Every month we get a peek into the personal and professional lives of prominent therapists. They reveal everything from the trials and triumphs of conducting therapy to the path they took to get there. They also share their best advice for leading a meaningful life and how they personally cope with stress.
This month we’re pleased to feature Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist and author of the book The Self-Aware Parent.
She pens a weekly relationship and parenting Q&A column published in The Beverly Hills Courier. She’s also one of Parents magazine’s “Ask The Experts” for their monthly Q&A.
Learn more about Walfish at her website DrFranWalfish.com.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
The thing that surprised me the most about being a therapist is how much I love the work. I have been doing psychotherapy for over 25 years and each day I love it more and more. No two patients have ever come in alike.
To be a great psychotherapist one must be endowed with curiosity. When people ask me what I do I tell them I am a detective. My real job is to dig in deep and get to the root of the issues, relieve pain, and help people function in the world on their own.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
The Interpersonal World of the Infant by Daniel Stern, M.D. is not a recent book. It was originally published in 1985 in hardback and again in paperback in 2000. A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology challenging the traditional developmental sequence as well as the idea that issues of attachment, dependency, and trust are confined to infancy, Stern integrates clinical and experimental science to support his revolutionizing vision of the social and emotional life of the youngest children, which has had spiraling implications for theory, research, and practice.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
The biggest myth about therapy is that the therapist is silent, the patient lies on the couch free-associating, and that it takes years and years until therapy is terminated. That is the classical psychoanalytic model set forth by Sigmund Freud, M.D.
Most contemporary therapists do not practice in that style. They sit up looking face-to-face at the patient and listen intently, then offer feedback. Today most therapists involve the patient in a more active role – a kind of give and take relationship.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
You may notice that I refer to my clients as patients. It is not because I view them as sick or ill. On the contrary, I am the type of therapist that looks for the health and strength in a person to build upon and capitalize on.
I was, however, trained at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the medical model where I was on clinical staff for 15 years. In a hospital setting clients are referred to as patients.
The biggest obstacle for patients in therapy is the courage to take that honest, painful look within at our own childhood relationships with our mothers and fathers and own up to our unresolved issues. Every one of us had imperfect parents.
My definition of good mental health is knowing where your vulnerable spots, or your “buttons,” are. When you know your weak spots you are more able to be accountable when they get triggered.
My message to all people – patients and clinicians – “Go for it. Be brave. Look inside. Own up to your imperfections, validate, and accept yourself – flaws and all! That’s what every human being longs for.”
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
The most challenging part of being a therapist, in addition to the same answer as question #4, is the issue of timing. It is an art, not a science, to intuitively know when is the best time to offer your psychological interpretation to the patient. You must sense when the patient has a window of openness and readiness to take in the information.
We are all equipped with necessary defense mechanisms. Your job as the therapist is to help the patient remain open to your input. This can only occur when you have earned your patient’s trust.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
The thing I love most about being a therapist is watching people grow and change in front of my very eyes. It is thrilling to facilitate the growth and clarity of someone who is stuck and watch them evolve into the person they long to be. I imagine it is the next best thing to giving birth.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
The best advice I can offer readers on leading a meaningful life is to give, give, give. For me, there is no greater personal satisfaction than giving and helping another person in need. I know this may sound syrupy and sappy, but I am sincere.
There must be truth in karma because every time I give of myself it comes back to me tenfold. But, the giving must be without expectation. I don’t mean just giving to patients. I mean helping relatives in my immediate family or close friends who need my attention, time, guidance, or financial assistance. Reciprocating kindnesses to those who have been good to me is high on my priority list.
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?
If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely choose the same professional path I have walked. My journey has not been on a straight line. There have been twists and turns along the way.
I began my psychology career when I was the tender age of 17 years old. A close girlfriend who was 5 years older and had been a summer camp counselor with me and knew my skills with kids was now a staff speech therapist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She called explaining they were short-staffed and asked if I would help out in their therapeutic classroom for autistic children. I agreed. I thought she said “artistic” children! I had never heard of autism. These children were severely autistic and I was shocked and frightened when I spoke to them and they didn’t answer. Many didn’t talk.
After a bit, I got used to it. My work with the children was observed by licensed psychiatrists and psychologists behind a two-way mirror. They recognized my gift with children and they offered me a training internship, which I readily accepted.
As soon as I turned 18, they hired me part time on their clinical staff with the contingency that I remain in college and graduate with my degree in psychology. The day I graduated they offered me a full time position.
After 8 years on professional staff at Cedars, my confidence grew and I let out a secret…..I could sing! I could really sing. I began showcasing in nightclubs 4 nights a week while working as a therapist at Cedars full time.
After about a year of doing both, I was offered an opportunity to record four songs at A & M Records and tour the U.S. as the opening-act for Joan Rivers and Rodney Dangerfield. It was not an easy decision. I loved being a therapist…but being a singer was a dream come true.
So, I bookmarked my psychology career and was a professional singer for over a decade. I had tons of fun but ultimately missed doing meaningful work that I felt was a real contribution.
I returned to graduate school, completed my M.A. and Psy.D, plus 3000 hours of supervised internships and got licensed in the State of California – all in 5 years! I whizzed through graduate school with tunnel vision working 7 days a week.
I knew exactly where I wanted to be when I finished. I landed far beyond my goals. My return to the field of psychology has brought me the notoriety and fame that I wished for as a singer. Life is filled with surprises!
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
I guess if there’s one thing I wish my patients knew about treatment before entering therapy it would be that the therapist doesn’t have a magic cure. The therapist cannot fix the problems alone. The real work and change comes from within the patient.
Many people are unprepared to do the work. They come in with lots of questions like, “Why do I do this…..?” They want me to immediately understand them, figure their situation out, and give them quick answers.
Good therapy is a process. It takes a skilled, experienced clinician who is willing to roll up her or his sleeves and walk the painful path beside you, help you avoid blind alleys, and support you through the familiar process. Not be a magician.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
I do a few different things to cope with stress in my own life. I love music. I listen to music and I sing. It’s a great outlet!
Sometimes, when I’m in my private practice office and I’ve seen a number of stressful cases back-to-back and then I have a break, I push myself to go outside and walk around the block. The physical activity, the change of atmosphere, and the fresh air against my skin is an immediate stress reducer.
Also, I get regular massages. That helps and it feels great! Sometimes, I dance around my living room. Talking to a friend is helpful, as well.
Doing therapy in private practice can be a lonely and isolating existence. It helps relieve stress when you join a supervision group or get regular consultation from a senior psychiatrist or psychologist. Verbalizing complicated therapy situations can significantly reduce stress.