I WAS SADDENED AND SURPRISED when I discovered that many mental health practitioners have 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. Years of school, more years as an associate earning hours, long hours of studying, passing the licensing exam, and tens of thousands owed in student loans to be the working poor? And the more I marinated in this fact, the more it made sense, given what I know about the world of therapy.
A common misperception of ambition among healers and helpers, particularly therapists, is the belief that ambition may conflict with their core values of being client-centered, compassionate, and of service.
Some healers and helpers see ambition as a trait associated with ego-centered, self-centeredness or a focus on material success, which may contradict their life mission of helping others and commitment to healing.
It doesn’t help that most graduate school programs do not teach therapists about valuing themselves or their wisdom. We are prepared even less about running a business, standing by our fee, or serving others through an equity and inclusive lens while also making a good living. Many professors tell their students not to expect to make a good living in the healing arts field. I have even heard of one professor who told their students they had to marry rich to make money.
This misperception and lack of education on money and business lead some healers and helpers to suppress or downplay their ambitions, feeling that pursuing personal goals or desires is selfish or incompatible with their intentions of helping clients or helping the world become more inclusive and equitable to all.
As a result, many clinicians learn to neglect their well-being and growth, potentially leading to burnout or feelings of unfulfillment while underpaid and undervalued.
Let’s be clear—you can be a healer and helper and own your ambition. You are allowed to have the desire to help others selflessly and still make good money.
When driven by a genuine and authentic desire to contribute positively to the world, ambition can be a powerful force for good for those in the healing and helping professions. Because when helpers decide to own their ambition, they become more effective by continuously expanding their knowledge, skills, and resources, ultimately benefiting those they serve.
The key is to recognize that ambition can be aligned with the principles of selflessness and compassion. As long as ambition is rooted in a genuine intention to impact others’ lives positively, it can be an instrument of good, pushing us forward to create what we want. If a therapist minimizes their wants and desires for their own life, burnout, regret, resentment, carelessness, and disconnection follow.
The spiritual lens of Ambition
In some spiritual traditions, ambition is viewed as a natural aspect of human nature, driven by the desire for growth, self-improvement, and fulfillment of one’s potential. Therefore, connecting with ambition is seen as a means of expressing and sharing our unique talents and abilities with others — a tool for personal and collective evolution, leading to the betterment of oneself and contributing positively to the world.
The spiritual perspective also cautions against ambition when it becomes solely driven by the ego, material gain, or a desire for power over others. Disconnection from one’s spiritual path often leads to an ambition disregarding ethical considerations, empathy, or compassion, which can lead to negative consequences.
Some of the negative consequences are therapists that practice outside of their scope, that create dependent clients, that may cross boundaries, and negatively use the therapeutic relationship.
Many spiritual practices emphasize a balance between ambition and contentment. While being content with the present moment is essential for maintaining inner peace and spiritual growth.
Ultimately, the spiritual perspective on ambition revolves around understanding and channeling one’s desires and aspirations to align with more authentic and benevolent values. This leads to personal growth, well-being, and a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life.
We do not recognize our need to grow when we neglect our desires and wants. Not serving yourself directly impacts your ability to help others better.
This is why we don’t serve anyone by not increasing our fees, charging missed sessions, or having fees that reflect our personal and professional growth and our well-being, and reminding ourselves that being a mental health clinician does not mean we do not make a good living.
The key difference between healthy and ego-based ambition lies in the underlying intentions and the impact on oneself and others.
Cultivating healthy ambition involves self-awareness, aligning one’s aspirations with higher principles, and striving for personal growth while considering the welfare of others.
Nurturing healthy ambition is a process that involves self-awareness, intentional actions, and a commitment to personal growth. Here are some steps a person can take to cultivate healthy ambition:
- Reflect on Values and Passions both personally and professionally. Take time to identify your core values and passions. Do the values of your personal life and that of a therapist align? If they don’t, what belief needs to be updated? Do your behaviors in and out of session match? I once worked with a therapist that was manipulative of co-workers. Doubtful that his behaviors in the session were any different. Understanding and aligning with what truly matters to you—in and out of session—will help align your ambitions with your authentic self and bring more meaning to your pursuits while letting go of guilt of wanting more.
- Set Clear and Realistic Financial Goals. One of the initial questions I ask when coaching therapists who want to grow their solo or group practice is how much money do you want to take home? What usually happens next is the therapist is in their head calculating what would cover their expenses, their practice’s overhead, and what a vacation would cost. When I have asked leaders in other fields the same question, in less than a second, they answer, “A million dollars.” Define clear and achievable goals that align with your values and passions without overworking or overriding your well-being by breaking these steps down into smaller, manageable steps, providing a sense of progress and motivation. Also, don’t forget to go big.
- Cultivate Self-Awareness of Beliefs about Money. What are the beliefs about money? What do you believe you have to do or give up to create more abundance? I have worked with many therapists who think making more money means giving up freedom and time. They believe they must see 40+ clients weekly, which can feel overwhelming.
I also have many first-generation therapists who have learned from well-meaning parents that security is a better option than ambition. For many, this means working at a community mental health where they are overworked, poorly mentored, and underpaid. Many dream of opening their practices but are discouraged because even though they may be miserable, they have a secure job with benefits.
- Create a Supportive Environment. Surround yourself with positive and supportive people who encourage your growth and aspirations that support you in owning your ambition to grow, heal, and do good in the world. I worked in community mental health for years. When I announced to my greater community that I was moving to my private practice, I was told I was selling out and no longer willing to serve my community. After the initial shock, I began to seek mentors and role models who embodied healthy ambition. I also sought the support of a coach that worked with therapists. I now own a group practice and help other therapists to create prosperous practices while aligning with an inclusive and equity perspective.
- Practice Flexibility: High Motivation, Low Attachment Commit to your ambition, not letting obstacles get in the way, and be open to adjusting your goals and dreams as you grow and change. Life’s circumstances may shift, and flexibility allows you to adapt while staying true to your core values. High motivation to align with your ambition—willing to do what it takes—while also practicing not being attached to a specific outcome means that you are 100% okay if the result is not what you expected.
Remember that nurturing healthy ambition is a continuous journey, and it’s normal to face obstacles along the way. Just as we do for our clients, embrace the process of self-discovery and growth.
Be kind to yourself and acknowledge, just as you do with your clients, that setbacks and mistakes are a natural part of the journey. Treat yourself with the same compassion and understanding you would offer to a client facing challenges.