Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions with Psychologist Deborah Serani
In this brand-new feature, we interview a different therapist each month about their work. Below, you’ll learn everything from myths about therapy to roadblocks clients face to the challenges and triumphs of being a therapist to how therapists cope with stress. You’ll even gain insight on leading a more meaningful life.
This month we had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist who’s been in practice for over 20 years. Serani is the author of the memoir Living with Depression. She also writes the award-winning, syndicated blog Dr. Deb, and has even worked as a technical advisor for the NBC television show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” You can learn more about Serani at her website.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
I’d have to say that I’m surprised how much I still enjoy going to work. Psychotherapy is as exciting to me today as it was the very first time I opened the door to greet my first client twenty years ago.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
I’m currently reading Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance: the Passion for Life. Her work and writing always inspires me.
One of the greatest books related to psychology is Mitchell and Black’s Freud and Beyond. It looks at the beginnings of psychotherapy and the different schools that developed over time and the treatment goals of each school. A great read for anyone interested in being a therapist.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
There are many myths out there, but the one that I hear often is how “psychotherapy is just an expensive way to pay for someone to listen to you.” Well, it is true that you’re paying for someone to listen, but a psychotherapist’s skills go beyond that of ordinary listening.
When you’re in therapy, you’re working with an Olympic medal listener. People don’t realize that so much goes into becoming a psychologist — years of theoretical, practical and scientific training and hundreds of hours of clinical experiences.
As a client, you’re not just sitting and schmoozing in a therapy session. There’s a lot of specific, active work going on. That, combined with your therapist’s clinical objectivity, enables a client to get a balanced, unbiased frame of reference in treatment that is cannot be compared to the listening of a friend or family member.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
Sometimes clients get stuck in the circular thinking of asking “why.” Like, “Why does this keep happening to me?” “Why can’t I fix this issue better?” “Why am I feeling this way?”
But there are times, especially during a crisis, difficult moments or a physical hardship, when “why” may not the best puzzle to solve. I teach clients that asking “what” does more.
What has directionality. Why offers no game plan. What offers solutions. So, the next time you find yourself in a bad place, ask yourself: “What can I do to make things better? And then once the crisis is over you can explore the why pieces to your life.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
So much multitasking goes on in psychotherapy. As a clinician, I’m listening, indexing my own thoughts, registering the client’s conflicts, sifting through feelings, and offering interpretations.
While that’s exciting and dynamic, it can be draining — emotionally and physically. The challenging part of my job is making sure to take breaks in-between sessions to refuel and rest. During these moments, I can usually be found catnapping on my couch, moving through a few yoga poses or surfing through the Internet.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
I love that “Aha” moment when a client reaches a life-altering insight. Whether it comes from weeks of work or arrives in a split-second of awareness, it’s the greatest thing to witness. I know that soon after a client reaches this understanding, a transformational change is on the horizon.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
I’d tell readers that well-being is an art form. In order to find well-being and maintain it, you’ll need to understand your own genetic tendencies and how your life story shapes who you are. This biology and biography will be unique to you and only you.
Well-being also invites you to embrace holistic as well as traditional ways of living. And once you find what works uniquely for you, safeguard it, feel empowered by it and celebrate it.
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 wouldn’t change a thing. I love what I do, feeling privileged and humbled whenever someone allows me into the margins of their life. Being a therapist is a meaningful career. It heals as it helps, bridges the past to the present with meaning and purpose, and offers hope and change for the future. What could be better than that?
I’d wish that clients wouldn’t feel the sting of stigma. Mental illness is a real illness. It’s not a result of a weak character, laziness or a person’s inability to be strong. It’s a real medical condition. It’s important for everyone to know that that there’s no shame living with mental illness.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
I live with depression as well as specialize professionally in its treatment. It’s quite important for me to keep a balance to my home and work life. I eat well, exercise, make sure to get restful sleep, and try to get in as much sunshine as I can in a given day.
I’m consistent with taking my medication and delegate to others when things get too much for me to handle. Rounding out my routine is making sure to have social connections and meaningful interpersonal relationships — as well as quiet alone time when I need it. I practice personally what I preach professionally and this healthy framework keeps me in a good place.
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