Out of Office

Therapists’ Passions and What They Teach Us about Practice

Psychotherapy Networker

Therapists aren’t just therapists. We’re people, with interests, hobbies, and passions that not only give us fulfilment outside of work, but enhance our ability to return to the office day after day with a clear head and renewed focus. And some therapists’ passions, it turns out, are pretty darn cool.

1) Finding Happiness on Two Wheels

The eastern sky in front of me is beginning to brighten, and except for the soft whirr of the bicycle tires beneath me, there’s silence. Soon, that silence will be broken by cuckoos, drongos, flycatchers, and other songbirds, all adding their voices to the morning melody. This is the scene that unfolds while I’m indulging in my favorite pastime, cycling through the luscious bamboo forests of central India, about 50 kilometers from my home. As I take in the beauty around me, the rhythm of my pedaling transports me into a mindful state.

I wasn’t always a cyclist. In fact, I haven’t even been a cyclist for very long. My cycling journey began about four years ago, when I was diagnosed with bilateral idiopathic achilles tendonitis—or, in layman's terms, painful swelling in the back of my ankles. The medicines and physiotherapy doctors prescribed didn’t help much, nor was the recommendation that I try steroid injections appealing. When a friend suggested I try cycling, I decided to give it a shot. Sure enough, it did the trick. The swelling went down within a week, and my ankle started to heal. Only now I was hooked on the experience and endorphins that cycling provided.

As my interest in cycling grew, I heard rumblings in my city’s cycling community. They used French words like brevets and randonneuring, referring to 200-kilometer-long rides lasting more than a dozen hours. I was intrigued. That distance, and that amount of time? It was unthinkable! After all, I was nearly 50. People my age spent their Sunday mornings settling into late breakfasts and leisurely walks, not day-long bicycle rides. But then again, I’ve never been much like my peers. So I signed up for my first 200-km brevet. After I completed it in under 10 hours, I went on to do 300, 400, and 600-km brevets. I gifted myself the title of super randonneur just a few months after my 50th birthday.

People often ask me, "Why do you cycle?" Honestly, there’s no single answer. But if I had to give one, I’d tell them I cycle to be with myself. For me, cycling cultivates mindfulness. It affords me solitude that I find hard to access otherwise. As a therapist, it helps me clear my mind and destress. It’s even provided me with some interesting analogies for therapy. I often tell clients, “Change is hard but seldom difficult,” and to convey that better, I use the analogy of cycling for 200 kilometers. Consistently turning the pedal for that long is very hard. But it’s not as difficult when it’s a procedure: You get on the saddle, turn the pedal, and keep turning it. Making it to the finish line requires commitment and effort, but it is possible.

Tarique Sani

Nagpur, India

2) The Ninja Psychologist

Long before I became a psychologist, I was a martial artist. I began studying ninjutsu, the art of the ninja, at age 16 with Stephen K. Hayes, the first American to be accepted by the last living Japanese ninja grandmaster.

As a teenager, I loved studying martial arts. I was shy, but because I was surrounded by supportive people, had clear goals to work toward, and experienced ever-growing levels of success, my confidence soared.

In my early 20s, I opened my own ninjutsu school, had a public-access cable TV show called The Modern Ninja, and even briefly served as a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama. I enjoyed practicing and sharing the martial arts with many people of all ages. As more and more students came to the school, some began sharing their emotional struggles. To try to help them, I’d share the martial arts and meditative lessons I’d learned in my own journey, but it wasn’t enough. Plus, it was hard to earn a living as a ninja instructor. After I experienced the loss of several people close to me, it clarified what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided to become a clinical psychologist.

I was soon enamored with all the fascinating information I was learning in graduate school, and after I got my license, I felt fulfilled by all the people I was able to help. But unfortunately, like it does for so many people, my work became my life, and I stopped training in martial arts.

As the years passed, I began feeling more anxious and tense. At first, I wasn’t sure why. Then, I remembered an old lesson from my martial arts training: we become what our minds are constantly exposed to. In my case, it was dealing with everyone else’s stress. At that point, I made a conscious decision to rekindle my practice of mindfulness, Zen, and ninjutsu.

As fate would have it, in 2009, I was invited to lead a few workshops at a conference in India on psychology and spirituality. I found out that the man who’d taught me ninjutsu was going to be in Nepal shortly afterward. We decided to meet up in Kathmandu, then traveled to a monastery in Pokhara, where, in in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, he surprised me by awarding me my 5th degree black belt.

While I treasure the amazing moments I’ve had along my martial arts journey, I most appreciate the daily life lessons it’s taught me. Most of us therapists do a lot of sitting, so physical movement reminds me that I’m so much more than my thinking mind. It’s also taught me that only the present moment exists to the senses, and that the feeling of being busy only comes when we’re thinking about what we’re not doing. Wonderfully, I’ve been able to share these and many other valuable lessons with my daughters.

These lessons have also helped me become a better therapist. I’m more present with clients, less afraid of conflict, and remember to keep in mind what’s really important, rather than only focusing on problems.

To all the therapists and nontherapists out there, I ask: What do you love to do? How can you bring more of that into your life? What are you waiting for?

Richard W. Sears, PsyD, PhD, MBA, ABPP

Cincinnati, OH

3) Taking a Breath and a Bow

“Is there a doctor in the house?”

This line often announces the arrival of The Therapy Players—“Chicago’s premier all-psychotherapist comedy improv troupe”—on stage at clubs, theaters, bars, and mental health conferences throughout the Chicago area (and now, during the pandemic, at online venues everywhere). I’ve been a member for the nearly seven years it’s been around. In fact, we’ll be celebrating our seventh anniversary together this month performing at the Illinois Psychological Association’s annual conference, which hosted our very first show back in 2013.

The story of The Therapy Players goes all the way back to 1982, when I first got bitten by the improv bug. I decided to assemble a troupe of fellow psychology students at DePaul University. For two years, we performed together under the moniker of “The Freudian Slippers” before members began drifting away to internships, jobs, and other responsibilities. But I never lost the taste for improv. One evening, years later, when my work no longer included evening and weekend appointments, I was watching a group of musicians prepare for a show. They seemed to be having a great time as they set up their equipment, laughing and goofing around with one another. I realized then that I wanted to recapture that experience, that playfulness I’d felt back at DePaul. And thus, The Therapy Players was born.

There’s something about the combination of improv and psychotherapy that’s irresistible to us, as well as to our audiences. Maybe it’s that both therapy and improv are grounded in acceptance of the present moment. Or maybe it’s that both are fueled by listening, or that they each empower individuals to take the path of what’s novel, new, and unexpected—to build the muscle of spontaneity when the path has become too familiar. Who better to perform improv than psychotherapists? Chicago may be considered the home of improv comedy, where there are almost as many troupes as there are snowplows, but we’ve created a niche that’s survived.

In addition to doing shows for the public, we’ve performed at all of Chicago’s major mental health conferences over the past decade. Our revue, “Phobia Shmobia,” drew a standing ovation at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and we were the headliners at the International Society for the Study of Self Injury, where we performed at the happy hour. Modesty aside, people generally love our shows. And while the most frequent comment we get afterward is how funny we were, we also hear about how people leave the show feeling better. There’s something about seeing us play that makes people’s burdens feel lighter.

I sometimes think about the determination it takes for a group of professional psychotherapists to maintain a group like this for seven years, and about the dedication it takes to practice weekly and perform in front of large crowds. We all have busy schedules, filled with career and family needs. But we do this because we get so much out of it. This is play therapy for adults. It provides all the stress relief we need.

Dave Carbonell, PhD

Chicago, IL

4) Pulling No Punches

Who knew I could learn so much from getting punched in the face?

About three years into my career as a psychologist, I had the privilege of learning how to fight for a charity boxing tournament held for a local nonprofit. I’ll admit my motivation for getting involved was a little selfish: When I first heard about the tournament through an online flyer, I thought it would be a great way to impress a girl who’d participated in the charity fight years prior. I’ll need to do everything I can not to embarrass myself in the ring, I thought to myself.

When the training began, those more selfish reasons for signing up soon fell away. A few days into boxing, I felt truly challenged. As the weeks went on, I changed. I’d never had the opportunity to do what so many people don’t do—run headfirst toward danger and stand face to face with fear, pain, and an unavoidable obstacle. Boxing gave me that opportunity, and the courage it forced me to develop wasn’t easily won. It took learning the value of patience and plenty of practice, with every missed punch and mistake punctuated by a gloved fist to the face or body.

The violence of the arena may seem like a sharp contrast to the therapy room, but it was here that I developed close, compassionate relationships with my teammates, much in the way I try to connect with clients. It also helped me understand some of the complexities of my own life, and how to find psychological balance. At the time, my life was in a state of imbalance: I’d been taking on taking on new responsibilities at work, my social life was chaotic, and my goals lacked thoughtful direction. So much of boxing, I learned, is about balance, about cultivating habits in and out of the ring that will bring you success and pride.

To achieve success in the ring I had to adapt, change, and grow. Boxing jump-started a forced evolution of sorts, one that provided me with the opportunity to reevaluate where my life was headed and think deeply about my wants and needs. In the ferocity of the ring, I found peace. It’s not a stretch to say that boxing illuminated my entire being.

By the day of the charity fight, I went into the ring knowing I could fight back. I knew I could stand my ground against anybody or anything that came my way. I knew that in any obstacle I’d face down the road, I’d have a “fighter’s chance” at success, without cannibalizing my self-worth or wellness. It was all I’d ever wanted in life.

As for that girl I’d been hoping to impress? Well, today I call her my wife.

Jonathan Jenkins, PsyD

Brookline, MA

5) Diamonds in the Rough

Let’s face it: Sometimes counseling can be frustrating. Okay, maybe more than just sometimes. We’ve all had clients who have difficulty moving towards their goals, dismiss our well-thought-out interventions, or just don’t seem to get better. Sometimes, it even gets us thinking, Hey, maybe I’m just not skilled enough. Luckily, in these times, there are people and things we can turn to. Having a hobby—whether it’s exercising, writing poetry, square dancing, collecting baseball cards, or crafting—benefits us all.

A few years ago, I met an old friend from social work at a craft fair, where he was selling his wares. He’d recently retired and decided to make leather goods for a living. When I asked him about the career change, he told me that the ability to create something gave him a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and pride. In that moment, I realized that maybe I, too, should find something to counterbalance the dissatisfaction I sometimes felt after a rough therapy session.

Not long afterward, I decided to take a basic jewelry-making course. I instantly fell in love with it, and poured myself into advancing my skills with practice, reading, and videos. It’s a creative process that, from the very moment I pick up a piece of metal or stone, makes my brain happy. It puts me in a different mental state, one where I can puzzle out the design, shape the metal, solder it together, polish the piece, and maybe add a gem for a big finish.

Hobbies like this offer us a break from life, an opportunity to switch to a thinking process that’s different from the one we use at work or when dealing with responsibilities to friends and family. It’s fun. I’m positive that making jewelry changes my brain chemistry and improves my mood. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book Flow, writes about hitting your stride during episodes of happy and constructive focus. It’s a process that brings your mind to a space somewhere between challenge and skill, anxiety and boredom, and even creates an altered perception of time. When I’m tinkering with jewelry, hours go by and I hardly notice. And at the end, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment.

Howard Honigsfeld, MSW

North Bellmore, NY

Topic: Creativity | Field of Psychotherapy | Mindfulness

Tags: burnout | compassion | Hobbies | Quality of life | self-care

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