha’s face brightened. “You’re right,” she said. “I saw a few people for individual therapy when my dad died, and the one I got along with best didn’t have her license yet.” But a month later, she sent me an urgent early-morning text. “C’s feeling discouraged by our work,” she wrote. “Can you and I meet to discuss this?”

The following day, Martha was waiting for me in the hallway outside my office. When I unlocked the door, she slipped past me, collapsed on the couch, and said, “I don’t think what I’ve been doing is helping. She’s not making much progress. I’m feeling discouraged.”

We went over what she and Cherise had been exploring. Although Cherise had felt sad that her mother was no longer alive, she wasn’t tormenting herself with any of the usual regrets people had after losing a parent, like wishing they’d spent more time with them, or voiced something critical, or been more affectionate. And yet she still felt stuck.

“What do you think she needs?” I asked bluntly.

“That’s just it,” Martha mused. “I don’t know.”

We sat in silence.

“I do wonder about her family as a whole,” Martha said finally. “She’s mentioned two siblings, an older brother who travels a lot, and a younger sister who works in Japan.”

“Are they close?” I asked.

“She hasn’t seen either of them in years,” Martha said. “But is it okay to bring up her siblings if she hardly mentions them? Isn’t that me imposing my own agenda?”

“You’re there to offer suggestions and ideas,” I said. “She has the final word on what feels aligned to her, but that doesn’t mean you’re passive, or don’t share your impressions.”

A week later, she told me Cherise had been initially annoyed by her question about her relationship with her siblings, but then admitted how much it’d hurt when they hadn’t stepped in to share the burden of caring for their mom in her final months. “I’ve been thinking a lot about it,” Martha added, “and I have an idea. I was wondering about giving Cherise the option of a joint session with her sister and brother. They’d be online, while we’d be in person.”

“How do you think this might help?” I asked. The idea of a hybrid family session with Cherise’s siblings would never have occurred to me. I was surprised and intrigued.

“Maybe they can talk about what’s getting in the way of connecting,” she said.

I had some doubts. Reestablishing connection between siblings in the aftermath of a parent’s death is a lot to take on in a single session. If you don’t manage the situation well, the estrangement you’d hoped to resolve could deepen. I discussed this risk with Martha, advising her to clarify expectations up front as well as getting proper informed consent.

Since I was traveling for the winter holidays, it was a few weeks before I had the chance to meet with Martha again. When I did, she was beaming.

“Cherise took me up on the hybrid joint session,” Martha said. “So did her brother and sister. After getting all the right forms completed, we met last week. Overall, it went really well.”

“When you say ‘overall,’ what do you mean?” I prodded.

“We had technical difficulties, so the session was 45 minutes instead of an hour and a half. But a lot came up. Cherise’s sister resents her for being their mother’s favorite. Her brother avoids conflict. But the big thing was they agreed to start a group thread to check in with each other and share photos and memories about their mom.”

“You look proud,” I noted, highlighting the shift in Martha’s demeanor.

“I feel like I’m really helping now. She’s grieving the long-time loss of connection with her siblings even more than the recent loss of her mom.”

I wasn’t sure I’d have persisted in setting up a hybrid session, considering the risks and extra work it involved. I felt proud and touched. Mentoring beginning therapists like Martha, with their enthusiasm and courage, was actually a way of giving back to the field.

Claiming Competence

A month later, before locking the clinic up for the weekend, I slit open an envelope on a pile of unopened mail without looking at the return address. Inside, beneath an illustration of a yellow tulip, someone had written: You were right to recommend Martha—thank you! She’s an amazing therapist—so compassionate, and she really challenges me to grow. The note was signed: Cherise.

I handed Martha the card at our next meeting. Seated on my couch, she read it slowly.

“Not too many clients take the time to write me notes like that,” I said.

“It’s hard to believe it’s me she’s describing.” Martha traced the outline of the tulip with one of her fingers. “It feels good, but scary. What if I disappoint her?”

“Can you stay with the good part?” I encouraged her.

Martha closed her eyes. “My chest feels warm. Achy—in a nice way. Grateful, too.”

“What’s the gratitude about?” I asked.

She opened her eyes and looked at me pointedly. “Grateful you helped me appreciate how there are gifts I bring to this profession because I’m a beginner, not in spite of that.”

I pressed a hand to my heart. Martha smiled.

“I’m going to take that in,” I told her. “It means a lot.”

And I did.



Isabel Kirk

Isabel Kirk, LPC, is an attachment-focused therapist and owner and clinical director of DC VA Counseling Psychotherapy, LLC. She supervises interns and residents. Contact: