Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions with Therapist Sheri Van Dijk

Sheri Van Dijk, jpg.Every month we sneak a peek into the professional and personal lives of different psychotherapists. We ask them about the rewards and challenges of conducting therapy. They also share the biggest obstacle for clients, along with what they wish their clients knew. Plus, they reveal how they cope with stress and if they’d walk the same professional path again — among other interesting tidbits.

This month we’re pleased to feature our interview with Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, RSW, a social worker who’s been working in the mental health field since 2000. Van Dijk has had extensive training in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). She’s been providing DBT-informed therapy to individuals and groups since 2004.

Van Dijk also is the author of several books that focus on helping readers learn DBT skills and apply them to a variety of mental health problems. These include: The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder; Calming the Emotional Storm; and Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Teens.

In 2013, she published DBT Made Simple to make the therapy more accessible to both clients and clinicians; and to help clinicians see that this treatment can be used to effectively treat many different emotional problems.

Van Dijk conducts DBT workshops for mental health professionals both in the U.S. and in Canada. She’s the winner of the R.O. Jones award for her research on using DBT with bipolar disorder, presented at the Canadian Psychiatric Association Conference in September, 2010.

Learn more about Van Dijk at

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

It’s certainly not how many people need help for mental health problems; I worked in a pharmacy for many years before I became a social worker, and regularly saw how many people needed anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, etc., just to keep functioning. If anything, I guess I would say what’s surprising for me is the stigma that still exists in society — in spite of the numbers of people who experience mental illness on a regular basis, the fact that everyone is touched by mental illness, whether it’s through having an experience themselves, or knowing a family member or friend who has had a mental health problem.

I applaud the individuals who have the courage to speak up about their mental health problems; and I applaud those who are able to put their judgments and preconceptions aside to reach out to help those who need help.

If we treated mental illness the way we treated cancer, we might be surprised at the results — lower suicide rates, reduced loss of income, decreased use of other health services, and so on. Mental illness is a hidden epidemic, and it’s hidden because people are ashamed to talk about it.

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

I’d have to say Marsha Linehan’s new, improved, and much bigger DBT Skills Training Manual! However, there are so many wonderful books out there now on mindfulness, as well as books that take us further into skills such as acceptance that help us to help our clients move forward, depending on the specific issues they’re dealing with.

3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?

I’m not sure that it’s the “biggest” myth, but it’s certainly one I run into quite often: that therapy is a passive process where people just come in to talk about their problems and in doing so things will improve.

Because I’m a DBT-informed therapist, my focus is on teaching people skills to help them manage their lives more effectively. In other words, I help people learn to do things differently in their lives; I find that often people don’t realize they’re the biggest agent of change in their life, and sometimes the biggest shift for people is accepting that responsibility.

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

In a very broad sense, pushing themselves to make changes. Change is difficult for any human being, even when the status quo is causing pain and there’s the slightest possibility that making a change will reduce that pain. At least the status quo is known, and the unknown causes anxiety and makes us uncomfortable, so this makes sense. However, it never ceases to amaze me how much I have to work on convincing people to make even basic changes at times — to eat more often, to drink more water, to work on getting more (or less) sleep, to increase activity level, and so on.

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

Accepting when clients choose not to make changes in their lives. Sometimes I can see very clearly that certain changes will help a client to improve the quality of their life — reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, help them manage emotions more effectively, etc. — and no matter how much education I provide, no matter how small the steps I try to help them take, they just aren’t ready to make that change.

Sometimes that means they drop out of therapy altogether, which I think is the most difficult thing for me, because then it feels like I’ve “failed.” At least if they continue to work with me, we can work on other goals, and hopefully at some point we come back around to that change. And because we’ve developed a good relationship, they might now trust me enough to give it a try.

6. What do you love about being a therapist?

Seeing people make changes. One of the things I often tell clients is that, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone come into therapy, learn the DBT skills and put the energy and effort into incorporating the skills into their lives, and not make some kind of positive change — even if the changes are only small.

Whether it’s mindfulness skills that help people start to live more in the present moment; or the idea of acceptance to help people move forward; or skills that help people to reduce their vulnerability to emotions, it’s always such a pleasure to have someone come back to session and tell me that they did something different – and that this had a positive effect of some sort.

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

There are so many things I know now that I wish I knew when I was 12! And if I had a dollar for every time a client told me, “we should be learning these (DBT) skills in school!”… I guess, though, if I had to pick one thing, it would be mindfulness.
Living life more in the present moment instead of letting ourselves get high-jacked by the past or the future; and being more accepting of things as they are (not giving up and being passive, but not getting so judgmental and therefore angry about things), has helped me to live a happier, healthier life.

It helps me to not “sweat the small stuff,” and to be thankful when I see others getting angry about something they have no control over — I don’t have to go there!

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 took a bit of a round-about path and ended up back in school at a “later” age (I was in my late 20’s when I figured out I wanted to be a psychotherapist and went back to school); but I don’t think I actually would do anything differently. The life experiences I had while I was working things out and trying to find my path in life are what led me to that path and taught me patience. I met people along that path who contributed to the decisions I made and who I am today.

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

I don’t think it’s so much one thing that I wish my clients “know,” as one thing that I wish I could make easier for them — and that would be having patience and compassion for themselves. So many of the people I work with struggle with a huge amount of self-judgments, and this leads to shame, self-directed anger, problems in relationships, and so on, and is a big part of what keeps people stuck.

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

Lots! I spend lots of time with my family and friends. I read a lot of fluffy fiction. I travel as much as I can. I’m addicted to Scrabble. I spend a lot of time in nature. And I practice what I preach!

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

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