Every month we take a behind-the-scenes look at a different therapist’s professional and personal life. They reveal what it’s like to conduct therapy, everything from what they love about being a clinician to what they struggle with. They also share the biggest myths about therapy, what they wish their clients knew and their best advice for leading a meaningful life — and a whole lot more.
This month we’re pleased to interview Colleen Mullen, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in San Diego, Calif. Mullen and her team of therapists focus on helping their clients work through transitional periods in life. In particular, they focus on relationship and family dynamics, overcoming addictions, managing depression and anxiety symptoms, and healing from trauma.
Mullen also is the host of the Coaching Through Chaos Podcast. It features interviews with experts and stories of resiliency designed to inspire, motivate and empower her audience.
Mullen’s practice and writing have been featured on various websites, including our site, Fortune.com and the Huffington Post. She is a contributing author on EverydayPowerBlog.com.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
What surprised me most about being a therapist is that the people who tend to think they are the most frail or weak emotionally are often the most resilient and strong. This feeling of being fragile usually comes after surviving trauma of some kind. This can be in childhood or as an adult. When a person has been impacted by a trauma, they react to it. Often, they equate that reaction with abnormal functioning, but it is often their defense mechanisms kicking into gear.
Why they perceive themselves as fragile or weak is because sometimes those mechanisms are not the healthiest for us: emotional eating, drinking too much, running away. However, just the fact that they have survived and are finding a way to function in the face of trauma or tragedy is resilient and strong in itself.
Unfortunately, a person who believes they are weak if they show signs of emotional distress often becomes their own critic. The good news is that through the process of the therapeutic work, which includes understanding their process, introspection and self-compassion, a person can shift how they see themselves from weak to resilient and strong.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
That is such a tough question because there are always new things to learn. My work as a therapist is influenced by the writings of Salvador Minuchin and my former teacher, Jay Haley, who is known as the father of Strategic Family Therapy.
For non-clinicians, I’d recommend the resilient memoir of Elyn R. Saks, The Center Cannot Hold. This is Dr. Saks’s memoir of discovering and treating her own schizophrenia. It’s a story of how proper treatment and support a person with schizophrenia can lead a life that includes healthy relationships, love and professional achievement. It’s a story of resiliency and hope.
A very helpful relationship book for anyone to read would be The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John M.Gottman and Nan Silver. This book is an easy-to-understand guidebook for healthy communication in any relationship.
I realize none of these are “latest and greatest,” but they stand the test of time.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
The biggest myth about therapy is about what people think it looks like. I have found that people who have not experienced it believe it looks like the client coming in and just talking about themselves for 50 minutes and walking out after paying a sizable fee to the therapist for “just listening” to them.
What it actually looks like is two people in conversation that leads to introspection, insight and perspective shifting. It is definitely an active process for both the client and the therapist.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
The biggest obstacle seems to be taking the action steps the client knows will lead to the change they are seeking. There is comfort in staying put, even if we declare that we want to make changes. Change for many people is scary, but it is facing that fear and doing something different that leads to improvements in our emotional well-being. The day the client wakes up and consciously does something different than they start to feel better.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
The most challenging part is managing the emotional detachment between work and home. I used to struggle with taking home vicarious stress, but I’ve improved that over the years. I truly care for my clients. This means that when they are celebrating achievements, I am truly happy for them, and in contrast, when they are distressed or in crisis, I worry about them between sessions. It can be emotionally trying to hold necessary boundaries when we want to be able to attend to our clients who need us more than the hour permits.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
Everything! I really do, but to pinpoint something exact, I’ll say that I love witnessing people grow and change. I firmly believe my clients dictate their path. I see my role as helping them understand their course of action, why they would take one path over another and the ways to overcome their emotional roadblocks. Being part of their journey truly is a privilege.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Live behind closed doors as you would if you thought the world was watching. In other words, be authentically you in every situation.
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?
I would definitely choose the same professional path. The only change I would make is that I would have started my education earlier.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
Seeking help for emotional distress or mental illness (which are not inherently the same thing) does not mean they are “broken” and it does not mean that all the problems in their life or relationship are their fault because they struggle in certain areas of emotional functioning.
I want my clients to know the therapy process is meant to be empowering, even if it is uncomfortable at times. Treatment is meant to help them better understand themselves and their role in their environment and to help them shift their perspective if the one they come in with no longer suits them.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
I personally seek therapy for myself as needed. I take part in consult groups to keep my skills in check professionally. How I take care of myself on a daily basis, though, is to exercise, take time off work as needed (long weekends, vacations, etc.), and seek out social connection on a regular basis. Connecting with nature while with friends is probably my favorite way to destress. It’s how and where I recharge my own energy and sense of self.