On being a (geek) therapist

when worlds collide…

Sometimes the world of mental health and the world of software development feel far apart. When I tell therapist colleagues and mentors that I’m a practicing software developer, I can usually predict the reaction. If often sounds something like this:

Really? Like,… you write code all day?
(me: mm-hmmm! Some days!)
That’s so different from therapy! How could you possibly do that?

Software developers, especially those that don’t know me well, have a strikingly similar reaction:

Really? Like,… you listen to people’s problems all day?
me: mmm-hmmm! Some days!)
That’s so different from software development! How could you possibly do that?

I used to think the same thing. The logic and discipline needed to write great software is so very different from the mushy feelings focus of a therapist, right? The cultures feel very different.  The first time I sat in a graduate-level psychology class I felt a little alien. My time in software development had taught me to be focused, results-oriented, and here I was sitting in a room talking about “self-care.” “Where am I?!” I remember thinking. But over time I realized these worlds had much to gain and learn from each other.

Bidirectional Stigma

I believe improving software developers’ mental health necessitates a bridge between these two worlds. We talk about stigma toward mental health, but there is data to suggest significant stigma in the general population toward software development and computer science as well. This is one of many explanations why more women are not involved in computer science (see this article for example).

Both the stigma associated with mental health and the stigma associated with software development have a compounding effect, and sadly they may work together to reduce the ease of access to great psychotherapy for software developers. Yet being both a software developer and a therapist gives me a unique vantage point on both groups, and I can tell you one thing for sure: therapists and software developers are, at their core, a lot more alike than different.

I hope to make a sturdier bridge...

I hope to make a sturdier bridge…

For my humble Geek Mental Help Week contribution I’d like to speak to both software developers and mental health professionals, and do what I can to reduce stigma in both directions. I don’t think I can change the world with a single blog post, but I hope it helps understand the “other” in a new way.

Four Ways Therapy and Development are Kind of Similar

1: Good developers are good listeners

Good therapists and developers need and use listening skills and possess empathy for the other. Therapists have an advantage here that it is a formal part of their training and evaluation, but eventually software developers must practice these skills to succeed. (protip for software developers: visit a good therapist if you’d like to work on honing these skills; they can always be improved.)

thanks to technology like xkcd, we can all learn to really listen

2: Good therapists are good, logical problem solvers

The classic picture of a silent therapist listening while their client lay on a couch is mostly outdated. Therapists establish rapport and listen deeply to join with you in your concern. They are also experts at helping understand the full context of what you’re going through and are great at seeing issues in a way that creates real change. If you’re seeing a therapist whose style of listening or problem solving isn’t working for you, discuss it with them, and know that different styles and theories of counseling vary in the amount of specific guidance and problem-solving they give you.

3: Great developers understand and value emotion

This one’s going to be a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t be. I’ve spent many years interviewing both just-graduated developer candidates and seasoned professionals; you always look for the candidates that combine great theoretical knowledge, practical skill, and demonstrable passion for what they do. The worst stigma about developers is that they are cold, unfeeling, there only for logic. In my experience, however, great software developers are passionate, committed, and persistent hard workers who take great pride in their work. The best teams are those filled with people that feel that way.

I think it is precisely because software development requires these emotions that other emotions can seem so scary. If I need to feel “passionate” about my widget to successfully ship it, what does it mean that I feel “depressed” or “anxious”? A natural reaction might be to mask those feelings, to pretend to be some other way, or to simply ignore all emotion whatsoever.

Therapists can be a great resource for learning how to accept specific emotions without letting them define you. Often just beginning to express what you’re really experiencing to someone who’s paid to really listen begins to change things. That’s why I’m not pointing to a lot of self-help materials here: data shows that a huge hunk of the power of therapy comes from the relationship itself.

  1. Therapists and developers must combine science with individual judgement

Computer science is rooted in math and counseling psychology is rooted in psychology. Both professions have sought, through the years, to codify or “manualize” their work, with varying degrees of success. Yet in both professions, good professional judgment based on experience is impossible to replace. That also means that, just as some great software developers are not a good fit for some teams, not every therapist-client relationship works either. If you’ve had a not-so-great experience with therapy in the past, use that as experience to inform your next choice, not a reason to give up on the idea entirely.

There’s more to say, but I’m running a bit long. If you’re a therapist with concerns about how to connect with a software developer, examine your own biases and learn to take them into account as you might any other biases you have. And if you’re a software developer worried about getting started in therapy, know that the person in the chair probably has more in common with you than you think!



Looking for therapy in the Seattle area? I’d love to talk with you about setting up a free evaluation session. Visit my Contact page for details.


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