In this series, clinicians reveal everything from what they love about working with clients to the most challenging part about being a therapist. They also reveal if they’d take the same professional path again, and how they personally cope with stress. They share the biggest obstacle for clients, along with the one thing they wish they knew — and much more.
This October we’re pleased to present our interview with Joy Malek, M.S., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, Calif. Malek is the founder of SoulFull: Psychotherapy, Life Coaching & Creative Workshops.
She specializes in working with Deep Feelers — people who are intuitive, empathic, creative, deeply sensitive, and singularly able to mine even their most painful experiences for the gold of wisdom.
Learn more about Malek at her website http://lifecenteredinsoul.com.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
The biggest surprise has also been the biggest gift — that pursuing the practice of helping others has paved a path to my own healing. I remember the moment, as an undergraduate, when one of my professors announced to the class, “If you want to be a good therapist, you’re going to need to be in your own therapy.”
I was 21 years old, and I’d chosen this field because helping others seemed to be what I was born to do, but I took her statement as gospel and got myself into therapy. I’ve received a lot of incredible and indispensable clinical training, but the heart of what I have to give comes from my own wounds and my own healing.
The best way to have something meaningful to offer as a therapist is to pay attention when our own raw spots are activated, and to do the hard work that we ask of our clients.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
Hold Me Tight, a guide for couples to establishing secure connection with each other. The author, Sue Johnson, challenges the belief that maturity means outgrowing the need for others. It turns out that an emotionally safe connection with someone else is exactly what we need to become confident, resilient and secure!
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
It’s no wonder to me that many people feel reluctant to try therapy, since it’s been popularly defined as a treatment for mental disorders. How awful to be in the depths of your pain, and feel that the only way to get help is to label yourself in such a way that just creates more shame.
Psychotherapy is simply a contemporary path to personal growth, in a long line of healing traditions that span history. Its potential for facilitating transformation is profound. For myself, and many of the clients I’ve worked with, therapy is a space in which we can finally understand the most challenging parts of ourselves, understand the value of these parts, and begin to work with them instead of against them.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Probably shame. We tend to believe that our most vulnerable places of need are the most undesirable to others. So, we understandably try to avoid showing these qualities to others, and even avoid looking at them in therapy.
It’s just too painful, and we’re too sure of rejection. The truth is that when we hold our naked vulnerability out to someone who cares about us, without defending, blaming, or otherwise pushing that person away, we are at our most lovable.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
Right now the most challenging part is modeling the vulnerability that I want my clients to treasure in themselves. We therapists can get caught up in feeling like we need to be the “exception” to the rule — we need to appear strong, poised and put-together no matter what is happening.
The truth is, that sometimes we are tired, ill, or unsure. Without burdening our clients, there can be something powerful about a therapist acknowledging when she’s less than at her best — instead of pretending — and inviting a more authentic exchange.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
I am a Deep Feeler, and I love my work with other Deep Feelers, who tend to be intuitive, empathic, creative, and deeply sensitive. Life often hits us hard, but we’re also uniquely equipped to emerge from even our most painful experiences with insight and wisdom. Deep Feelers commonly feel wired differently from others and rather alone.
So, there is a privilege to being trusted to walk with someone during their deepest moments of pain and confusion, and to help them see the exquisite beauty in the way they’re wired. When I know I’ve connected — this person senses that what they’re feeling as real to me as it is to them — it’s a sacred moment.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Honor your wounds. It’s probably one of the hardest things one can do. But it makes the difference between a life acted out unconsciously — running from the parts of ourselves that are hard to bear — and living a conscious life, in healing relationship with all our parts.
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 wish I could remember the author of a wonderful article I read several years ago about career paths. He was a psychologist and a former engineer, and he applied the so-called “Drunkard’s Walk” of mathematics to his own unexpected sojourn into psychology. He concluded that those with the happiest careers usually stumble quite randomly upon them. This rings 100 percent true for me.
I was pursuing an entirely different major in college, with a vague sense of unease, when I came across information about a counseling-track Bachelor’s degree. Within 48 hours, I’d made the decision to switch schools, change majors, and adopt a completely different vocation.
But it was right. Were I to start from scratch pursuing this career path today, I’d pick a different school, simply because I’m not the same person I was when I was 21. But it was that college, and then that graduate program, and then those training sites, etc., that led me to a life’s work that resonates on the deepest level.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
That the deepest healing in therapy happens within the therapy relationship. Paradoxically, it’s those moments of feeling that the therapist doesn’t get it, doesn’t care, or isn’t there for you that hold the greatest potential. Often clients try to ignore those moments, not rock the boat, and keep going, but it’s the process of having a wound repaired that can be most transformative.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
I swim; hike; read; call my nearest and dearest; cuddle with my cats; watch TV (I know that’s out of fashion to admit, but let’s be real!); work on something I care about; and most recently, watch video lessons by my favorite business coaches on Periscope.