Interview with Psychotherapist Jennelle Liljestrand

Jennelle is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, Supervisor, and Coach, working in a “Soteria” psychiatric clinic and in private practice in Munich, Germany.

How and/or why did you become a therapist?

I had always been aware of my privilege growing up in a wealthy white suburb. This discomfort, combined with my psychology interest during college, led me naturally to a Masters program at Smith School for Social Work. What I loved about Social Work, is the idea that a person does not need a PhD to learn how to sit empathetically and be present for another person who is struggling. The program believes in the opposite: instead of filling our minds with research in order to have a preconceived notion of our clients, and put them in a box, our studies emphasised unpacking our baggage, our personal histories, in order be non-judgmental in the way we show up with our clients. And just showing up and being present for our clients helps! As a Clinical Social Worker, we are therapists who also see the world through a social justice lens. I saw, and still see, this profession as essential to human dignity for everyone.

What are the most rewarding aspects of being a therapist?

The continual learning and exploration process of therapy is what I find most rewarding. It is a extremely creative process to think about therapeutic interventions, using various language or tools until something clicks with the client, or doesn’t. Not only that, but I hear so many other life experiences and perspectives. I enjoy my role of being curious, and gradually witnessing clients come to a better understanding of themselves, and come to feel a bit more okay with who they are. Through learning to understand my clients, I’ve built a lot of understanding towards other people I might see or meet, that most people would be upset by, or afraid of. The other continual learning that keeps me energized, are the training programs and lectures I attend to keep updating my knowledge and I continue to specialise my knowledge and skill as well, in my work with whatever current population I am with. My masters program emphasised learning how to build therapeutic relationships with clients, but did not give me all the tools I need to work with all populations. This means I actively choose new trainings every year to acquire the appropriate knowledge. For example, I started out working in Hospice, then with Veterans, and now with people with psychosis. I like that it is part of our profession to work with different populations and methods before settling down in a private practice or with one clientele.

What’s unique or special in your background or approach to interpersonal relationships?

I believe that interpersonal relationships and interactions can teach us everything about ourselves and our past, if we allow ourselves to be aware and open to it. Thus, I am a big advocate for group psychotherapy. In groups, therapy groups and groups of colleagues or friends alike, we find ourselves repeating certain roles, “the funny one” or “the quite one”, for example. This is often the role we developed in our family of origin. If we step back and observe this, it can help us either accept it, or to practice a new way of showing up in groups if that role no longer serves you. In these groups, I encourage my clients to notice all their emotional and physiological reactions (emotions are physiological) to their co-group members. All groups are social microcosms, a mini- world, and a therapy group is a social laboratory where we have a unique opportunity. The opportunity, is a space where you can consciously work on your problem, instead of just having your problem. These are two quite distinct things.

When you pay attention to how you show up in any relationship or interaction in the here-and-now you can learn a lot about yourself. You can learn what your behavior is like through feedback and self-observation. You can understand how your behavior makes others feel, if you listen to how it impacts them. You can understand how this behavior creates the opinions others have of you and how they may avoid you, respect you, or like you because of it. Lastly, you can understand how your behavior influences your opinion of yourself and feelings of self-worth . Due to this focus of mine, I check in with clients in the here-and-now of our communication and relationship building. In order to learn on an interpersonal level, we must be present in the moment to attend to what feelings and reactions arise in us during an interaction.

What are your favourite or most interesting interpersonal relationship tips/advice?

I love teaching about anger. Every emotion has an evolutionary function, a reason why it exists in humans. Anger serves us, in that it increases our psychological size, like animals that bear their teeth or spread their feathers when there is a threat. We obviously don’t spread our feathers, but we stand in a posture that takes up more space, speak louder and more aggressively, etc. I call anger a secondary emotion because it arrives in response to another feeling: usually an opposite feeling. Before the anger came, without noticing it, and maybe for a micro-second, we were feeling small and vulnerable somehow. This could be feeling disrespected, not valued, or unseen. Once you can identify that underlying feeling, and the situation in which it arose, it can transform the way you react towards other people. We see it as a reaction to other’s behavior, but it is actually the meaning we give that person in our mind. Remember, we are the only ones who can make us feel a feeling. For example, a car on the highway may cut us off, and as a result we feel violated, small, and helpless. But maybe it’s really about us. The fact that we are running late to a meeting we feel anxious about. We want to make a good impression to win the respect of the team. However if we arrive late and flustered, we fear they will see the truth: that we are useless. Our reaction has a lot more to do with ourselves and our history than to with the other person!

What are some things about therapy that you want to increase public awareness about?

In my view, it takes too much knowledge to find and make use of good therapy. Thus, I want to take this opportunity to increase awareness about how therapy works. It is important to know that you need to feel a positive connection with a potential therapist. Your first meeting is a two-way interview. It is important that you can talk about everything within a therapeutic space, and if that does not happen, one should try another therapist. I stick by the rule of three. Try up to three therapists. If you’re still unsatisfied with all three, chances are, that might be an issue you’re going to therapy to work on, so stick with one of the three. Unfortunately, many people get stuck in mis-attuned and therapy and that is the last thing one deserves, especially in a phase where one needs the most support possible!

I also want people who are currently in therapy, to know how to use it effectively. If you feel misunderstood by your therapist, it is essential to tell him or her that. If you feel frustrated by the process and feel it’s unhelpful, say so. All these feelings are very important material to work with and it helps the therapeutic process even more. I encourage you to see any challenges or negative feelings in therapy as an opportunity to learn about yourself, and how you might avoid these areas in other relationships.

What are some of the biggest mistakes a therapist or patient can make?

One of the things I very much appreciate about the therapeutic relationship, is the concept that all therapists will make mistakes in getting to understand someones experience of the world. Just like in all relationship building. Without making any mistakes, as therapists, we won’t ever get to understand and process what it’s like for that client when they feel misunderstood or judged. This is important. The repair after the mis-attunement is what matters most. It builds the therapeutic relationship, builds the client’s self-understanding, and models healthy relationships. Whereas, a truly terrible therapeutic mistake would be the failure to provide a safe-space for an important issue to be spoken. This may reinforce the taboo and the shame. It sends the client a message that you cannot accept all of who they are because something about them is “bad.”

Author: Rac

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