Tag Archives: psychological

How Therapy Works — Cinderella Redux

At a friend’s birthday party in third grade, I saw the animated movie Cinderella. I sobbed through the entire film, terrified that the evil cat would devour the mice. When the credits rolled and the beloved rodents triumphed, I was vastly relieved — but also confused. Cinderella’s happily-ever-after finale made no sense. She lost both parents. She suffered emotional abuse and neglect. She survived extreme isolation and had no human friends. Cinderella couldn’t possibly erase her traumatic past with a hasty marriage to a man, flashing epaulettes, who knew her shoe size before her name. Cinderella didn’t need a prince; she needed a therapist.

Fast-forward twenty years.

I completed a doctoral program in mental health and began a career that lasted more than two decades. Along the way, I’ve been asked several times to explain how therapy works, how words can become catalysts for emotional change. I’ve fielded this question at dinner parties, teaching classes, in sessions with clients, supervising trainees. It’s a worthy question, superficially simple, deceptively complex.

I was always annoyed when therapists spoke Jargon rather than English. When I was in grad school, training to work with patients, my role-model mentors conveyed ideas with an artistic simplicity. They helped their patients explore the depths of their emotional worlds, speaking with clarity and heart, in no way sacrificing scientific knowledge or human intricacies. They chose clear words, to show their patients how unresolved issues from the past became superimposed on the present, derailing the ability to make healthy choices. Simple language is our telegraph line into the tangled, layered, lush emotional life we all hold deep within.

Some adults survive backgrounds that match Cinderella’s early trauma, and resist the emotional pathology that seems inevitable. Some of these children (like Cinderella) look unbreakable, immune, invulnerable — which of course isn’t true. In our offices, our patients show us that their survival has rested in part on their ability to manage potentially incapacitating feelings of vulnerability, a vulnerability which often surfaces in the safety of therapy, as a part of healing. These children carry bruises, even scars into adulthood, but they survived because they were, in many ways, healthy. Like Cinderella with her animal friends, these folks figured out ways to interact with the situation at hand, allowing their own psychological development to continue a forward motion.

But what happens to forward motion when that child stumbles over a roadblock? What happens when that young emotional core needs bolstering from a more mature emotional core? And what if that more mature helper is not available? Then, in the service of forward motion, the child skips over that building block in development. It’s those potential but not yet solidified building blocks that our patients present to us, sometimes in the moment, sometimes decades later.

Into adulthood, people can create lifestyles that accommodate those not-yet solidified building  blocks. But if life throws them a curve ball, or if their own emotional needs call for these building books to be cemented into place, then these people bring to us their pain, bewilderment, vulnerability, both past and present. They begin to examine their own youthful coping strategy, a strategy that was beyond their own years at the time, and to initiate the process of psychologically catching up to themselves.

Each person is an emotional tapestry — interwoven threads of strength, weakness, illness, health. The unique blend in each individual forms an emotional fingerprint of textures, colors, patterns. As clinicians, we strive to understand each thread, and how it intertwines with all the others. Therapy helps patients explore their own internal tapestry, and move from images centered around illness and trauma to norms allowing for a more healthy range. In other words, in the course of treatment, patients shed the constraints that, by necessity, they themselves created in order to grow up.

So how does therapy work? Together, the therapist and patient create a safe place to feel vulnerable, which allows the patient to take charge of that vulnerability. The hunger in each patient becomes a measure not only of need, but also of capacity. If both health and illness are vital to this picture, then the patient’s own strength can be enlisted to engage the patient’s potential to heal, which empowers the patient (instead of the therapist) to become the primary agent of change.

Throughout treatment, the therapeutic relationship is essential. Every word, every nuance, every gesture is an opportunity for the therapist to communicate an optimism of repair — an optimism which no amount of drugs, predictable program regimens or technology can replace. Whenever a sign of health emerges, the therapist can reach for it, weaving it into the tapestry of the therapeutic relationship, and into the patient’s core tapestry as well.

If Cinderella, grown up, had entered my office for treatment, I would have listened carefully to the words she chose to tell her story. Together, we would have developed a language to understand her emotional landscape. I would have helped her own the importance of her relationships with the animals — their warmth, their love, their limitations. Layer by layer, we’d walk through her losses, anger, fear — interwoven with her perseverance, tenacity, resiliency. Inevitably, at some point, she’d become upset with me — possibly she’d experience me as mean (like her step-mom); possibly she’d become terrified that I was about to die (like her Dad); I’d point out that her past was shaping her present world view, causing her to relate to me as a stand-in for someone who had hurt her. When the moment was right, I’d comment on her stunningly graceful movements and her unusual gift relating to animals. I’d wonder — did she hold any interest in dance? In veterinary medicine? I’d ask if she liked her glass slippers, or if she preferred Birkenstocks. I’d guide her to redefine her existence as more than an exercise in endurance, her goals as more than escaping from pain. We’d find words to expand her emotional repertoire, as she discovered new frontiers of empowerment. I’d help her become the person who, by her own definition, she was meant to be.

That’s how therapy works. Just that simple. Just that complex.

___

Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. She graduated cum laude from Yale University with distinction in the major of psychology. She has a masters degree in Health and Medical Sciences from U.C. Berkeley, and a Doctor of Mental Health degree from U.C. San Francisco. Before she became a full-time writer, Amy was a therapist for over 25 years. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of training, working with a patient who is feisty, brilliant, stormy and troubled. The story portrays a fictional version of the therapeutic process, and the healing potential of the therapeutic relationship. The perspectives of the therapist, the patient and the supervisor are all parts of the plot line. Check out Amy’s Author Page on Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

 

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Reading Guides for Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable and Tightwire

Dear Readers,

I’ve received emails from members of book clubs who are reading my novels. Some asked for a reading guide, so I created one for each novel.

When I give talks, my favorite part is opening the floor to questions. Your ideas always kick-start new ways of thinking within me – and I’m grateful. If you want to respond to the reading guides, feel free to contact me through my website. I love hearing from readers, and I try to respond to every message. http://amykaufmanburk.com

For those of you who are including my novel in your book club, in your classroom, on your  personal list of books to read – thank you so much.

Best,

Amy

READING GUIDES

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable

1. As the book opens, Caroline has just transferred from a private school to her local public high school and she is terrified.  But from the start, she shows signs of being much more than scared and intimidated. What are the first signs that Caroline has hidden strengths? Have you ever felt strong inside in ways nobody could see?

2. This novel has lesbian and gay characters, as well as straight characters. Each character adds a vital piece to the story. Yet, unlike many books in the “Gay And Lesbian Literary Fiction” category, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable does not offer explicit details of sex. In writing the story, this was a careful choice I made. What do you think of this decision?

3. A theme of my novel is defying stereotypes. Some of the stereotypes in the story are racial, sexual and gender based. Some are about other kinds of assumptions. For instance, what does it say about a person if he/she is a prostitute, the leader of a gang, a cheerleader, extremely academic? Have you ever felt that others stereotyped you?

4. I wrote my book in reaction to the bullying of gay boys that I witnessed in high school. Have you ever been bullied? Have you ever acted as a bully? Have you ever seen another bullied? How did you handle it? Will you handle it differently next time?

5. A subplot in the book is based on growing up in the film industry. Have you ever been in an environment that was a mismatch for your true self? How did you navigate the situation?

6. From the first chapter, Caroline begins to find friends in her new high school. She builds a friendship group that is racially, sexually and economically diverse. Is that sort of diversity important to you?

7. Several high school characters have secrets – Caroline, The Duke, Valerie. Have you ever held a secret inside, that you were afraid to speak out loud? How does it feel to have a secret?

8. Sexual assault should happen to nobody, but it can happen to anybody. This is a subplot in Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable. Have you ever been assaulted? Have you known someone who has been assaulted? Do you have the support you need to heal? (If not, please contact a rape crisis center near you, or talk to a therapist.)

9. When I speak to gay/straight alliances, I often hear stories of adolescents coming out to their families, and getting unsupportive, hurtful responses. I decided to include in my novel one family’s journey to support and acceptance. Have you ever felt unsupported by your family when you most needed support?

I wrote the following blog posts to help families stay supportive and bonded.

“They Came Out And Gay Fills The Room” https://amykaufmanburk.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/they-came-out-and-gay-fills-the-room/

“When Your Daughter Or Son Comes Out” https://amykaufmanburk.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/when-your-daughter-or-son-comes-out/

“If My Child Came Out As Trans”     https://amykaufmanburk.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/if-my-child-came-out-as-trans/

10. Homophobia can show itself in many forms. It can be subtle, damaging, hurtful, deadly. Through different characters, I decided to demonstrate different kinds of homophobia, and model different paths to support and acceptance. Have you ever seen someone move from homophobia to support and acceptance? Have you taken that journey to becoming an ally?

11. Readers often tell me they have picked a favorite character in Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable. Do you have a favorite character from the book? What draws you to that character?

12. Do you have an idea to add to this study guide? I’d love to hear from you! http://hollywoodhighbook.com/?page_id=70

Tightwire

1. Tightwire tracks Caroline Black through her first year as a psychology intern, working with her first patient, Collier. As the book opens, Collier feels hopeless. As the book progresses, he discovers his capacity to heal. Have you ever felt hopeless? Have you found a way to heal? (If you need help, please reach out to the resources in your community.)

2. People have all sorts of ideas about therapy and therapists, and their ideas sometimes include a stigma. I hope this novel shows how helpful a “talking therapy” can be, and helps to diminish the stigma. Did the story make the idea of therapy less “strange,” possibly more comfortable?

3. Sexuality can feel confusing, even terrifying. At one point in the story, Collier (the patient) questions his sexuality. Have you ever questioned your sexuality or your sexual identity? How did you resolve your questions? Are your questions still ongoing? (If you need support, please contact an LGBTQIA center near your home. The Trevor Project is also an excellent organization to offer support. http://www.thetrevorproject.org)

4. Two important characters in Tightwire are Jeanne and Tracy, a lesbian couple with two children, who become role-model-parents for Collier. Have you met a same-sex couple with children? Are you comfortable with that family constellation? Why or why not? (If you’re open to growing more comfortable, maybe Jeanne and Tracy can help!)

5. One theme of this book is that if you’re motivated, it’s never too late to change. Do you have parts of yourself that you’d like to change?

6. Sexual assault can happen in many forms. People can feel a wide range of emotions including violated, betrayed, contaminated, frightened…also guilty, confused, depressed, doubting the validity of their own experience. Sexual assault is a part of this novel, and the survivor’s healing is a central theme. Have you ever had a sexual experience which left you feeling assaulted? Were you able to trust the validity of your experience, even if the assault fell outside the legal definition of “rape”? Have you ever felt safe enough to tell another person? (If you need help healing, please reach out to a rape crisis center or a therapist.)

7. In one session with Collier, Caroline (the therapist) has no idea how to handle the situation, and she makes several mistakes. She is certain that she has torpedoed both the treatment and her career. She expects her supervisor to kick her out of her psych internship, and her patient to quit. But to her surprise, her supervisor is supportive and helpful, and her patient comes back to continue working. What does Caroline do that earns the respect of her supervisor, and allows Collier to return to his treatment? Have you ever made a big mistake, and then been given a second chance?

8. Tightwire is structured with chapters that alternate between Caroline’s sessions with Collier, and Caroline’s life as she grows up. Did you find the structure engaging? Why or why not?

9. Do you have an idea to add to this study guide? I’d love to hear from you! http://amykaufmanburk.com

____

Novels By Amy Kaufman Burk

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable

Caroline Black, 15 years old, leaves her college prep academy for the local public high school, which opens her world. Written in reaction to the bullying of gay students I witnessed in high school.

Tightwire

Caroline Black, now a rookie psychology intern, goes through one year of training, working with her first patient – a young man who is stormy, seductive, complex and troubled. Written in support of healthy sex and sexuality, in support of same-sex parents, and as a voice against the stigma of psychotherapy.

Amy’s Author Page On Amazon

https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

 

 

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Filed under Ally Support, bullying, LGBT, Marriage Equality, NoMore, psychological, Stereotypes, therapy, writing

Let’s Lose The Stigma Of Therapy

Before I decided to write fiction full-time, I was a therapist for 25 years. With my patients, I didn’t use scalpels or imaging, stethoscopes or bandages. Sometimes medications were helpful, but my primary tool was the spoken word.

In my office with clients, I used language to create a treatment. I chose my words with care, hoping to start a chain reaction which began with curiosity, then led to alternative ways of processing thoughts and feelings, and finally to the potential for different life choices. Words became catalysts for change.

As a therapist then and a novelist now, I’ve chosen careers based on language – first the spoken word and now the written word. With my second novel, my two careers collided. Tightwire is a fictionalized version of my first year of training to become a therapist. The story follows the rookie year of a psych intern (Caroline Black, from my first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable), as she works with her first patient – a stormy, seductive, feisty young man who challenges her at every turn. The therapist, the patient and the training program are all entirely fictionalized.

Although fiction, the story’s foundation is “real” — how it feels to be new to the field – what went through my mind as I scrambled to figure it out – the exhilaration of a great session — the immense talent of the teachers who showed me the field – my love for the work. As I wrote, I was careful NOT to use any pieces from my sessions as a therapist, because that will always belong to the patients. The only pieces lifted from actual psychotherapy sessions were taken from my own experience as a patient, working with a gifted therapist.

I hope Tightwire encourages people to let go of the stigma often attached to psychotherapy. The novel describes a treatment in detail, a story of hope – hard work for sure, but nothing bizarre or weird. If therapy is done well, if the match between the patient and the therapist is strong, then words become powerful, productive tools. Together, the therapist and client create a unique path to discovery, insight and healing.

Let’s lose the stigma.

____

Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist, blogger and mother of three grown children. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of training. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+ ally support, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum. 

Amy’s Author Page On Amazon

https://www.amazon.com/Amy-Kaufman-Burk/e/B00R0S66Y4

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Tightwire Is Available On Amazon

Tightwire is available on Amazon!

Tightwire, my second novel, follows Caroline Black (from Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable) into her first year as a psychology intern. The story tracks one year of work with her first patient, Collier, who is seductive, feisty, troubled and brilliant. The book portrays Caroline’s training in a community psych clinic in San Francisco, including sessions with Collier and meetings with her supervisor – all completely fictional.

As I wrote the novel, I thought about the messages I hoped to convey. I wrote Tightwire as a voice against the stigma often attached to psychotherapy. The book strongly supports same-sex parents, and encourages people to be true to their own sexuality, including exploring and questioning their sexual identity. With the recent, long-overdue focus on sexual assault in the media, I decided to use my writing to explore emotional issues surrounding healthy sex, unhealthy sex, and sexual assault. I tried to treat the issues with clarity, respect and empathy. In the end, Tightwire is a story of hope and healing.

Click here to buy Tightwire!

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00QOE1C12

 

 

 

 

 

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