Theses Doctoral

The Identity Formation of Psychotherapists in Training: A Dialectical and Personal Process

Tsuman-Caspi, Liat

The primary goal of this study was to investigate how psychotherapists in training develop a professional identity. Specifically, the aims were 1) to generate a theory that could guide thinking about this subject; and 2) to apply the knowledge gained to formulate ideas about the education of future psychotherapists. Twenty-nine doctoral students, recruited primarily in New York and California, were interviewed about their professional development. Qualitative analyses of the transcribed interviews (utilizing multiple methodologies, including the Listening Guide method) revealed normative aspects of, as well as individual differences with respect to, identity formation. Specifically, within a professional and cultural context that poses specific challenges and demands, psychotherapist trainees continuously recreate their identities through the performance of four identity tasks: exploring, committing, feeling, and reflecting. Through engagement in these tasks, trainees develop a distinctive set of skills, ideas, ways of working, and professional attitudes, and a subjective sense of themselves as psychotherapists with a unique therapeutic style and presence. Conceptualized as a dialectical process of differentiation and psychological separation, this process appears to characterize the identity formation of all trainees. Differences in identity formation are conceptualized in terms of trainees' ability to flexibly shift among identity tasks in response to changing contextual demands and circumstances; this quality is termed fluidity and is seen as the result of the specific and changing interactions between trainees and the professional context within which they develop. Six different approaches to identity formation, termed identity configurations, were identified, reflecting varying levels of engagement in identity tasks. Specifically, two "dialectical identity configurations" were identified, representing the fluidity of identity that arises from shifts in engaging and coping with changing contextual demands. These dialectical identity configurations also promote the development of a therapeutic repertoire that is unique, reflective of trainees' abilities and interests, and deeply meaningful. In contrast, four "non-dialectical identity configurations" were identified, representing coping with contextual challenges via a narrow range of relatively invariant responses. As such, these identity configurations are likely to interfere with the development of a therapeutic repertoire that is personal and emotionally resonant. Six case illustrations are presented to exemplify these ideas. Findings are explored in relation to other theories and models in the areas of identity and psychotherapists' development. In addition, implications of these ideas for training, including specific recommendations, are discussed.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Clinical Psychology
Thesis Advisors
Farber, Barry A
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 8, 2012