Our “Clinicians on the Couch” series gives readers a rare glimpse into the professional and personal lives of therapists. They reveal everything from what it’s like to conduct therapy to how they cope with stress.
This month we’re pleased to present an interview with clinical social worker Carla Naumburg, Ph.D. Naumburg authors the informative, inspiring and super-popular blog Mindful Parenting on Psych Central. She’s also a contributing editor for Kveller.com and mom of two young girls.
Below, Naumburg reveals the trials, triumphs and surprises of being a therapist; the books that have inspired her; the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy; her advice for leading a meaningful life; and much more!
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
Early in my training, I thought that being a therapist was about having the right tools and the right words to say that would make someone feel better. What I learned is that being a good therapist is about being able to stay truly present and accepting of someone else’s pain or fear, and that staying connected in hard moments is healing. Therapists don’t ever “fix” anyone, but if we’re doing our job well, our clients will feel less alone, suffer less, and feel stronger as they face life’s challenges.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a classic, and it’s one of my favorites. Dr. Frankl’s ability to find meaning in his experience in a concentration camp truly puts things in perspective.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
The biggest myth is that going to therapy means that there is something wrong with you. I have heard this over and over again, and it’s just not true. Attending therapy means that, like every other human on the planet, you have come up against challenges in life, and you could use some support from a safe, supportive, impartial person. That’s all it means.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
One of the biggest challenges clients face is something that many of us struggle with, even when we’re not in therapy. I’m talking about the ways we beat ourselves up because we think we’re not smart enough, not productive enough, not good enough. In addition to the pain we feel from whatever is going on in our lives, we inflict additional harm on ourselves each time we judge ourselves so harshly.
For example, I might have a client who is struggling with depression, and in addition to how sad, lonely, and hopeless she feels, she is also angry at herself for not getting out of bed in the morning or accomplishing enough each day.
Our pain is lessened greatly when we can have self-compassion, when we can love and forgive ourselves, even when life is hard, when it is painful, when we are really struggling.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
The hardest part of being a therapist is truly sitting with, and staying with, difficult emotions and trying not to offer solutions. When someone you care about (and yes, therapists do care about their clients!) is in pain, your first response is to fix it, to make the pain go away.
The problem with this response is that a) it implies that there is something wrong with experiencing difficult feelings (which is not true), and b) sticking a Band-Aid on a problem may help our clients feel better temporarily, but it doesn’t give them the insight, support, and perspective that will serve them well over the long run.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
There is a proverb that describes what I love about my work: “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.” Being a part of someone’s journey as they broaden their shoulders is incredibly meaningful to me.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
I believe a meaningful life is authentic, compassionate, and not always easy. Figuring out who you are and what you love can be hard work, because it requires listening to your inner voice, silencing your inner critic, and taking risks. Most of us can’t do this on our own; we need supportive family and friends, and at times, a good therapist. (I would recommend Brene Brown’s writing, which I mentioned above.)
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 choose the same professional path. My training in clinical social work has shaped how I see the world and understand people and social interactions and I value that tremendously. I am focusing on my writing right now, but in terms of my training and my professional identity, I am proud to be a social worker.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
Lots of folks seem to be under the impression that there is a fundamental difference between people who are mentally healthy and people who are mentally ill. The reality is that we are all on a spectrum; we all have better days and worse days, and you never know what might happen in life that can change things—either for better or for worse. Remembering this fundamental truth can help us find compassion for ourselves and each other in difficult times.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
I try to get exercise (walking, jogging, or yoga) every day, and I generally have a healthy diet (although sometimes a nice big piece of chocolate is just what I need). I find that journaling helps me find perspective, as does spending time with my friends and family. I have begun a mindfulness practice, and when I’m really stressed in the moment, taking a few mindful breaths and trying to stay present helps a lot.