Therapy with Michael Kinsey, PhD

Dr. Michael Kinsey is a Licensed Psychologist on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Dr. Kinsey sees clients across the lifespan and draws from his training in cognitive therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), psychodynamic psychotherapy, and existential therapy to help his clients facing a variety of challenges and diagnoses, including anxiety, depression, trauma, parenting, and relationship concerns. Dr. Kinsey strives to approach therapy with a “playful curiosity” and encourages clients to indulge in their therapy sessions to better explore their own mind.

We asked Dr. Kinsey more about his work with clients and his guiding philosophies on therapy.

Dr. Kinsey’s background and therapy philosophies

How did you decide to become a therapist?

Being a therapist is very much a family business for me. My mother recently retired from running her own private practice for three decades. Therapists are made in homes that demand hypersensitivity and hyper-vigilance to ambient emotions.

I believe my mother grew up in that kind of environment and so did I. These intergenerational patterns can be (unfortunately) very robust. I'm extremely attuned to subtle changes in language, emotional expression, and non-verbal cues which makes me very effective as a therapist. It's my "superpower."

Many people drawn to psychotherapy treatment come from this type of environment and have the same superpower. Many of the patients who come in with very little hope are heartened to know that if all of their other dreams fall through, they could be very helpful therapists.

What guiding principles inform your work?

There are three main assumptions I make when I meet someone new.

First, I assume that they have come to seek treatment because they are facing a problem that's either not easily identifiable or fixable by oneself; second, I assume they have good reasons for expressing the difficulties, emotions, and symptoms that bring them in; and thirdly, I assume that each person has the capacity for self-healing once the patient and therapist can remove the right obstacles. That is, "mental health issues," with some exceptions, tend to be signs of developmental stuck-ness rather than pathology in a medical sense.

You can learn more about Dr. Kinsey's guiding principles on his blog.

What clientele do you work with most frequently?

Humans. I prefer to work with human beings because I am one. While all therapists have areas where they are more or less effective, it's important for me to see each new patient who walks in the door as a person who is struggling with one or more existential dilemmas. Diagnosis, case conceptualization, and treatment planning are all secondary to this first, essential step of establishing shared humanity.

That being said, the demographics of my practice tell the story that people in the first half of life most utilize my services. I attribute this to the fact that developmental lags in personality tend to emerge between college age and early 40s. Developing a strong sense of oneself and creating a meaningful identity are two of the most challenging developmental achievements, and most of my patients are working on this in one way or another.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

What's most rewarding about the work of being a psychotherapist is the unfolding of creative solutions to complex problems that patients generate outside of therapy. Even though patient and therapist work together to identify goals and map out ways to get there, the benefits of psychotherapy actually occur in surprising and mysterious ways.

The telltale sign of this is when patients come in and observe that their luck has begun to change in certain areas of their life. These observations tend to omit any contribution of psychotherapy; I am never sure whether the omission of treatment is intended to express "it goes without saying that this is the result of treatment" or "the change in my life circumstances is helping me more than you are." I suspect more the latter than the former.

I take this to mean that therapy helps, but almost never in the way we expect it to. I think this is the beauty of it, since this follows from the fact that the therapist is really only facilitating a process that's creative and personal to the patient. Solutions occur with time, space, and great mystery.

Therapy sessions with Dr. Kinsey

What will our first session together be like? What happens in ongoing sessions?

In a first session, my goal is to get an intuitive feel for what has brought someone into treatment at the present time. The first half of the session, I tend to ask a lot of exploratory questions, asking for elaborations on areas that stand out as significant. The second half of the session, I become much more active and share a tentative formulation of what I see being the core issues.

A make a lot of bold inferences, since I trust patients will tell me where I'm off. My aim is to give people a sense of how I think, what I understand to be the main issues, and provide patients hope that a lot of productive insights can come from a brief conversation.

In short, I want to provide a positive experience with psychology and psychotherapy, providing as much personalized value as I can. This I feel is especially important for people who ultimately end up choosing another therapist.

How long do clients typically see you for?

Patients see me as long as they feel I'm providing commensurate value for their hard-earned resources. Some people get what they need in a few sessions, but most return weekly for extended treatments.

The length of treatment need not be a mystery to patients. I always tell people to come until you no longer feel it's useful.

Are there any books you often recommend to clients?

There are so many great books on self-help, personal growth, psychology, and psychotherapy. For people looking for an outstanding introduction to the inner workings of therapy and the psychotherapeutic process, Lori Gottlieb's new book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is hard to beat.

A couple of books I recommend that are unique to how I approach things are Free to Learn by Peter Gray, and Dreams of Zugunruhe by yours truly. The former is a treatise on the importance of play. I recommend this book because I believe the work in and outside of therapy can be a form of play. In fact, child therapists frequently treat children using play therapy. I don't think working with adults should be that different.

The latter, Dreams of Zugunruhe, is a parent-child picture book and bedtime story that portrays a model for healthy parenting and development. I wrote the book to help parents and children develop a healthier relationship dynamic, and I believe it captures the delicate balance between nurturing and encouraging a child's autonomy. This book is helpful for anyone who struggles to understand why they are struggling in life even though there may not be any easily identifiable developmental traumas to blame.

How do you help ensure I'm making progress in therapy?

I ensure progress by gently challenging my patients every session. I want the people I see to always feel understood yet also challenged. Not all of my interventions are reassuring or supportive, since growth occurs outside people's comfort zone.

That being said, in order for challenging comments to be helpful, patients need to also feel that struggles exist for reasons that are both understandable and capable of producing change. I try to ensure progress by including all of these key therapeutic ingredients.

What advice would you share with therapy seekers?

Decide for yourself. Determine in advance what a fair trial of therapy is and discuss it with any and all therapists to whom you reach out.

Fear of stigma, media portrayals, and hearing others' experiences will not help you to know if therapy is going to help. Give it a shot and make up your own mind.

Visit Dr. Kinsey’s profile to watch his introductory video, read more, and book an initial call!