Feature

Psychotherapist Albert Ellis, PhD, admitted to a crowd at APA's Annual Convention he had a fear of public speaking growing up. The more he avoided it, the more phobic he became about it.

Then, after delving into readings from modern and ancient philosophers he came across a writing by first- century philosopher Epictetus that gave him hope--people are disturbed not by the event that happened to them, but their views of these events.

"This was a revelation to me and was something I used to train myself to be much less anxious about many things," said Ellis, who eventually became the reknowned father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

Using himself as a personal experiment, Ellis was able to conquer his shyness around women and his public speaking phobia by giving himself homework assignments, such as forcing himself to talk in public twice a week and talking to at least 100 women in a month. His approach eventually led to also helping others in developing REBT.

Ellis was one of five distinguished psychotherapists who spoke candidly on why they entered the field during the session "Why I (Really) Became a Psychotherapist" at APA's Annual Convention in Chicago.

For most of the panelists, it wasn't an altruistic motive that led them to the field, but a desire to figure out themselves--and others.

Alvin Mahrer, PhD, the man behind experiential psychology, said that psychotherapy was far from his mind during adolescence. He had only three main interests--baseball, boxing and girls. "No one in my family was a psychotherapist or had anything to do with psychotherapists or even knew the word 'psychotherapy' or even had the slightest inkling of what psychotherapists looked like or did," Mahrer said.

During a meeting with his undergraduate adviser in 1948, his adviser told him about a doctoral program in psychology at Ohio State, which Mahrer reluctantly agreed to attend. "I had little or no idea why I was there," Mahrer said. "I knew I didn't belong at all....If you would have asked me if I wanted to be a psychotherapist, I probably would have pretended to know what you were talking about."

But once Mahrer was introduced to psychotherapy, he became fascinated by the approach.

"I really became a psychotherapist so I could get what psychotherapy could give," said Mahrer, adding that psychotherapy allowed him to discover why he did the things he did and why some people affected him the way they did. "For the first time in my life, it was like seeing a whole new world--a world of understanding 'me' for the first time."

Florence Kaslow, PhD, said she became interested in the psychological nature of the world in high school, where she was a trusted confidant and a good listener to her peers.

She found herself attracted to psychological novels that questioned why people did what they did. She also found an interest in sociology and cultural anthropology, and particularly English literature. Psychotherapy seemed a good match.

"I think it's that openness to being known that I got predominantly from my mom and being accessible that had the major forces in what I bring to being a psychotherapist," said Kaslow, who became the first female dean of a professional school when she served at the Florida School of Professional Psychology.

Feminist psychologist Laura Brown, PhD, the eldest child of what she refers to as a dysfunctional family, realized she wanted to become a psychotherapist at age 9 when as a trouble-making student she was sent to see the school psychologist. She found the psychologist's ability to listen and talk with her comforting.

She became attracted to feminist psychology because it was against the mainstream. "I came to my adult identity with almost a pathological inability to comfortably inhabit any aspect of any mainstream," Brown said. "The tendency to be drawn to the critical, radical and the outside found residence within psychology from the moment I encountered it."

In high school, David Orlinsky, PhD, now of the University of Chicago, imagined becoming an astronomer or poet. He told the crowd he's not really sure why he became a psychotherapist, although he speculates it might have been a way of combining his interests in poetry and science: "The reasons I really did anything are probably unconscious or have unconscious roots, and by being unconscious, they are unknown to me."