Rich LaBrie, PsyD, Pasadena, CA
When the economic downturn hit in 2008, I’d been receiving treatment for depression for almost eight years with Larry Lewis, the man who’d become my mentor. During the recession, things took a turn for the worse. My work slowed down, and I became very unhappy. One day, I came into a session anxious, and spent the whole time spewing out my worries. Before we finished up, I told Larry I was afraid my wife and I were going to lose our house. Larry had the perfect comeback. He looked at me and smiled. “Not today,” he said. In that moment, I froze. I realized that I’d been catastrophizing to the point where it seemed like I was going to be homeless five minutes after the session ended. Larry’s response was such an effective intervention because it brought me back down to Earth—and it was just two words. It was so skillful and compassionate.
About two years later, I took a huge financial and personal risk and decided to become a therapist at age 49. That was the beginning of a mentorship between Larry and me. During graduate school, I shared my notes with him. I remember thinking throughout training that I’d never be as good as Larry—with his amazing ability to completely change how his clients were thinking with just a short quip.
Years ago, I was treating a client who’d suffered childhood neglect and was now struggling at work. He was a tough client who didn’t readily talk about his feelings, but his work issues were really getting to him. I suggested we make a list of all his problems on a whiteboard and try to sum them up. We did this for a while before it dawned on me. “How about sad?” I asked. The man’s eyes filled with tears. This simple statement finally allowed him to connect with his emotional side. It was one of those instances where a short phrase shifted treatment. Larry passed away a few years ago, but I still carry around his style and phrasing. I often find that if I whittle down what I want to say or show, it has a profound impact.
Julie Mayer, PsyD, Media, PA
When I was growing up, psychoanalytic theory was my religion. My father, a New York–trained psychiatrist who ascribed to the teachings of Freud, thought psychiatry was what Jewish intellectuals turned to if they loved to study but had no interest in the Talmud. He practiced in an office in our house on Long Island, just off the kitchen. As a workaholic, he was both ever-present and never-present. When we could snag some time with him, my siblings and I would ask him to interpret our dreams—with often embarrassing results, as they were almost always sexual. I still remember sitting on his office couch, which looked like the 1950s version of Freud’s couch in Vienna, and asking him about what he did in his secret space. In turn, he’d give me advice about my decisions and choices in life.
Years later, while working on my doctorate in psychology, I’d talk about my own cases when I visited him. I continued to do so even up until he passed away, 12 years ago. His perspective was always enlightening and often surprising. He viewed people in a spacious, compassionate way that has stayed with me throughout my therapy career. It’s a crucial part of my work now. His logic in his approach to dynamics was almost mathematical. Not surprisingly, he’d been a math major in college before turning to medicine. His insights derived from my thumbnail descriptions of my own clients were impressive, and reflected his years of complex thought.
But the most valuable part of getting bits of supervision and mentorship from my dad was that he encouraged my work and gave supportive responses to my ideas about my own clients. He gave me the confidence to trust my own intuition and intellect. I felt honored when, sometimes, he’d even share details about his own cases when he had an especially good story to tell. I so miss having his unique perspective, and the joy we both experienced around our fascination with how to best understand people.
Silvina Irwin, PhD, Pasadena, CA
In 1998, I’d just started my clinical work as part of Cambridge Hospital’s Latino Mental Health team. I was overwhelmed with the intensity of the acute trauma in my caseload. Many of my clients were refugees who’d sought political asylum, or folks who’d endured horrific immigration experiences and separations from their loved ones, only to find themselves marginalized within the U.S. in hostile and unwelcoming spaces. Cambridge Hospital was a psychoanalytic training institution, so most therapists kept physical and emotional distance from clients. They certainly didn’t touch them. As a Latinx therapist working within the Latinx community, I found the distance very unnatural. In Latinx culture, greetings are often accompanied with warmth (a hug or a kiss on the cheek are common), so there was tension between my Latinx roots and my training.
But then I met Mauricia Alvarez, the woman who’d become my mentor. Mauricia was a fierce, bold, big-hearted Latina woman who’d put 10 tablespoons of sugar in her coffee. That’s just the kind of person she was. Several weeks into my work, I watched Mauricia greet a tiny, elderly client in the waiting room. She smiled big and opened her arms to embrace the woman, who instantly lit up. Mauricia ushered her down the hall with a hand on her back to guide her. It was a beautiful, radical moment for me. I could feel my nervous system soothed by this culturally congruent gesture. It gave me permission to show up with my clients naturally, relevantly, and culturally attuned. I felt like I could embrace my clients, physically and figuratively.
Not long after, one of my clients, a Salvadorian woman, brought me a batch of homemade tortillas. Gift-giving is one of those hot ethical topics we therapists grapple with, so I panicked a bit. Should I analyze the meaning of the gift? Should I politely decline it? Remembering Mauricia, I thanked the woman and accepted the tortillas. She nodded appreciatively, and we began the session. I wondered why I’d ever questioned this gesture of warmth at all. Mauricia helped me embrace how my Latinx identity informs my work, especially with the Latinx community. It freed me to engage in culturally congruent ways of building a safe foundation for my clients, where healing can begin.