The Mentor Who Changed My Therapy Practice
…And How Two Little Words Changed Everything
No therapist is an island. While therapeutic skill is the product of years of practice and self-determination, most clinicians, no matter where they are in their career, need a mentor: someone who, directly or indirectly, takes them under their wing and inspires them to be a better therapist. The five clinicians whose stories you’re about to read all agree on one thing: seeing how their mentors practice left an indelible mark on their personal and professional development that still resonates today, instilling in them a new sense of what it truly means to be part of the healing craft. Here’s what they’ve taken away from these practice-changing relationships.
Don’t always go by the book
In 1998, I’d just started my clinical work as part of Cambridge Hospital’s Latino Mental Health team. I was in my mid-20’s and feeling very overwhelmed. Cambridge had a reputation for being a psychoanalytic institution, and most of the therapists there had been trained in those models. Most didn’t touch their clients. In fact, they sat far away from them. Many of the clients I worked with were refugees who’d sought political asylum. They were very traumatized. But since Latinos are also very warm and affectionate people, I found a lot of the psychoanalytic interventions unhelpful. There was tension between the connection my clients needed from me and the orientation of the hospital. The woman who’d become my mentor, Mauricia Alvarez, had been working at the hospital for some time. She was different: a fierce, big-hearted woman who’d put 10 tablespoons of sugar in her coffee. That’s just the kind of woman she was.
Several weeks into my new job, 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, and then ushered her into the office with a hand on the woman’s back. It was a radical moment for me. It was beautiful. It gave me an explicit message to feel comfortable embracing my clients physically and figuratively. The way Mauricia worked drove home that our clients are human beings, and often, they’re suffering. They rely on our ability to connect.
Shortly thereafter, one of my clients, a Salvadorian woman, brought me a batch of homemade tortillas. I knew that gift-giving was one of those hot ethical topics. I panicked a little. Should I analyze what the gift meant? Should I refuse it? Remembering Mauricia in that moment, I thanked the woman and accepted the tortillas. She nodded appreciatively, and we began the session. In my heart, I didn’t know why I’d questioned this gesture of warmth in the first place. Mauricia’s example taught me that some approaches are simply incongruent with certain people and situations.
- Silvina Irwin, therapist of 19 years, Pasadena, CA
Never underestimate the power of self-disclosure
In 1992, I was fairly new to therapy, just out of graduate school, and struggling with a particularly tough client. One day someone recommended I travel to Atlanta to do a workshop with Kirk Lalor, a therapist who was said to do amazing work. Since I needed the guidance, I said yes. At some point during the workshop, Kirk asked each of us to write down how we thought the process of change worked in therapy. I was kind of cocky in my writing—pretty sure, at age 27, that I had the Rosetta Stone for growth and healing. When Kirk reviewed what I’d written, I was blown away by the laser-like intuition of someone who’d been doing therapy for decades. I immediately asked if I could go into supervision with him.
Eight years into our mentorship, my father got sick from cancer. “This is very hard for me,” I told Kirk. “I visit my dad, and all he wants to talk about is how the Washington Redskins are doing and how business is going. Meanwhile, I’m watching this man die and everyone else in my family seems to be pretending it isn’t happening. I don’t want there to be anything unspoken between us during his last days.” Kirk just listened, then got really quiet. “You know, Michael,” he said, “all communication is emotional communication.” That moment was a game changer for me. It said my dad was doing the best he could with what he had and was making a genuine effort to reach out to me in his own way. The last six months of his life I stopped looking for heartfelt conversation, and he started giving it to me.
Shortly thereafter, Kirk revealed that his father had died a similar death, and he started confiding in me for the first time. He let me in, and I began to see a much more human person. I realized that when Kirk spoke therapeutically, there was so much he was also revealing about himself. Our relationship became more egalitarian, and he encouraged me to surpass him in a way my father never did. He gave me the opportunity to experience a kind of male elder relationship that I’d been missing. He became my “psychology dad,” and it influenced my life profoundly. I learned to take risks with clients, like exploring transference and countertransference. He’s even helped me learn how to parent my 15 year-old son. His guidance is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
Kirk retired last May, after 45 years of psychotherapy and 27 years of mentoring me. “Therapy isn’t just what I do in the office,” he told me. “It’s the way I think, the way I breathe—everything. The hardest part is learning to say goodbye to the people who’ve been a part of it. You’re one of them. You’re like a son to me.” Today, even if I’m using formal interventions, I follow Kirk’s example and lead discussion with something human and personal. Like Kirk, I want to speak truths from my own experience.
- Michael Barnett, therapist of 25 years, Atlanta, GA
A few words can go a long way
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 really brought me back down to Earth. But what really gets me is that it was just two words. It was so skillful, yet so 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—he had an amazing ability to cut through extraneous words, and just responding with a short quip had the ability to completely change how his clients were thinking.
Years ago, I was treating a client who’d suffered childhood neglect and was also 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 really shifted treatment. Larry passed away two 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 very profound impact.
- Rich LaBrie, therapist of 7 years, Pasadena, CA
Never stop learning
In 2005, I was almost 10 years into work as a couples therapist, but I was increasingly finding that mainstream approaches weren’t helping my clients struggling with their sex lives. The message in all of the approaches seemed to be “fix everything else and the sex will improve.” Going against that wasn’t the most popular outlook in couples therapy culture. On a whim, I went to Colorado that summer to do a week-long practicum with a sex therapist some of my colleagues recommended, Jim Maddock. Jim took a broader look at couples therapy, and he respected mine. “Good couples therapy all boils down to each person deciding how they want to live their lives,” Jim told me. “They don’t have much control over their partner or their circumstances, but they do have power over how they respond to them.” That made sense to me, and it made all the theory I’d learned so much clearer.
After our week was over, I stayed in touch with Jim, getting clinical advice every other week by phone. Since I wasn’t as seasoned a therapist, only about half of what Jim said really sunk in. But I wrote down everything that he said—pages upon pages. Four years after we began working together, Jim developed liver cancer. He hadn’t shared the news with his students, but I’m sure he was very aware of his own mortality, and it showed in the way he communicated with us. In one of his last emails, he wrote, “Life itself is inherently last minute. The challenge is to do something meaningful when it arrives.”
After Jim died, I took all the notes I had from his lessons and spent a whole afternoon typing everything up. It brought tears to my eyes. As I typed, I I understood his words even more than when I’d first heard them. Seven years later, I’m still learning from Jim’s messages.
- Michael Radkowsky, therapist of 22 years, Washington DC
Your clients often have the answers inside of them
When I met Casandra Akins for therapy in 2004, I was in a really bad place, going through a tumultuous divorce and confronting a lot of personal issues. I’d never been to therapy before and had no idea what to expect. In the first session, Casandra asked me to sit on the floor. She handed me some paints and blank sheets of paper, and asked me to do some free-form drawing. Right off the bat, she said I could take my time figuring things out. “Don’t make any big decisions right now,” she told me. At that moment, all I knew is that I wanted to continue therapy.
In future sessions with Casandra, she was inquisitive but never pushed me farther than I was willing to go. She asked me open-ended questions like “What is it that you want out of life?” I told her I didn’t know. I’d never really taken the time to think about that before. For a lot of people, that’s not an easy question to answer. Too often, rather than think about what we want, we think about what others want from us. In time I realized that Casandra was letting the answer to this question emerge on its own.
When it did, and I decided to proceed with the divorce, Casandra helped me look at family patterns, issues of codependence, and abuse. She asked questions that allowed me to educate myself. “What was life like when you were young? How did your parents interact? How did they interact with you?” My mother had an alcohol problem when I was growing up, but I’d never really thought about how that might’ve affected me as an adult. I didn’t know how things worked with families who suffered from addiction, and what this might mean about how family members approached relationships down the road. Six years after meeting her, I decided to become a therapist myself. My experience with Casandra helped me see the world differently.
- Hillary Straus, therapist of 6 years, Orlando, FL