In our monthly interview series, we take a behind-the-scenes look at how therapists work and live — something we rarely get to see otherwise. We ask them about everything from what it’s like to conduct therapy to how they cope with stress. We also explore the biggest myths about therapy, what they wish their clients knew, their best advice for leading a meaningful life — and lots more.
This month we’re pleased to feature Alyssa Mairanz, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and certified dialectical behavior therapist (DBTC). Mairanz has a psychotherapy practice in New York City, where she works with individuals, couples and groups.
She specializes in helping adults and teens struggling with various life transitions, self-esteem, managing emotions, relationships and identity issues. She helps clients explore the experiences that have impacted their current situation and learn concrete strategies to make the changes in their lives that they’ve been searching for.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
What has surprised me most is how similar people are. Everyone comes from such different backgrounds, cultures, races and experiences. Yet at the core, underlying issues are the same. Self-esteem, relationships and career are common themes.
The specific details and situation will differ, but the bottom line is that we are all just people who are trying to lead a meaningful and satisfying life. I think that’s an important realization because often people think they are alone in their experience and no one can understand. It can be helpful to know that there are others who can relate to you.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
I recently read The 5 Languages of Love, written by Gary Chapman. The book is about how each person has a primary love language. A love language is what someone needs to feel loved and safe in any relationship. The five languages are words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time and physical touch. By learning your primary love language, you can more effectively give and receive love. The book lays out the five languages and talks about how to figure out what yours is. Chapman also discusses how to learn to speak each language when you don’t know how.
I found this book very relatable because many times my work with my clients is around relationships; familial, romantic, platonic and professional. Relationships are such a huge part of people’s lives. But they can often come along with conflicts because all relationships take work. When it comes to relationships, the word communication is often brought up.
What was interesting about this book is that it focused specifically on communication expressing love. Many of my single clients talk about dating being hard because in a new (or sometimes even long-term) relationship, it is hard to gauge how the other person feels. People want to know that those in their life care for them, and often are preoccupied wondering what others actually think. Knowing your love language and that of people in your life can really help with this. When you know what you need to feel loved, you can express and ask for it. Knowing what your friends, family members, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc., need will allow you to provide that.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
Unfortunately, there are too many and they get in the way of people even entering therapy in the first place. Something I hear often is that therapy is just about rehashing the past and will blame everything on your mother, so what’s the point?
There are two misconceptions with this thought process. First is that therapy is only about the past, and second that it is pointless to do that. In regards to the former, in reality therapy is not about the past; it’s about making changes in your life. Yes, sometimes to do that you look to the past, but you also focus on the here and now and what you can do to reach your goals.
That being said, our experiences do have an impact and what we go through early on in life will shape us. Our parents/caregivers often have the biggest impact; that’s where this stereotype of it’s all on the mother comes from. However, it’s not a blame game; it’s just about understanding the effect our experiences have had on us so that we can move forward.
Each therapist puts different amounts of focus on the past and will have different techniques to help their clients. Therefore, the key is to find the right therapist for you.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Obstacles for clients in therapy can be very individual based, but something many people struggle with is enduring the therapy process when it’s hard. Entering therapy is a big step and often people do so because they had enough and do not want to continue operating the same way they have been.
However, change is hard. Therapy can become intense, opening old wounds and digging deep into one’s emotions. It can be difficult to sit through the process and not run from it or shut down. Trusting in your own resilience and talking about this with your therapist can ease the stress and help one push though.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
For me, the most challenging part is when I am dealing with a lot of personal stress or I am not feeling well. I feel that I am in a profession where I always need to be on my game. When I am not feeling at my best, it can be difficult to go into a session. It is never easy to do any job when you are managing personal issues or illness. I have had other jobs, and for me personally, this is harder to manage as a therapist. I have tools to help navigate through this but it can be a struggle sometimes.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
I love hearing people’s life stories. Everyone has their own experience and getting to be a part of that is very rewarding. Getting to see the progress people make and be with them on their journey is extremely interesting.
I feel that being a therapist is the closest one can get to reading minds. Being inside people’s heads is fascinating. People often wear masks and don’t let the world see the real self. I love getting to see each person as the masks fall and helping them feel more comfortable showing the world that side of them.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Be kind to yourself! There is that saying “treat others how you want to be treated.” I find people have an easier time being kind to others and don’t give themselves the same courtesy they do to other people. I like to say “treat yourself how you treat others.”
There is a negative connotation to the word selfish, but people should look after themselves. Yes, it’s important to think of others and be compassionate, but you can’t help others if you don’t first help yourself.
Remind yourself that you are a worthy person who deserves happiness. Take care of your needs, and make sure your inner voice is speaking nicely. We are often our own worst critics. Change that and become your best cheerleader.
8. If you had your schooling and career choice to do all over again, would you choose the same professional path? If not, what would you do differently and why?
There are times when I am stressed and having a difficult time and I ask myself “would I be better off having chosen a different career?” The answer is always no! I can’t think of another job that would give me the same satisfaction as being a therapist.
This career path has played such a positive role in my own journey towards personal growth that I would not change a thing. There were times when this was tested and I questioned the choices I made relating to my career. But at the end of the day, I have landed in the exact place that I want to be.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
I want people to know how brave they are to enter therapy. It is not an easy step to take or process to go through. I also think it’s important for people to know that therapy is not magic, and therapists do not always have the answers. Both of these things are important so that people recognize their own strength.
I have heard many people talk about therapists and how amazing they are. Many clients have expressed to me “Alyssa, I don’t know what I would do without you.” People are a lot more resilient than they think they are. Therapy can be a necessary catalyst to make changes in your life, but you are ultimately doing the work.
Just taking that first step towards making change is huge! Just recognizing one’s inner strength is a huge part of the therapy process, and people need to give themselves more credit.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
I often ask myself “what would I tell my clients?” This is helpful in a few ways. First, it helps me gain some objectivity and not be so caught up in the experience. Many times the best way to deal with stress is to take a step back. This will allow you to think clearer, thereby, being able to know how to proceed most effectively. This helps me to do so.
Asking myself this question also reminds me of the skills I have at my fingertips. I work with my clients on skills and strategies to help manage emotions and cope with stress. I sometimes need a reminder myself that this is available for me to utilize.
Some specific things I generally do are: meditation; turning to friends and family for support; and making sure I am taking proper care of myself in terms of sleep, eating habits, exercise, etc. Sometimes it can be hard to remember these things, which is why taking a step back can be helpful.