“Why not be a lawyer instead? They earn more money.”

An angry acquaintance was extremely upset to be told this, because this did not come from the average Asian parent or busybody relative. This came from his interviewer when he applied to be a student of clinical psychology. He had been well-prepared, having an impressive academic transcript and recommendation letters from his professors, alongside preparing for some of the classic interview questions. He saw the question ‘why do you want to be a psychotherapist’ coming from a mile away and he thought ‘I study psychology so that I can help people’ was an adequate response for a seemingly unimportant question. After all, that can’t be more important than his discipline and expert knowledge of psychology right?

Why isn’t ‘I want to help others’ enough?

Most, if not all professions ‘help people’ in some way. Every one of us has to play a role in giving to society, thus helping others is an almost inevitable consequence if we perform competently. The chef helps people by preparing food, the teacher equips people with beneficial skills and knowledge, the veterinarian alleviates the anxiety of animal lovers by treating animals, and the lawyer defends his clients from maltreatment in the eyes of the law. It is indeed questionable if one’s only motivation to go through all the hurdle to be a practicing psychotherapist of any walk is ‘to help people’. One might even say it is insulting to every other profession out there to believe that being a psychotherapist is the only way to help people.

Also, we have to understand that ‘helping others’ is a common, prosocial tendency ingrained in all of us, some of us having it better nurtured than others. People from all walks of life actually would like to help others in some capacity if possible. An an interview, if one’s response is ‘I want to help other people’ honestly says very little about what one stand for, and more about one’s need to please everybody instead. In fact, it might seem as if one’s desire to ‘help others’ is only recently realized, which is not the best qualities to be a therapist trainee.

In a world where we are talking more and more about being human, psychological needs, and validating the other, if one would like to begin a journey practicing psychotherapy, ‘I want to help others’ should already be an assumption that needs no saying. Let your story go further than that.

Talk about your experience receiving therapy and healing from the hurt, and how that shapes your approach.

Talk about your experience doing social work, volunteering, or helping the needy, and your experiential reactions to it.

Talk about some of the ideas or people that inspired you deeply. Talk about listening and being listened to.

Sincerely talk about what the world greatly needs and show that you want to play a role in it.

So yeah, every one already knows that you and the hundreds out there would like to ‘help people’. How would you go beyond that?

Jia Yue Tan
JY is a counselling trainee at Monash University Malaysia under the Master of Professional Counselling program and writes psychology articles to procrastinate from his counselling paperwork and assignments. His interests are in individual differences, psychotherapy, and helping the public understand psychology(s) as a profession. Occasionally reviews books and promote person-centered psychotherapy.

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