Can Psychologists Have Tattoos or Piercings?

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Reader’s Question

Though I have problems myself, I will probably send them at another time. But right now I am looking into becoming a clinical psychologist when I grow older. I also really love post-hardcore (Screamo as people refer to it) and hardcore music. I plan on getting tattoos and piercings, and things of that nature. I just wanted to know if it’s acceptable to have tattoos and piercings and to have that job. I love to help people with their problems, and I love to listen. I’m still unsure of what I want to do, but if I do choose this I want to know if it’s acceptable?

Psychologist’s Reply

Sounds like you are thinking ahead about how you will be affected later by choices you make now. I have to say, at any age, that’s a commendable quality!

I will discuss tattoos and piercings together in the answer below, but I do think that it is worth pointing out that it seems quite different to consider a piercing, that you could choose to remove easily, versus a tattoo, that is relatively permanent. One choice could change with you as you change; the other is a permanent marker of a particular time in your life, feeling, opinion, or thought.

The short answer to your question is that there is no one answer; like with many things, the answer is “it depends.” You are wise to be cautious about something that you think could possibly limit your future job prospects. However, it depends on what choices you make with regard to tattoos, the context in which you are working as a psychologist, and the kinds of relationships you have with clients, colleagues, and supervisors.

First of all, I would imagine that the type and placement of the tattoo or piercing would matter. A discreet tattoo that can be hidden under normal clothing would be something that you could choose to disclose or not. I would see no reason why this kind of tattoo would get in the way of you doing what you want to do, as you would be able to determine when or how to reveal it, if ever. Whereas, something that is visible on your face would obviously be something that people could observe. With any choice regarding daily appearance, the message is, “this is how I choose to look.” The choice to have a tattoo visible on your face could possibly send a message that you do not intend, depending on the receiver’s opinions, experiences, or judgments about tattoos. I am not saying that this would be a fair or true understanding of you, only that this type of visual assessment is a lightning fast reflex that is working in all of us constantly. The risk of any choice regarding how we look is that we will be misunderstood or judged. However, many positive conversations could arise from inquiries about the tattoo. These conversations could potentially lead to greater appreciation of who you are. Again, it is dependent on the person with whom you are interacting and the context.

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In considering context, I imagine there will be work settings and even graduate school programs that will be more or less accepting of tattoos and piercings. You might find that a more conservative setting, such as a hospital, larger medical center, or government agency would have restrictive policies regarding dress code and appearance. Tattoos and piercings might or might not be allowed for any employee. On the other hand, you might find that there are agencies or private practices or universities out there who value the same ideas and motivations that have led you to choose your piercing or tattoo. It could be that it is important to you to find a work culture that accepts and values independent or alternative choices.

Finally, there are aspects to clinical work (e.g. meeting with clients to do therapy or testing) that hinge on the relationship between the therapist and the client. Many psychologists believe that this therapeutic relationship is the cornerstone of therapy work. Some think that the relationship is the vehicle by which change occurs. Others believe that the relationship is a minimal, necessary ingredient for other techniques to be effective. Across many types of therapy training, the way that therapists and clients view each other within a therapy session is an important aspect of the work. Given this, it might be worth considering how any visible tattoo or piercing might affect your ability to establish rapport with clients. Surely some clients will align with the very motivations that led you to choose a tattoo. You might find that clients who love (or loved at one point) Screamo and hard-core music click well with you above other therapists. But one of the jobs of a psychologist is to be able to establish rapport, or an initial connection, with many types of people. There could be some unexpected reactions in your first sessions with some folks; then you might have to discuss it, if you suspect that it is impacting the process of establishing connection with a client. In this way, a job in psychology could be affected by the tattoos or piercings you choose in a way that is different from other jobs.

So, there is the long answer. You will not be ruling yourself out of the profession by obtaining a tattoo or piercing. There are psychologists who have tattoos, piercings, and other unique aspects to their appearance. However, you could be taking a step that will lead to many conversations with others regarding your choice. These conversations could be a nuisance, or they could be an invitation to share who you are with others. It all depends!

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