Lisa Curtis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Life Coach in White Plains, NY specializing in grief, loss, trauma, substance use disorders, and anxiety. Lisa primarily works through a life coaching lens, and helps clients identify and move toward their goals in a nonjudgmental and therapeutically-informed way.
We asked Lisa about her work with clients and her guiding philosophies on therapy.
Lisa’s background and personal life
How did you decide to become a therapist?
I'm not entirely sure when I decided to become a therapist as much as I knew the work I was doing previously wasn't feeling as fulfilling as I wanted. I had been working in a prevention-based program, and I kept being struck by the notion that we'd not have to do so much prevention work for high-risk clients if they could get some early assistance to make a change. That slowly led me to working full-time as a therapist.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love to bake, garden, and bird (as in the verb, 'to bird'). I find that spending time outside, listening to and watching for the wildlife around us is pretty magical. The baking has been a lifelong passion of mine and, while I don't strive to make the world's prettiest cake, I do promise that my cookies and brownies are mighty addictive.
Lisa’s specialties and therapy philosophies
What guiding principles inform your work?
The biggest guiding principal I have for my work is the core belief that we are all trying to do the best we can. We do better when we know better or when the way we've been doing things is no longer working. I believe we all picked up coping skills and styles throughout our lives, and those styles worked for a long while but perhaps have they stopped working so well. It's when what we used to do is no longer working that we go looking for some help in figuring out how to make changes.
Since I come from a family with a scientific background, I have learned over time that we all spend our time seeing how things work out and then change the 'variables' in our lives when our results aren't what we need them to be. In therapy, we make little changes to see what best fits your needs. If something doesn't work, no harm, no blame, and no shame. We just try again; what works for one does not work for all.
I also very much work within the belief system that our bodies and minds are connected. We can not only take care of the body or the mind; it's all a puzzle that fits together. Our responsibility is to take care of all the parts of that puzzle.
What clientele do you work with most frequently?
I work with people who are seeking accountability and often who have tried and struggled in the past to get and stay sober. I also work with many firefighters and other first responders.
Can you tell us more about your work with first responders?
One of the most common challenges in working with first responders is that they tend to be reluctant about the process of seeking help and getting support; it is a pretty tight knit group. That being said, because of their work, the hours they keep, and the stress they are frequently under, one of the most common situations first responders face is managing their lives in a way that makes them feel present and available for their families and for their job.
One of the ways I help is by normalizing what is going on for them and educating them as to how they can make slight adjustments to their personal habits so that they are more successful in achieving their goals. Together we often do a lot of reality testing and processing, which is the therapist's way of saying we talk through difficult situations or beliefs.
Can you tell us more about your work with individuals in substance use recovery, particularly those who have faced many relapses?
While I strongly dislike the commonly used phrase 'chronic relapser,' the reality is that some individuals face more difficulty to both obtain and maintain sobriety than others. I am so impressed by the tenacity, willingness, and downright strength many of my clients exhibit each day while working on their goal to obtain and maintain sobriety.
One of the most frequent challenges with many clients struggling in recovery is the lack of trust they have in both themselves and the supports that they are seeking. What I've seen time and time again is the realization that in being honest about what they like, what they don't, and what works for them has an incredible power to make the shame, guilt, and/or remorse feel more manageable. Like with all my clients, I tend to be open about what it is I'm seeing, what seems to be helping them, and what seems to be holding them back.
Can you tell us about your specialty in grief and loss?
Clients who seek me out to work on grief/loss and anxiety often find that my style of education in both the process of what they're going through as well as helping them understand what it means to engage in self care, is tremendously helpful. Often by the time they reach a professional, clients have been told that the struggle they're having is something they need to 'just get over' and 'move on with already.' I have found that normalizing clients' pain, anger, and anxiety is pivotal in their willingness to implement new coping mechanisms.
I believe that no matter what focus area I work with, the more people understand about what's going on for them, the easier it is for them to make long-term decisions about what is best for them. It is not easy to manage anxiety nor work through a loss, but the marketing tag line "an informed consumer is our best customer" is true. Information is the key to understanding and acceptance.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
I really love it when my clients reach their goals and stay there. Sustained change is really tough and being a part of their journey is such a privilege.
Therapy sessions with Lisa
What will our first session together be like? What happens in ongoing sessions?
Our first few sessions are just like any other conversation you'd start with someone you don't know too well. We sit. We talk. I do ask a lot of questions in the beginning to get some base of knowledge about the background that got you to my office and what prompted you to seek support but after that it really is just an ongoing conversation.
What might happen is that you come, after a few weeks and say, "remember when we were talking about how this always happens..." and we go from there. Sometimes you'll come in and have a concern or complaint from our last session, "I didn't like it when you...." or "You said I could....Would you tell me more about that? I'm not sure I understand now what you were talking about..." and off we go! Sometimes, when perhaps you feel like there's 'nothing' to talk about, you'll find that a question I ask to get us started sparks a conversation that is super helpful. Where we go in our time together largely depends on you but you don't need to 'prepare' for your session or try to 'find material' to bring in ~ life will do that for us!
How long do clients typically see you for?
I sincerely can't give you an answer. Given the nature of clients who seek me out it ranges from 6-8 months to many years. When people stay with me for longer it is entirely because they feel the support, accountability and continued growth is worth it to them.
Are there any books you often recommend to clients?
There are many books I recommend, depending on the situation. I love:
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker because it speaks so clearly about listening to our instincts and taking care of ourselves.
- Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb is a newer book and is great at breaking down what it means to make changes in therapy.
- Oh, The Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss is great and I've not yet found a therapist that isn't fond of it.
- Living on the Wind by Scott Weidensaul provides a helpful reminder that our tasks as humans are impressive but other creatures have impressive lives as well.
Do you assign “homework” between sessions?
90% of the "homework" I assign really is just suggestions; books or movies you could look at, an article to read are meant to help you see things from a different point of view or help you learn something that perhaps would be nice to hear from someone other than myself.
The rare 10% of the time where I feel the 'homework' is critical I'll let you know that up front. Does that mean you'll be graded on it? Of course not. I will, however, walk you through my thinking so you can understand why I made the recommendation in the first place.
How do you help ensure I'm making progress in therapy?
My responsibility is to hold you accountable. Progress will be largely dependent on how much effort you put into the process and how actively you think of the feedback I've given you. We'll both know progress is being made when you come in and report that that 'thing' we had just talked about last week came up again and you handled it differently.
How do I know that it’s time to start seeking therapy?
There are a few times when it feels like the time is right to get extra support. This may be following the death of a loved one, when you're facing a major life change, or when your own efforts are not yielding the results you want and when you notice that you're not feeling like yourself. Those are all good signs that it might be helpful to start with a therapist.
How can I prepare for our first session?
My biggest tip for preparing for our time together is to just be open. It's a massive achievement to just make the call to get started and an even more massive achievement to show up for your first session. Returning for session two is a real statement to yourself that you're ready to continue the change process.
How will I know it’s time to end my time in therapy with you or reduce session frequency?
The easy answer is 'you'll know,' but the reality is that it's often a little scary for clients to end or reduce our time together. Generally speaking, anniversaries, such as the one that marks 6 months or so, is when people start to think, 'how am I doing?' I will always give you my honest feedback because, in the long run, I want you to take what we've talked about and use it in the world outside of the office. Progress is something I'm constantly assessing, and you are free to ask at any time what my thoughts are on the topic.
Why should I seek therapy, rather than turning to my partner, friends, or other loved ones?
Partners, friends, loved ones are all great but sometimes our problems are with them. Sometimes they don't know how to manage what's going on for us, or we're not sure they would fully understand what we're experiencing. Oftentimes it is incredibly helpful to get an outsider involved so that we can view the situation with a fresh set of eyes.
What advice would you share with therapy seekers?
Therapy isn't meant to change who you are or change your values, beliefs, or core personality. My job as your therapist is to help you get where you want to go (for the most part, provided that's legal, not hurting anyone, and overall in your best interest...). At the end of it all, therapy is a tool that allows you to gain greater insight into your own decisions, behaviors, and choices. Along the way, you may find you learn more about the people in your life as well and that's not a bad thing either.
Visit Lisa’s profile to watch her introductory video, read more, and book an initial call!