Every month we interview a different clinician about his or her life and work. They take us inside a place we rarely get to see: a therapist’s office. They share everything from what’s surprised them about working with clients to the hardest part about being a therapist.
They also share personal tidbits. For instance, they share whether they’d pursue the same professional path again, and how they cope with stress. Plus, they reveal the biggest myth about therapy and their best advice for living a meaningful life, among other interesting insights.
This month we’re pleased to feature Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT, a psychotherapist in private practice in downtown San Francisco. There, she sees many working moms who are coping with anxiety and depression, and has a particular interest in PMS and mood issues. She also sees adults and couples who want to find their spark and make life sweet again.
Sullivan has trained at the California Institute of Integral Studies, the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Center, and in Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy.
You can find her writing in Psyched Magazine, and at www.psychotherapy.net’s blog. She is a mom of two and a partner for over 20 years.
Learn more about Sullivan at her website.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
What has surprised me the most about being a therapist is how quickly most people improve. Not that everything is solved or there is total bliss right away, but many people feel better immediately, after one or two sessions. And many people are greatly helped by even a short course of therapy.
Clients fear at first that “just talking about it” will be ineffective, but in my experience, talking about your troubles with a listener who is very present has a kind of ordinary magic in it. I have seen it be deeply transformative again and again and so I’ve come to believe in it.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
I can’t recommend highly enough The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein. He is a therapist who is dedicated to bringing the insights of Buddhism and meditation together with psychotherapy.
In this book, he speaks to something that many of my clients allude to when they come in, the fact that they seem to be overwhelmingly hurt deep inside, but they can find no “trauma” in their lives to “explain” it, and thus they feel ashamed of it. This guilt about “wallowing” in their troubles only gets in the way of getting better.
Epstein writes insightfully about developmental trauma, and the ways we are all wounded, and all deserve healing. One of my favorite unexpected lines from the book is, “And [the Buddha] affirmed, in his First Noble Truth, that some residual feelings of deficiency are inevitable, no matter how good the parenting.”
We can’t compare our inner pain and struggle to anybody else’s, and we can’t really relieve anyone’s suffering but our own — this cliché is true. Therapy is taking responsibility for healing yourself, and so being in a state to offer something to others. It is a very mature act to go to therapy!
I also recently read and loved: Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel, and The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
That you will end up blaming or hating your parents for your grown-up troubles. Or that it isn’t fun.
I find that a frequent concern that people have coming in is that therapy will somehow find fault with their parents and create a rift. The idea is that if you look too closely at your past, it could bring up things better left unexamined and hurt your family. But I find on the contrary that therapy is often about the present moment, and that it often increases our tenderness for our parents.
I find therapy fun because we are often able to laugh at ourselves, increase our perspective and gratitude, and see the absurdity in this life.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Shame. All of us have a measure of shame to work through that fights against us feeling alive. But once you’re vulnerable, you are ready to be open, creative, authentic … and you can help yourself do anything from this state of being. Shame stops this self-knowledge and creativity. Writing about this Mark Epstein says, “But the self-judgments only compound the problem. They perpetuate the malattunement that was the likely source of the discomfort.”
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
It’s too expensive — I want everyone to be able to afford therapy. I wish the health care system in this country weren’t so vicious and brutal on us all. Mental health is a basic right.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
Hearing secrets, dreams, wishes and memories that clients feel are unbearable and shameful; and building a new aliveness with them that can accept everything as it is and move past it into a true strength (not denial).
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
A journal is the cheapest therapy. Get a notebook and start writing down what you feel, see, and think. And find someone with whom you can speak frankly and without fear of judgment.
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?
Oh yes. I would have to; this is my path. It doesn’t feel like work, that’s how I know.
The training is very hard on therapists though, and sometimes I felt like giving up on the education and internship road — if you are discouraged, you are not alone!
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
Who said, “Don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides”? I don’t remember, but they were right!
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
Go on a date with my husband or a close friend. Connection is key for me; I have to tell my troubles in order to cope with them. I can also use a journal for this — writing down the stress and worry can transform it.