Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions With Psychologist Ellen Toronto
In our monthly series, clinicians give us a rare glimpse into their lives. They reveal the surprises, challenges and rewards of being a therapist. They also share personal tidbits, including if they’d choose the same path the second time around and how they cope with stress.
This month we’re pleased to present our interview with Ellen Toronto, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Toronto has nearly 40 years of experience in the psychology field, and is a founding member and past president of the Michigan Psychoanalytical Council.
Toronto writes the Psych Central blog “See-Saw Parenting,” which explores “being a parent and the life-changing and ‘soul-full’ commitment it requires.”
She’s also co-author of the book Family Entanglement: Unraveling the Knots and Finding Joy in the Parent-Child Journey, a field guide with insights and tools for traversing the intricacies of parenthood, from surviving the early years to coping with an empty nest.
Learn more about Toronto at her website.
1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?
I think I have been most surprised by the courage that some people have who have grown up in very difficult circumstances. They want to make something good of their lives. They want to rise above their circumstances, and they are deeply motivated to change. It is amazing to see.
2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?
Rather than naming a single book I would say that the relational perspective in psychoanalysis has made a significant and very beneficial change in the way that we think about treatment. That is, it is not therapist to patient but therapist with patient. Therapist and patient are working together — focusing on the patient’s issues — but very aware that both are subject to the human condition.
3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?
I think the media often portrays an unrealistic view of therapy. People talk through their problems in a few sessions and all is well. Most problems are far more complicated with roots that go deep into the person’s history. There are times when one can isolate a specific issue and deal with it successfully. But that isn’t usually how it works.
4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?
I think the biggest obstacle is that in order to change, clients have to be willing to look honestly at themselves. There may be incredibly difficult circumstances that they have experienced but then each person has made his or her contributions to the problems. It can be very painful to acknowledge that aspect.
5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?
The most challenging part is definitely the financial end. Therapy is expensive and most clients can’t afford to pay for it, especially if it is a long-term proposition. Some people are willing to make the financial sacrifice and others simply don’t have the resources. Insurance companies are incredibly difficult to deal with and mental health has not been a high priority, although it should be.
6. What do you love about being a therapist?
I have always been intensely curious about people. I decided to become a psychologist when I was 12 years old. I love learning about my clients and then facilitating and being a part of the change process, which can be very dramatic and life-enhancing.
7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?
That’s a difficult question. I think each person has to answer it as an individual. Some people find meaning in giving incredible service to others. Some find it in developing an amazing talent and sharing it. Others find it in becoming parents and raising children who are good citizens.
For me a meaningful life involves finding my most authentic self and then spending time with people who validate it. It includes some kind of service to my fellow beings and a belief system that acknowledges a collective power greater than our individual selves.
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 would choose the same professional path. I think the human psyche is the most fascinating entity on the planet and we are just beginning to learn its secrets.
9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?
Treatment is something that would benefit every human being. It is an opportunity to sort out one’s life and make sense of experiences (that we all have) from childhood that were mysterious or scary. It provides an opportunity to talk about times when we didn’t feel loved or appreciated — experiences common to most everyone.
We can explore more productive ways of managing anger or stress. It provides the opportunity to be open to another person without feeling judged and that is something we experience all too rarely in everyday life.
10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?
I spend as much time as I can with people I love and those that love me. I exercise regularly. I participate in a spiritual community. I give myself rewards for hard work — decorating, shopping, reading and my 10 grandchildren!
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