Every month we take a behind-the-scenes look at how clinicians work and live. We interview a different clinician about everything from what’s surprised them the most about being a therapist to what they love about their work. They also reveal important insights about the biggest therapy myth and their best advice for leading a meaningful life. Plus, they share how they personally cope with stress and if they’d travel the same professional path again — and a whole lot more!
This month we’re pleased to feature Gail Brenner, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, author and speaker who joyfully helps people discover that suffering is optional. She is the author of The End of Self-Help: Discovering Peace and Happiness Right at the Heart of Your Messy, Scary, Brilliant Life.
Brenner’s work brings laser-like clarity to the confusion of common human problems, such as reactive emotions, feelings of personal inadequacy and relationship struggles. She skillfully unravels distorted identities people take to be true and guides them to discover and live from their true essence that is already whole, peaceful and at ease.
Brenner has special expertise working with older adults and their families, bringing clear vision and compassion to the transitions of aging, death and dying.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
I’m about to share a strong opinion, but unfortunately, what has surprised me the most are the stories I hear from clients and others about how unhelpful their work with other therapists has been. One therapist advised a grieving client to start a relationship way too soon and another unskillfully intervened with a couple, greatly increasing their distress. A friend’s therapist approached her for a sexual relationship, and a therapist I saw years ago made inappropriate and provocative comments in our last session of a two-year therapy. I could go on.
The therapy a therapist offers is only as good as his or her own level of consciousness and insight. As we all know, there are wonderful therapists who are knowledgeable and clear-minded, with only the client’s well-being at heart. But there are other licensed practitioners who have not fully worked through their own blind spots, and they unwittingly play them out in the therapy relationship.
The therapy relationship is so sensitive because people are coming for help at their most vulnerable times. Trust is essential. I recommend having a phone conversation with potential therapists to ask them questions and see if the match feels right. Trust your intuitions and continue to be discerning about how the therapy is going. If something doesn’t feel right, be open about bringing it to the therapy, and if the problem continues, consider finding another therapist.
Good therapy will make clients feel uncomfortable at times, but in general, they should feel that the work reduces confusion and helps to move them in a positive direction.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
I’ve recently learned about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and I resonate with many of its concepts. It advocates accepting difficult situations and feelings rather than trying to change them and questioning the thoughts that we take as true about ourselves. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven Hayes, Ph.D., and Spencer Smith is a comprehensive and user-friendly workbook that presents some challenging ideas with clarity and heart.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
By the time people contact a therapist to begin therapy, they’ve usually been suffering for a while, and they feel that they’ve tried everything on their own. So they come to therapy hoping that this interaction with a therapist will fix their problems. And this is a myth.
The therapist doesn’t have the power to fix anyone’s problems. The therapist is a guide, a coach, and a cheerleader—someone who can walk the path with the client, but the client needs to be willing to do the work.
An hour a week is not enough to shift decades of conditioning. Therapy is successful when clients are empowered to be aware of their inner experience in the moments of their lives when these patterns arise and are willing to experiment in the world with more functional and loving ways of being. In my experience, clients who are on fire for their healing and make a lifestyle of living consciously will enjoy the most favorable results.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Clients come in with very entrenched views of themselves, other people, and the world. They’re loaded with expectations and “should’s,” which create tremendous personal suffering. And they believe their internal language, which is often harsh and self-critical.
I hesitate to call these obstacles, however, as it is a common and understandable part of the human experience to be caught in programmed ways of thinking. It’s actually wonderful when people realize that something isn’t working for them and they seek help. They’ve opened a very important doorway to the possibility of discovering the peace and happiness they’re looking for.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
It’s often extremely obvious to me in the first session what needs to happen for the client to feel happier and more content. But it takes time to integrate new insights and understanding. Being a therapist is continually teaching me the value of patience and honoring each client’s own unique process.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
I love the intimacy, the quiet, being empty of my own personal needs and desires so I can be fully present. I love sitting with someone holding the possibility for their healing and happiness even if they can’t see it. And I’m so happy to celebrate with them when the fog clears and they start feeling better.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
My experience is that people are looking for happiness and peace more than meaning, so the question for me, and I think for many of us, is how to be happy, peaceful, and at ease in the moments of our lives.
It is absolutely true that suffering is optional. In any moment, we can become aware of the unhappy stories we ruminate about and the unexamined feelings that drive our behavior. And when we turn away from these stories and open fully to our feelings, we discover our natural wholeness that is our fundamental nature. How to do that? With these loving practices:
- Be willing to question all of your thoughts to see if they are actually true.
- Be present to the experience of feelings in your body and breathe with the sensations.
- Slow down and be conscious as you make decisions. Conditioned patterns run on unconsciousness; being aware keeps you aligned with what you really want.
- Enjoy the heart-opening experiences of love, gratitude, tenderness, awe, and beauty.
- When in doubt, stop, listen inwardly, and let yourself be guided by a force infinitely greater than your personal mind.
- Spend a little time every day being quiet and still.
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?
Rather than choosing psychology, I think it chose me, and I love that it suits me perfectly. I became a psychology major as a sophomore in college, and I immediately knew that I would complete a graduate degree.
But my path within the field of psychology has been circuitous. My Ph.D. is in social psychology. I then completed a postdoctoral research-based program in health psychology, and ended up retraining in clinical psychology.
Over the years, I have looked back and realized that when I was deciding about my career path, I wasn’t aware of the diversity of occupations available in the world. I was serious about my studies, and all of my role models were academic psychologists. It even took me a while to find my way to clinical psychology and private practice.
If I had a do-over, I would step back from my first impulse and consider all the possible career paths for my skills and interests. I’m almost certain, however, that I would still choose psychology.
But I do have a secret job wish that I will share with you — a barista at a café! This job would give me a chance to interact with the diversity of humans out there that never ceases to amaze me. I love those singular heart-opening moments of connection in life that would come with simply serving a cup of coffee.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
I wish people knew that their thoughts don’t define them. Believing what our thoughts tell us causes so much pain. We think that we’re inadequate or that we’ve failed, and we glue our attention to these thoughts so they become our reality. We think that we’re actually broken or damaged. It’s such an unkind way of being, and it’s simply not true.
It’s possible to have a new relationship to thoughts so they no longer hold us back from living fully. With practice, we can recognize when a thought appears, but we can let it float across our awareness like a cloud in the sky so it doesn’t become our identity.
We believe negative and limiting thoughts that are not true and don’t serve our happiness. When we lose interest in these thoughts, we begin to realize there’s a whole, magnificent self here waiting to be expressed in the world. Fear begins to dissolve, and we come out of hiding with enthusiasm and zest for life.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
Whenever I’m experiencing stress, I’m resisting what’s happening in the present moment. I think I should be doing more or that a client shouldn’t have canceled his appointment. I’m lost in thought about what I need to do or shouldn’t have said, and I’m oblivious to what is happening right now.
My practice for releasing stress is to realize when my attention has been captured by thoughts. I stop, take a breath, and release the story because I know it’s the source of the stress. Immediately, my attention expands, my mind quiets, and I’m more relaxed as the swirling thoughts subside.
I realize I have no stress when I deeply accept things as they are. I don’t think that they should be better or different. Then I’m at peace.