Language fascinates me. As therapists, we use language to reframe situations, craft metaphors, and ultimately instill feelings of hope. We recognize how powerful this tool is, so we carefully select our words when in sessions with clients. If only we did the same outside of sessions.

I love speaking with associates, trainees, and students at various events and settings. I’ve heard about the highs and lows of the journey to licensure, the successes and struggles, the hopeful and (seemingly) hopeless situations. One of the statements that always gets to me is “I’m just a(n) ___” (student, trainee, associate).

“Just.” As in “simply,” “only,” “no more than.” Imagine how quickly you would point out the use of this word to a client, drawing their attention to the potential consequences of viewing themselves in a negative light. Unfortunately, we’re not always good at catching ourselves when we do this.

Reflecting on this statement has inspired me to write a three-part series on the ways prelicensed therapists limit themselves. Together, we can begin to break down the mental barriers that have been established and become open to the many opportunities that are available.

“I’m just a student”…

For the purposes of this article, I’m making a distinction between students (who have not yet started practicum) and trainees (who are either in practicum or post-graduation and pending registration as associates).

Being a student is challenging. You’re just starting to learn the fundamentals of therapy and struggling to see how these can be applied to real-life situations with clients. You’re acutely aware of how much you don’t know, and that can be downright terrifying! It can be tempting to focus on all of this and start limiting yourself.

The primary way I see this manifesting with students is the hesitation to get involved outside of their classrooms. Students may believe they have nothing to offer the MFT community (“I haven’t even started practicum!”), so they don’t attend networking events and meet licensed/associate MFTs.

Don’t wait a few months (or years, as is the case with some graduate school programs) to “start” your career as a prelicensed therapist!

…versus “I’m an MFT student”

The truth is that we’re all students, regardless of where we are on the journey to licensure. Once you become a trainee and associate, you’ll be learning on the job. Once you become licensed, you’ll be engaging in continuing education. There’s no shame in embracing your identity as a student (in fact, it’s a cause for alarm when any therapist believes they “know it all”)!

Your career as a mental health professional doesn’t begin with licensure, graduation, or even practicum… your career begins with day one in your MFT program. This is an excellent time to get a head start on promoting yourself to the MFT community. This could involve creating or leading a student-run organization, attending local CAMFT chapter meetings, or even writing blog articles like this one.

You have the opportunity to absorb a wealth of information from your professors, many of whom are seasoned therapists with numerous connections to other mental health professionals. Your relationship with a professor doesn’t have to end once the class ends, so use this time to stay in touch and continue learning!

You also have the opportunity to establish strong relationships with your classmates, before life takes you in different directions and you aren’t seeing each other on a regular basis. These classmates are your colleagues, and they may become co-workers (at future work sites), co-facilitators (for future therapy groups/workshops), or co-founders (for future business endeavors). They can serve as part of your referral network for clients, or provide resources/consultation to help you support clients.

“I’m Not ‘Just’ an MFT Student”

It’s important to embrace your identity as a student, and to recognize you possess other traits and skill sets that strengthen your position as a growing mental health professional. You may have worked in other industries prior to starting graduate school, which presents a unique opportunity to merge your previous work experience with your upcoming work experience as a therapist. I’d like to share a case study in order to “illustrate” this idea.

Lindsay Braman (@lindsaybraman) is a student at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology and in the process of earning her M.A. in Counseling Psychology. In addition to being a student, she is a graphic recorder who creates beautifully illustrated notes pertaining to therapy and psychology. With over 26,000 followers on Instagram, she has demonstrated that you don’t have to wait until you’re licensed in order to stand out!

Are you doing something to stand out as a student, or do you know someone who is? I’d love to read those stories and share some of them at the end of this three-part series!

About the Author

Robin Andersen is the founder of Prelicensed. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT 100070) who is passionate about giving back to associate marriage and family therapists, trainees, and students by maintaining this valuable resource. More information about Robin can be found here.

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