In our monthly series, “Clinicians on the Couch,” therapists reveal the trials, triumphs and behind the scenes of being a therapist. They also share their stress-reducing tools and advice for leading a fulfilling life, among other fascinating tidbits.
This month we’re pleased to present an interview with psychologist and psychoanalyst Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D, ABPP. Phillips writes the excellent blog “Healing Together for Couples” on Psych Central.
She also is an adjunct full professor of clinical psychology at the CW Post Campus of Long Island University, N.Y. and on the faculty of both the Derner Institute of Adelphi University and the Suffolk Institute for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in New York.
Phillips is the author of three books, including Healing Together: A Couple’s Guide to Coping with Trauma & Post-Traumatic Stress. Plus, you can hear her Wednesday nights on “Psych Up” on CoSozo Radio with host Tom Matt of Boomer Rock.
Phillips has a private practice in Northport, N.Y., where she lives with her husband. She has two grown sons.
Learn more about her work at her website.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
What surprised me most was how much I would receive from those who trust me with their care. There are the books and then there are the people. Working closely with people continues to invite me to think beyond what I know and feel beyond where I have been.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
I just read Narrating Our Healing: Perspectives on Working Through Trauma by Chris N. van der Merwe and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. It is a beautiful book. Inspired by the horrific trauma suffered in South Africa and the impetus toward healing by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the authors underscore the capacity, regardless of history, for reclaiming self and others through the narrating of trauma.
Given the individual, couple, group and trauma work that I do, I resonate with the thesis that when we share our trauma, when we hear the sound of pain in each other’s hearts, we “make public spaces intimate.” We make it possible for someone else to hear, identify with our pain, and step beyond old wounds to connect.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
The biggest myth about therapy is that the therapist has the answers. The curative factor in therapy is not the therapist, it is the mutuality between the patient and therapist and the journey they share.
I have been teaching doctoral students in clinical psychology for over 25 years and I always remind these wonderful and passionate young professionals that they will never know more about the patient, than the patient.
What they offer is their clinical training to see and hear what the patient knows but cannot yet access because of history, pain, fear, addiction, trauma, etc. No matter what type of therapy, it is the collaboration between therapist and patient that makes change and healing possible.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
The biggest obstacle is the conflict between the wish to change and the wish to hold on to the familiar. Most people are trying to regulate their anxiety and although they are in tremendous pain, the familiar can actually feel less frightening than the unknown.
Often people hold on to the most successful childhood survival strategies they know. The problem is that they are no longer needed and they impair adult functioning.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
The most challenging part about being a therapist is seeing how therapists and their work are portrayed in the media. My family has told me that I have ruined most films and shows that depict therapists. Once my children were old enough, they would simply say, “Mom, you can’t stay if you keep commenting about what they are doing wrong!”
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
I love seeing the best of people emerge. I love the resilience and the hope that I have seen even in the darkest moments. I love passing on in my clinical work, my books, my lectures, and my blogs—anything that will give people the tools to become experts in their own lives.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Take the lessons learned from your past, set up some personal goals for your future and then live each day you are given.
In the course of that day, find a small way to include some generosity, some gratitude, some connection and some laughter. A meaningful life is in the details of how we live each day.
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 started in literature, headed into psychology and never turned back. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It is a way of thinking and being. There is always something more to learn, more to write, more to teach and what a gift to be able to share and care with people.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
That mental illness is not something they caused. It is not something about which to feel blame or shame. It is suffering that is as painful as any physical illness. Anyone suffering from mental illness is entitled to compassion and help. The damage comes when help is avoided or unavailable. With help, mental illness need not define your life.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
Actually I use a number of things to cope with stress. I have been running to music for 30 years and treasure it as a stress-reducing gift. I have always loved books and can become so engrossed that it is not unusual for the conductor on a train to come over to say, “ Ma’am, this is the last stop, the train is headed into the yard – you have to get off!”
I have a rule that on the weekends, I put down the work to enjoy time with my husband and I am always amazed at the revitalizing power of being together and off task.
That said, I try to be aware of the signs that I am on overload. When I start burning pots left on the stove, I know I have to drop down the stress by dropping something out. Big or small, when I open up space by rescheduling, by saying “No,” or by deciding to let something go – it always helps.