Before I became a therapist, I wrote and illustrated a book about grief called, “Grief is a Mess.” It depicts the vast range of emotional, mental, and physical states that can arise due to grief. I made it without a bit of research. It was solely based on my experience of losing my mother to cancer and seeing how everyone’s grief was different.
The book cemented me within the grief field, and I was soon invited to do presentations, podcasts, workshops, and more. I was seen as a specialist.
When I later became a therapist, my area of “specialty” remained in grief because that was what I had always done. The hospices and other grief organizations I had previously worked with (whether in a voluntary capacity or through presentations and workshops) referred clients to me. It was easy and natural to build my practice as a “specialist in grief.”
Over time though, a variety of different clients came my way. I found different topics and population groups I highly enjoyed working with - entrepreneurs, religious deconstruction, neurodivergence, and overwhelming thoughts and emotions.
As I’ve worked with these groups, I’ve done self-education through continuing education classes, books, and podcasts. I’ve also consulted with other therapists.
As I began to effectively work with more and more of these client populations, I slowly became more comfortable stating so on my website.
However, I admittedly still would hesitate to call myself a “specialist.” I’m not sure when or how one crosses the line to being a “specialist” in a particular therapy topic or population.
My book on grief signified to people that I was a specialist in grief, and yet, I didn’t have a drop of education in it.
Ethically, therapists are called within our profession to only work in areas which we have training and education. But how does a therapist know when they reach a sufficient level of training?
It’s often an arbitrary line that we set for ourselves as therapists (unless it’s a therapy modality that has levels of certification attached to it, such as EMDR).
There is also the factor of personal and lived experience. A queer therapist may be more qualified and informed to work with queer clients due to their lived experience. As an autistic art therapist, my lived experience is far more informative than any training on autism I ever received. In fact, many of the "autism specialist" trainings and certifications that I have done have been disappointing and behind the times on the neurodivergent movement.
In general, therapists' specialities seem to develop from a place of interest or lived experience. We then choose whether to seek additional training or consultation in that subject matter. We then gain more experience and expertise as we work with that population. But at what point is enough to merit the word “specialist?” It largely is largely self-determined.