Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions with Jean Fitzpatrick
Every month we give readers a fascinating glimpse into the professional and personal lives of different clinicians. Because how often do you get to ask a therapist about everything from what they love about their work to what they find to be especially challenging? How often do you get to ask how they cope with stress and if they’d travel down the same professional path?
We explore these questions and more in our “Clinicians on the Couch” interview series.
This month we had the pleasure of speaking with Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a licensed psychotherapist in midtown Manhattan. Fitzpatrick specializes in helping couples and individuals create stronger, more fulfilling relationships in the context of very busy lives and careers.
Fitzpatrick is the author of numerous books and articles on family life, including The Superbaby Syndrome and Something More, a Parents magazine Book of the Year. She contributed to From the Ashes: a Spiritual Response to the Attack on America, a collection of essays written after 9/11 and edited by Neale Donald Walsch and Desmond Tutu. She is frequently quoted on marriage and relationships in the national media. Fitzpatrick is the secretary for the Eastern Region of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.
Fitzpatrick’s blog posts appear at her own website, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @therapistnyc35 and @NYCworklife. Learn more about Jean Fitzpatrick at her website, http://therapistnyc.com.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
Most of the people in my practice have come to New York for professional reasons from across the country or around the world. The diversity of their cultures and experiences is amazing: It’s not unusual for me to see a couple with one partner from Scandinavia and the other from South America, or an East African with a South Asian—or a Texan!
This reflects increasing global mobility—about 40 percent of New Yorkers are foreign born—and it’s fascinating to help them navigate different cultural assumptions and family customs on an intimate level. We’ve all heard it said, but I’m reminded daily that there is a universality to the human heart and a desire to connect. Experiencing this in my work gives me faith in our collective future as a planet.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo: the idea that there is a whole psychology of time, and that each of us has a personal relationship with time, is often eye-opening to super-busy individuals and couples.
Terry Real’s The New Rules of Marriage is wonderful for guiding partners toward a sustainable, equal partnership.
Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person was a game-changer when first published 20 years ago, and it is still transformative for certain patients who are so often misunderstood by family members and therapists.
I cherish the classics of existential analysis, in particular The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Fromm brilliantly conveys the idea that love is not a feeling but a capacity that, with courage and discipline, we can consciously develop.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
About individual therapy: that classical analysis is the prevailing approach. Cartoonists in The New Yorker just can’t resist those couch jokes! Even in Manhattan, despite the stereotype, many psychoanalytically trained therapists like myself work face-to-face and focus on creating a healing relationship.
About couples therapy: that “sharing your feelings” of anger and hurt for the whole session while the therapist sits back and listens will rebuild your marriage. Effective couples therapists work actively, teaching, coaching and offering support, to create an emotionally safe space.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
In our culture people often approach relationships like shoppers. They choose The One because he or she “checks all the boxes,” like a product with good reviews on Amazon. Then when the relationship runs into difficulties, they think, “Oh no! I made a mistake! This person must not be The One.”
Actually, though, all relationships get to a disappointed or frustrated stage. I work to help couples shift from shopping to nurturing a relationship that will, in turn, nurture both partners. As they learn to manage the conflicts, these become creative opportunities to understand each other more deeply and to build a richer life together.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
Sitting for so much of the day! If sitting is the new smoking, we therapists are in trouble. I do make sure to get up between sessions to stretch and walk around my office.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
So many things! But especially that these days, with the news so full of challenges that are unlikely to be resolved in our lifetime, helping an individual or couple work toward a more vibrant, caring life is one way to make a difference.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
Two things: First, know when to hit the pause button. When you’re over-scheduled, when your mind is racing with worry, or when you are absolutely desperate to get the last word in an argument, the pause button is your friend. Taking a moment just to exhale gives you a chance to get in touch with your most authentic, loving self.
Second, people often hide that which is most precious and beautiful about themselves, which makes it hard to connect authentically with others. They may have a very exciting, busy life but feel lonely or misunderstood. When our sessions become an emotionally safe space for that tender self to emerge and find expression, life and relationships get much richer.
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?
My path opened up a step at a time. I started out as a fulltime writer of nonfiction books and articles on marriage, family life and spirituality for people of all faiths. My publisher sent me across the country on several book tours giving lectures with Q&A sessions. I loved the interaction and the opportunity to help rather than just interview people.
So I decided to pursue training as a psychoanalyst, because I wanted to do deep work, and it sounded intellectually stimulating. Because my children were small at the time, I felt very lucky that there happened to be a psychoanalytic institute near my home and that its orientation was both existential and eclectic. Early in my practice couples began coming to me and I enjoyed that work so much that I began to seek out opportunities for continued training as a marriage counselor. I really identify with that Steve Jobs speech about connecting the dots backwards!
I’d say the only thing I’d change would be to have focused sooner on the importance of work in people’s lives. Family and intimate relationships are so important, but our patients increasingly spend many or most of their waking hours connected to work, which has a tremendous impact not only on their stress levels but on their personal meaning and sense of self. I don’t often quote Freud but he got it right about love and work.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
Therapy is not something the therapist does to you. Unlike the storefront psychic around the corner from my office, we don’t hand down a single mysterious pronouncement that will determine your future. It’s a shared process.
The therapist has the knowledge and experience to listen and respond to you in a way that can help you grow. Often the therapist’s biggest contribution is what she doesn’t do: She refrains from the advice and commentary you may be hearing from the people in your life. She holds space for you.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
Regular workouts and long walks around Manhattan and in the beautiful Hudson Valley are very restorative. Prayer and meditation are important to me, and I definitely need downtime for solitude.
Taking action to create change also helps me deal with wider concerns that affect us all. I’m active on social media, and when I feel strongly about an issue—most often gun control, work life integration, women’s rights, and interfaith dialogue—I tweet, write letters and sign petitions. It’s sustaining and often inspiring to connect with other people working toward change. I’m also a member of citizentherapists.com.
I love the theater —Broadway, off-Broadway, or off-off—as well as classical ballet and modern dance. My husband and I enjoy traveling and getting together with friends. And spending time with our grown kids, who live nearby, is a tremendous joy.
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