Our monthly interview series delves into the professional and personal lives of clinicians. Therapists reveal everything from the challenges and rewards of working with clients to how they cope with stress to their advice for leading a satisfying life.
This month we’re pleased to feature Bobbi Emel, MFT, a psychotherapist in Palo Alto, Calif., who helps people bounce back from life’s significant challenges.
Emel pens the excellent Psych Central blog, “Bounce Back: Develop Your Resiliency,” which gives readers practical tools and insights on overcoming adversity and tough times.
She also writes her own blog “Bounce” about surviving and thriving with life’s roller-coaster ups and downs.
Emel has worked in the field of mental health since 1989 and spent much of her career helping people with psychiatric disabilities reenter the work force.
In her personal life, Emel enjoys photography, bicycling, golf, baseball and cats – not necessarily in that order. A native Washingtonian, she is a life-long – if not long-suffering – fan of the Seattle Mariners.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
How much I learn from my clients! Even though I’ve been in this field for close to 25 years, I still find myself thankful and, yes, somewhat surprised when a client changes my life as I’m helping her change hers.
I worked with a woman who had metastatic ovarian cancer as she was near the end of her life. The grace, acceptance, and gentle wisdom she embodied as she accepted her impending death was beyond moving.
She taught me, once again, that death was not something to be afraid of and that life is best lived without regrets. Often, when I feel stress rising within me, I reflect on my time with this woman and I can’t help but feel a sense of peace.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
I recently became acquainted with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and am completely in love with Russ Harris’s book, ACT Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Also, I would be remiss in not mentioning Oliver Burkeman’s fabulous work in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
The biggest myth about therapy is that, when you’re done, you are going to be “fixed” and happy. As a matter of fact, I find the idea of everlasting happiness to be a very unfortunate myth in our general American culture.
That’s one of the reasons why I love both ACT and Oliver Burkeman’s book: They are both well-grounded in the reality that we are always going to face struggles, negative thoughts, painful feelings and a whole host of other uncomfortable things in life due to the simple fact that we’re human.
It’s how we respond to these things that matters, not trying to get rid of them so we can be constantly happy.
In the interest of full disclosure: I am a bit of a happiness grump. I once wrote an article for my blog, “Bounce,” entitled “Happiness Irritates Me.” 😉
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
I think it’s the inability to see outside of themselves – to view their internal experience as though someone else was looking at it. It’s easy for us to get lost within our own thoughts, feelings, and patterns and, in so doing, we start to believe everything our minds say about us. And therein lies danger!
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
For me, it’s always been about allowing people to have their own paths. It’s a basic skill that therapists need to learn – to watch people make mistakes, stumble, triumph, and grow in their own time – but I have to constantly remind myself that it’s their path, not what I think their path should be.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
I love the connection with my clients and watching them (sometimes) reach those elusive “aha” moments.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Name your three highest values and then see how closely you are actually living those values. For example, if you really value community yet find yourself feeling lonely or disconnected, the gap between your value and how you’re living it is pretty wide.
What are some ways you can close that gap to live more closely by your values?
As Russ Harris suggests: Picture yourself at your 90th birthday party. What do you want people to say about you? What do you regret? What do you wish you had done more of?
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 may choose the same profession, but I would have timed it differently. I was in my early 20s when I started grad school and I just didn’t have enough life experience to really get very much out of my education or my early experiences as a young therapist in supervision.
If I could go back, I would have worked, explored more of the world, and allowed myself to mature more before entering the psychotherapy field.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
I want to answer this question from the perspective of working in community mental health as I did when I was younger. I wished then, and still wish now, that people with chronic mental illness really knew – really believed – that they have gifts to bring to this world.
Each person has a unique gift and that includes people with any kind of disability. And we, the community, need each member of our community to bring their gift forth for the betterment of the community. No matter how much you struggle with your illness, you are gifted and we need your gift.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
Besides eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (which doesn’t work very well, by the way,) I share my experiences and feelings with my close friends, and I ride my bike. Being out and getting some exercise inevitably puts me in a good mood!