Four Traits of a Great Rehab Therapist

Reading time: 4 minutes


Note: the type of therapists I’m referring to are physical and occupational, the main type that I worked with when I was in rehab. I’ll just say therapist for the rest of this article.

Disclaimer: I’m not a physical or occupational therapist, these are my views through my experience and preference. This will say more about me and what I value, and may not be universal, but I do believe that I’ve learned enough in a multidisciplinary way that these traits will be common among great therapists that create a great experience (which I’ve had)

Trait 1: The Unaffected State


“State,” meaning the emotional state. The state you’re in.
Basically, this comes down to being in a good mood and having come from within and not letting it be affected from without. When in rehab I had already had good state control, and because of this people enjoyed being around me because I was an anchor for good emotions.
For a therapist to be in a good mood is very important. There will undoubtedly be people in rehab who take the pessimistic view of their circumstance and drag down anyone around them. A therapist who doesn’t get dragged down will eventually bring up the person who is unhappy.
A therapist will be more helpful to whoever they work with because if that person has a bad day or moment, they will need that anchor or a hand to pull them back to.
You can imagine going into a room full of therapists and all of them being cheerful, even if a few of the patients aren’t. This is obviously the type of environment you would want.

Trait 2: Lighthearted


Lighthearted, also known as being playful and not taking things so seriously. Being able to make a few jokes and have some fun is essential.
When I was in rehab, there was a point I got to where I would go out into the city with a therapist and we would just do whatever. We went around to random stores, got some Starbucks, got a doughnut, and had a fun little excursion.
There are times to be serious in rehab, but I can’t think of any. Why not have some fun in everything you’re doing. Banter and joke.

Trait 3: Tough Love


This one I think is most important, especially for making progress.
I had and always have expectations of myself higher than anyone else will, so I pushed myself beyond what the therapists were pushing me, but they soon picked up on it. When I did boxing, I would intentionally push my trainer’s buttons so that he would make me do extra pushups.
When putting tough love into action, it looks like setting big goals, trying things almost certain to fail, and really pushing. I seldom wanted help, I wanted to either succeed or fall on the ground and then learn how to get back up (maybe with some help).
I remember once in rehab I had gotten too much help and went away feeling like I could’ve done more if I didn’t get so much help.
So, I think it’s crucial to always push, especially in rehab. People don’t want pity, they want someone who pushes them higher.
Not everyone will progress as rapidly as I had in 4 weeks of rehab, but I’m willing to bet everyone can do more than they initially think.

At Shirley Ryan, where I went for rehab in Chicago, the main goal is called Mod-I, for modified independence. Mod-I means that by the end of rehab, the person will, at least, be able to live alone. In the first session I had with a therapist, I told them I wanted to be at Mod-I in 3 days.
That is the philosophy I think is important to adopt in rehab or anything. I wanted to set big goals, and if I failed, then I would still be further along than if I set a smaller goal and achieved it.
In rehab, it was set up such that there would be 1-hour blocks of therapy where I work on a new skill. There were only two things that took me more than 1 session to get to a 90% mastery (being able to do it on my own). Being pushed and given the proper tough love from all the nurses and therapists who always expected more of me is what helped me to achieve so much.

Trait 4: Adventure


Along with having some fun, how about trying something a little crazy?
I tried out a mountain bike while at rehab and took it up a set of stairs. When I was practicing walking and connected to a harness that was then attached to a rail system on the ceiling, I had them elevate me off the ground and I did some gliding around.
For therapists, encouraging people to do something outside of their comfort zone or trying something a little whacky will always make for a good story and experience. Safety first because of legal restrictions, but the truth is I wish I fell over once or twice because in the real world people fall over and get hurt. I’d rather take a risk when I’m with a therapist and already in rehab rather than leave and have to come back just as I was adjusting.

The final line of this article is to remind you that my Instagram documents my entire rehab progress, you can see and read everything I did to get an idea of what a great rehab experience is. My therapists, doctors, and nurses were the best. I’ve tried to categorize what I think made them amazing and in turn, made me amazing.


Immediate actionable items: Send someone a thank you letter today or tomorrow for helping you in some way

Summary: When it comes to being a great therapist (as all mine were/are) the essential traits are to have good emotions, a mindset geared towards tough love and having fun(banter and adventure), and not taking any of it too seriously.

Overdeliver: To all those who have worked with me, I still remember everything, and you’re appreciated.

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