When I first became a therapist, I was only in my 20s. I actually finished my degree early, making me the youngest therapist at the agency I worked for and possibly the youngest therapist ever. I felt self-conscious about my age and tried to come across as much older. This actually worked! I remember a few of my clients thought I was in my 30s. Basically, I spent much of my career worried I was too young to be a therapist and was occasionally told as much by prospective clients. In my mind, age was a good thing when it came to being a therapist. “People want a therapist with life experience” I told myself. In my own mind, when I thought of a therapist, I often imagined an older person. I assumed this was the same for everyone. It turns out I’m wrong.
A while back I had a young couple come in for couples counseling. They were in their 20s and going through a rough patch in their relationship. I thought the first session went really well and felt confident that I would be able to successfully help this couple. Two days later I get a phone call from one of them. I asked him what he thought of the first session. He agreed it went well but that he would be cancelling his next appointment. I asked him why and he said “We both agreed that we would rather have a therapist closer to our own age.” I was so surprised by this that I might have just said “What?” Then he said “We both thought it would be best if we didn’t have a therapist that was so old.” I think I was still in shock because I then asked “Well, how old do you think I am?” He just laughed and said “Obviously you’re much older than us.” Ouch.
There’s a lot of talk about ageism in the workplace and how wrong it is, but I actually feel that therapists are subjected to a lot of “ism’s” and the overwhelming sentiment is that we’re just supposed to accept it. I remember another couple I had worked with a while back. The couple was very close to divorce and quite desperate when they first started seeing me. I was able to calm the storm and get them to a much better place, then out of the blue I got a phone call that they wouldn’t be coming back. Again, I asked him why. He told me that his wife decided that they would rather have a Muslim couples counselor. This surprised me because the topic of religion had never come up before. They had never asked me what my religion was or even indicated that religion was an issue at all. I wished them the best of luck and moved on. A few months later I get a frantic phone call from this same couple. As it turned out, things had gotten much much worse since they stopped seeing me. The new counselor wasn’t any good and now they were experiencing a crisis. Did they want to start back up with me? No. Did they want to schedule an appointment with me? No. They wanted me to fix the crisis over the phone after having fired me as their couples counselor two months prior. So basically, I’m good enough to solve their problem, but not good enough to hire as their couples counselor because they perceived me as having a different religion.
During my years as a therapist I’ve experienced a lot of “ism’s” like this. I’m hesitant to call it discrimination, but I don’t know what else to call it. I’m being turned down as a therapist not because of my abilities as a therapist, but because of my age, religion, gender, sexuality, race, etc. I suppose this happens in every profession to some degree but where I think that the counseling profession is different is that people don’t even try to hide it. People have told me outright that they want to have a therapist that is a different race from me, and interestingly enough, I don’t think that people would consider this to be racism. I think people would think that it is just fine for a prospective client to voice this “preference”, even though people would be outraged if something like this happened within a different profession.
I’m curious to hear what other therapists think about this topic. Am I over-reacting or do I have a valid point? Obviously clients want a therapist that they feel they can relate with but when does it cross the line into discrimination?