Therapy with Tom Lavin, PhD

Dr. Tom Lavin is a Psychologist in Rumford, RI who has expertise treating a wide variety of challenges. In particular, Dr. Lavin has special interests in treating performance anxiety, loss, and men’s issues. He has been practicing psychotherapy for over 40 years and maintains an existential, humanistic perspective in sessions.

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

Dr. Lavin’s background and personal life

1. How did you decide to become a therapist?

At a very young age, I was drawn to the idea of helping people and thought that it would be cool to become a Catholic priest (what an absurd time for most kids to think they know who they really are and what they really want!). I attended a seminary high school and spent my first three years of college in a seminary community.

One summer, we were invited to create an innovative "priestly formation program" that included some intensive group work and individual counseling with priests who had trained as psychologists. I was already having some doubts about whether priesthood was the right path for me; reading Carl Rogers' book On Becoming a Person first really made me think that becoming a therapist might be a calling that better fit who I was.

2. What was your previous work before going into private practice?

Until I retired from full-time clinical work in 2017, I worked primarily in college counseling centers, so I saw literally thousands of college students. However, I have always had a private practice in which I saw individuals across a wider age span (as is the case now). In my practice, I see a number of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as young and mid-career professionals and senior citizens. While most of my clients are individuals, I also see and enjoy working with couples who are dealing with complicated lives and relationships.

3. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I really enjoy continuing to learn. I read  fiction and non-fiction (both professional and things unrelated to my work). In my later years, I have found more peace and joy being outside in nature. I love to play golf (at least when I am playing halfway decently, which is not always), and over the past decade I have taken up learning guitar, ballroom dancing, and just admiring the talents of musicians and other artists.

Dr. Lavin’s specialties and therapy philosophies

4. What guiding principles inform your work?

Although each of us is entirely unique (there has never been and never will be another you), we are all more alike than we are different. I think that helps me to remain humble and open to whatever a client/patient may bring.

Being seen, really seen, as a unique individual and not just an example of some diagnostic category, is rare. And as emphasized in the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, being seen and understood allows us to become our real, true selves, and this can only occur in a relationship that is safe and vulnerable.

Therapists sometimes make the mistake of “treating” a “disorder,” something that puts the person in a box, and assumes that we can apply the same “treatment” to everyone who fits into that category or label. This often misses the individuality and the strengths of the person. It’s really the person with whom we are trying to foster a healing and growth-promoting relationship.

5. Can you tell us more about your top specialties?

Anxiety and stress, depression, difficulties in relationships of all kinds—these are the perennial issues of any psychotherapy practice, including my own. Although there has been a trend for therapists in recent years to identify themselves as specialists for particular disorders, I prefer to think of myself as a generalist. The medical model has its usefulness, but it has spilled over to our profession in ways that are not always helpful. For example, therapists can get overly focused on “treating symptoms,” or “disorders,” and in so doing sometimes neglect the the unique individual client who is in some way suffering or in pain.

I would say that many of the individuals with whom I work are struggling with self-esteem. They feel badly about themselves in some way and often have internalized negative statements, attitudes, and/or behaviors from others earlier in their lives. Protecting individuals’ self-esteem by finding something real to admire in them is - along with empathy for the pain - a powerful psychological analgesic and something that can begin to restore a sense of a different and more hopeful future.

6. What do you find most rewarding about your work?

Certainly the rewards of witnessing and facilitating people’s healing and growth trace their roots back to my 13-year-old wish to be of service to others. I was a somewhat shy young person. While I’ve been blessed with a loving family and some close friends, in most day-to-day interactions I think it is still difficult to take off the mask we wear to protect ourselves. I often feel that when a client trusts me with seeing their most vulnerable self, I feel more human and in touch with my own real self. In 1960 Carl Rogers wrote: “a learning which has been most rewarding because it makes me feel so deeply akin to others [is that] …what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others.

Therapy sessions with Dr. Lavin

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

In the first session my primary goal is to listen. I want to understand what is going on in the person’s life now that has prompted them to seek therapy. Sometimes this takes up the entire session, but if it doesn’t I typically am curious about the context of their lives, both in the present and past. How long have their difficulties been present? When did they begin and what may have triggered them? It is often very helpful to explore both their own family of origin, as well as current relationships, with significant others, friends, co-workers and/or supervisors. I’m also listening for their strengths, the dreams they have (or may have lost), and their outlook on the future. I seldom offer any definitive conclusions after the first session. I want to digest and reflect on what I’ve heard. Usually by the second or third session I hope to offer some impressions and themes to the client to see if those are concerns that they would like us to work on.

8. How long do clients typically see you for?

Some folks come once because they just want a professional opinion about something in their life or may feel I am not the right fit for them. Others may come for a handful of sessions. I recently met four times with a medical student who was experiencing anxiety about the periodic exams required of him. However, the vast majority of the individuals with whom I work tend to come for 3 months to a year or more. If the work we’re doing is not making any difference, I will often explore whether they might wish to work with someone whose style and perspective differs from mine.

9. Are there any books you often recommend to clients?

It depends on what they are dealing with and how much they enjoy reading—some people really don’t enjoy it at all. The idea of giving some people “homework” often has pretty negative connotations in their experience. Occasionally I’ll make reference to novels I have or am reading—e.g. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd or The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. These books revolve around themes like slavery and freedom, and I believe can be instructive for all of us. I often read to clients excerpts from books that have had meaning for me and that seem to relate to what they are dealing with. Books I have quoted include Rogers’ On Becoming a Person, Dan Siegel’s Mindsight, Mark Epstein’s Advice Not Given, Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance.

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

It depends on the person with whom I’m working to let me know how our work together is going, but I will check in periodically about this. Sometimes clients want to please therapists and are afraid to disappoint us; they may tell us what they think we want to hear rather than their true feelings. I watch to see if over the course of therapy they look any different (hopefully better, more real) and listen to hear if they are developing or improving their relationships and making new and better friends.

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