Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions with Psychologist Joe Dilley


In our regular interview series we turn the tables and ask clinicians questions. We delve into both their professional and personal lives. We ask about everything from what they love about working with clients to the most challenging part about being a therapist. We also ask about the biggest therapy myth and how they personally cope with stress.

Plus, they share what the biggest obstacle for clients really is, along with the one thing they wish clients knew — and a whole lot more.

This month we’re pleased to feature Joe Dilley, Ph.D, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety and ADHD. He provides individual, couples, group and family therapy along with comprehensive psychoeducational assessment.

He’s the co-founder of Synergy Psychological , the private practice he operates with his wife, Dr. Carrie Dilley. The Dilleys chose the name “Synergy” to reflect the complementary ways in which the mind, body and spirit interact within the healthy individual or family. The name also highlights the collaborative nature of therapy itself.

Dilley is the author of the new book The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug & Reconnect in the Digital Age . Outside of their practice, the Dilleys most enjoy long days of “active relaxation” with their daughter, Ashton, and their son, Jack.

1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?

I’ve been surprised at how few words of mine it sometimes takes to create change for a client. It’s wonderful how nonverbal and non-directive the process of really good therapy can be. Simply creating a space where your client can tell her story — a space where she knows she is heard and validated — facilitates so much healing and growth in itself.

With that kind of environmental context, sometimes the gentlest and shortest of responses on my part (whether those are nonverbal affirmations or spoken observations or questions) can have a most significant impact.

2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?

The Lucifer Effect, by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (which, technically, I’m still finishing). I love how he demystifies the phenomenon of how good people can come to do bad things, and then takes a wider look at how larger systems can inadvertently induce this kind of behavior. It’s a thorough investigation into intra- and interpersonal dynamics and how they can play out, which is sometimes diabolically.

3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?

The myth comes in two parts: 1) That there has to be something wrong with you in order to go, and 2) that therapists analyze everything you say and do.

The truth that overrides part 1 is that all of us encounter challenges, and the process of navigating those can be streamlined by coming to know ourselves better, with therapy being a vehicle for self-exploration. In fact, the therapeutic relationship represents perhaps the primary vehicle for getting to know oneself. A professional relationship in which one party is trained to deepen the other’s self-understanding would seem to be the clearest “mirror to the mind” we have available today. Mere introspection doesn’t get it done, even for those of us who are therapists, much in the same way that a barber can cut his own hair but can only be sure he’s doing it well by using a mirror.

I alluded in a previous Psych Central interview to my wish that we could all approach the act of seeking psychotherapy in a way similar to the way we seek a checkup with the dentist: unapologetically and without fear of stigma. We take care of our mouths; why not our minds?

With regard to part 2: When I meet people outside the office and they hear I’m a psychologist, they sometimes ask if they need to “watch what they say” since I’m probably analyzing them. My wife, Dr. Carrie Dilley is also a psychologist and she has the best response to that question: “We’re all analyzing each other all the time. I’m just trained in how to do it so that it’ll benefit you!”

4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?

Change, even for the better, is hard. Homeostasis — within the client’s personal habits or even within the tendencies of the family unit as a whole — tends to predominate. Getting things shifted around for the better requires some rewriting of previous “scripts” in the way we act and the way we talk to ourselves and to close others, which doesn’t happen overnight.

5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?

Balancing the need to be present and engaged with the need to maintain boundaries that allow you to stay effective, not just sympathetic; and that allow you to rejuvenate through ultimately “letting go” of the intimate emotional content your clients present to you each day.

6. What do you love about being a therapist?

I love how interesting people’s life stories are. I love being able to catch glimpses of the huge, collective narrative we are all participating in together, as a function of the human condition. It’s fascinating to get an idea of how things fit together in a macro sense. It’s incredible how this life in which we find ourselves impacts, and is impacted by each of us.

I also love being able to speak into someone’s life (again, sometimes nonverbally, if you will) in a way that immediately enriches it.

7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?

My experience is that meaning is derived from purpose, because purpose offers context. In other words, purpose begets context begets meaning. In fact, without context, there’s no meaning. The greater purpose we determine that we have (and that our seemingly insignificant daily highs and lows have) affords the context in which to interpret our existence and the experiences we have during it.

So leading a meaningful life probably requires us to consider and pursue what our greater purpose is and to develop some working understanding, however limited it may be, of what our day-to-day experiences mean and what greater significance they might bear.

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?

Not only would I choose it again, I would do so and “double down.” I would choose it again and pursue it with even more zeal and gusto. If I had known how much I would end up loving what I do every day, I would have pursued the steps required to get here with an even greater assurance that all the hard work was going to pay off in spades — and not just for me in terms of my enjoyment, but for my clients and the way that I seem to be capable of helping them.

I like to think that if I were doing it over again, I would take any adversity more in stride, knowing that it is all part of the pruning process to get me to a most desirable outcome in the end.

9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?

I want everyone to know that there’s a movement in our field called “Positive Psychology” that says, essentially, “Wait a minute. Psychologists are in the business of promoting well-being, not just treating symptoms.” So while mental illness exists, the way many of us modern psychologists go about conceptualizing the arc of therapy or the trajectory of recovery differs from a more medical model whose focus is disease.

We look at where the person’s been and what about their life needs to be addressed, But we offer continued, preventive support in ways that promote resilience and thriving in the now and for the future.

10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?

I tend to engage in relatively spontaneous forms of self-care: I happen to believe in God, so when I encounter a difficult situation, I find it helpful to pray through it, and when I’m conscious of a blessing coming my way, I express my gratitude for it.

More ostensibly, if I have a couple hours on a weekend, I might trek over to Hollywood and peruse Amoeba Records where I collect vinyls, or if I find myself with a few minutes during the week, I’ll sneak out of the office for a quick mindfulness walk.

I don’t know if I find anything more relaxing than reading the paper with a cup of coffee, but I don’t sit still for long. During grad school, I stayed outside by training for, and running in the Chicago Marathon on behalf of the American Cancer Society. These days, with two young kids, I still try to make running part of my self-care, but I conquer considerably shorter distances. I decided the other day to train for a 10K this fall that promotes the makeover of the LA River. The finish line is at the entrance to a brewery, which also might have added to this race’s appeal …

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Shared by: Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., Contributing Blogger

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