Therapists are taught to share very little about themselves. After all, therapy is about the patient. But this doesn’t stop clients from being curious about the people they reveal their deepest secrets and vulnerabilities to.
In How Does That Make You Feel? editor and clinician Sherry Amatenstein gathers essays from therapists who give readers a rare glimpse into their thoughts, feelings and hearts. As she writes in the introduction to the book, “Within these pages, patients will find a healthy way to examine their fascination with the ‘human’ side of therapists without jeopardizing the relationship with their own shrink.” The book also features essays from clients about their experiences on the couch.
I got a chance to chat with Sherry all about what inspired How Does That Make You Feel? and what her writing process looks like—and a whole lot more, which you’ll find below…
Q: What inspired you to create How Does That Make You Feel and include the stories that you did?
A: I became a therapist midlife after a career in publishing. I felt that the ‘blank slate’ idea of not revealing anything about myself to the patient so as to not interfere with the transference process was not viable in this age of Google where you can find out many personal things about your therapist with a quick search. And I feared that what can be perceived as an ‘imbalance of power’ in the relationship could lead to unscrupulous therapists taking advantage of very vulnerable patients.
For instance, during an intake a woman told me her former therapist used to have her pick up his dry cleaning on the way to a session! My policy is to reveal things about myself to patients that might help them with therapy. For instance, they don’t need to know I’ve had a horrible headache all morning, but it can help them to discover I’ve also been through the life-changing experience of a parent dying. The idea of the book – a collection of raw, very personal and entertaining stories from both therapists and patients – humanizes shrinks but doesn’t trivialize the process.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from the book?
A: The fact that therapists are as imperfect as patients. In my intro to How Does That Make You Feel? I said ‘we’re all crazy.’ That sounds facetious, but my meaning is that none of us are without flaws and the more emotionally generous and forgiving we can be with ourselves the better. At book events, many people buy a book for themselves, and one as a gift for their therapist. I get emails from therapists who say they recognize themselves and it feels like a big relief to lift the veil. We are all in the muck together.
Q: You’re also author of several other books on love and relationships. What does your writing process look like? For instance, maybe you prefer to work on a manuscript every day at the same time or have certain rituals that kick-start your writing session.
A: I have to fit my writing time around my schedule as a full-time therapist. This enforced time limit has helped me to be more productive when I sit down at the computer – well, at least some of the time! I always build in some time for procrastinating but I tell myself (and patients who feel blocked in their writing) that this is the period when our subconscious is hard at work mulling over problems, coming up with creative solutions…
Q: What challenges do you face during the book writing process? How do you navigate these challenges?
A: When it feels like I’ll never be able to start, much less finish, what I am working on, I remind myself of all that I have completed in my decades-long career as a writer. It always eventually gets done.
I also utilize a “trick” I began using after getting a contract to write my first book. My initial reaction was to be emotionally incapacitated at the thought of producing 250 plus pages in 8 months. I told myself, “Look at each chapter as an article.” That seemed much more manageable. And then I divided each article into smaller chunks. When you set mini-goals versus one massive goal, it is much easier to accomplish.
Q: What’s surprised you the most about the process? What have you learned about writing your books?
A: This book was different for me than my earlier ones because it was an anthology. I collected essays from 33 writers (and wrote one myself). This was a curation job – my aim was a kaleidoscope of different therapy experiences from a variety of people. It also involved a good deal of editing, and emotional coaxing of contributors. All of them were published writers but doing a story about one’s most intimate and often most private experience proved understandably very triggering for some people.
It was especially hard for therapists to be this revealing. When the book was put to bed, I half jokingly offered everyone a free therapy session! The finished product was worth all the pain. I felt privileged to have so many talented people trust me with their literary psyches.
Q: What resources on writing or creativity do you find to be especially helpful while composing books (if any)?
A: I’ve always been inspired by Annie Lamott’s Bird By Bird. I taught journalism for many years at New York University and always used exercises from Natalie Goldberg’s classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about your process or How Does That Make You Feel?
A: They will never view their therapist in the same way as before reading the book! There are numerous shocks along the way!