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Is everything okay?
How's work? How are your relationships too? Therapist Allison Heiliczer can navigate them with you
What’s stopping you from going to therapy?
Maybe you think you can do without it (at least for now). Or maybe you think you’ll end up with a therapist who’ll offer “formulas, fluff, judgment, precooked plans, superficial happiness, psychobabble and dilly dallying” – and this is why you’re wary and hesitant about seeking the services of one.
Singapore-based therapist and relationship coach Allison Heiliczer of Rethink the Couch gets it. Those words I just mentioned can be found on her website under the “What You Won’t Get” column, and she assures us that we won’t have any of that when we come to her for help.
Instead, what you’ll get is “connection, collaboration, a tailored approach, results, creativity, enthusiasm and resonance”.
“Many people walk around with a mental image of the therapist and therapy with that therapist,” she says.
“However, therapy has transformed quite a bit, and I wanted to be clear about the kind of therapy that I offer.
“I don’t believe I’m all-knowing – I will often tell my clients that I may be the expert on how to help them reach their goals, yet ultimately they’re the experts on themselves,” she stresses.
“I can witness their pain and help guide them.”
A few more misconceptions
Allison, who focuses on relationship and work challenges, shares what else she wishes to dispel about therapy to encourage us to consider it, at least when we feel that we do need it.
“A definite caricature comes to mind – this ‘all-knowing and all-powerful’ Freudian therapist sitting behind a couch with a patient who’s just this blank slate for the therapist to endlessly analyse every word,” she says.
“People often imagine they’ll end up on that couch endlessly, and maybe they’ll walk away with a few epiphanies but ultimately be clueless about what to do with that.
“The reality is that this setup does exist,” she continues. “However, many therapists also work with a collaborative model – one that has the therapist and client empowered to work together as a team, and be clear about the goals and how to get there.
“Having said that, most therapy is not linear – it often does takes twists and turns to reach goals and transform. So, on the one hand, therapy can be collaborative, empowering and goal-oriented.
“Still, people have particular challenges that require a very specific kind of therapy,” she observes. “For example, if someone came to me with a fear of flying, I would send them to a therapist who works specifically on that kind of fear.
“In many cases, though, rapport with the therapist is the number one determinant of outcome.”
How to find a therapist
Since we’re on the subject of rapport, Allison gives us her tips on searching for a therapist that would fit our needs when we think it’s time.
#1 What does your gut tell you?
Allison talks about the importance of rapport even further.
“Many people share that when meeting a therapist, they deeply know whether or not that person will be able to help and if they want to work with that therapist. I trust my clients when they say this,” she relates.
“People are also very clever in knowing whether the therapist wants to work with them or not. I once had a client switch therapists, and when I asked her why, she told me, ‘I could tell that the last therapist didn’t like me and didn’t believe in me.’
“How much you like a therapist and a therapist likes and believes in you may not be the top determinant in rapport – for some people, it’s more about trusting that the person wants to help or can help.”
#2 What’s their specialty?
“People should research to try and focus on therapists who work within a specific area of expertise,” she advises.
“For example, I only see people with relationship or work challenges. So if someone came to me wanting support with something outside these areas, I’d have to refer them elsewhere.
“Therapists can be generalists like GP doctors or specialists. I consider myself a specialist, whereas some people may need more general support.”
#3 What’s your schedule?
“Also, for some people, cost and/or the therapist’s availability online or in person are factors. So practical aspects can be important for people to pay attention to when deciding.”
So what are relationship challenges?
If you’re wondering what Allison means by relationship challenges, the common themes she comes across in her work with individuals and couples will give you an idea: “communication, affairs, betrayals, pre-marital counselling, deciding whether to have a baby (or another!), value conflicts, cross-cultural issues, separation, divorce, opening a relationship, sexless relationships” and more.
And what are work challenges?
“There are lots of ways people can face issues at work – from navigating team dynamics, handling leadership (either as leaders or responding to them), cross-cultural workplaces, to thinking about whether they want to leave a job or stay in a role,” she says.
Are you going through one or some of these things?
You can analyse relationship and work challenges separately, but it may also help to see how they’re intertwined. Allison reveals that relationship and work challenges do cross paths in ways we don’t readily notice. Here’s how.
#1 There’s a connection
“For many people, there is a direct impact that relationship challenges have on work and vice versa,” she notes.
“We are, first and foremost, relational beings. That means we have an innate need to connect with others. This doesn’t mean we are a world of extroverts – there is a spectrum in how much and the type of connection each of us needs. However, without connection, we die.
“Years ago, people may have interpreted this as a kind of soul death, yet we now know that not only does loneliness literally kill, but ‘bad’ relationships do too. Therefore, the quality of our relationships both at work and at home is influential on health.
“Many people focus on their food and how much exercise they are getting. While both influence health, connection is largely overlooked as a mental and physical well-being determinant.”
#2 You bring it home
“Some people are blessed with both strong relationships at work and at home. Many others have challenges in one or both domains. Work challenges can translate into stress and shift the emotional climate at home,” she remarks.
“I work with many couples whose work stress also impacts their parenting – it’s hard to put the key in the door and compartmentalise a toxic office, a challenging co-worker, and the threat of being terminated or made redundant. Therefore, the whole family tends to feel the effects of work.
“Conversely, when people thrive at work, this tends to translate into better mental states,” she discloses. “There is sometimes a danger to thriving insofar as it sometimes translates into grandiosity or entitlement in relationships. Yet for many, a strong sense of work satisfaction positively impacts outside relationships.”
#3 It manifests
“Lastly, challenges at work can often lead to self-medication with substances or other addictive behaviors – these impact relationships,” she concludes.
“On the flip side, people with solid support systems outside of work also tend to navigate work challenges healthier. Some people may only be able to improve relationships in one domain – personal or professional – and I work with people to understand what kind of growth and connection is possible.
“My upcoming book, Rethink the Couch: Into the Bedrooms and Boardrooms of Asia With an Expat Therapist, also discusses the unshakable connection between our personal and professional lives overlaid with lots of cultural factors.” (More on Allison’s book later.)
How to identify and address relationship and work challenges
Now that we know a little bit more about relationship and work challenges, Allison tells us there are a few steps to help us start to face them.
#1 They have “names”
“There’s an expression in therapy: ‘Name it to tame it.’ This is often used to encourage people to label their emotions so they know what they’re feeling,” she begins.
“As a first step, that is often a helpful springboard for identifying the challenges. For some, though, identifying the challenges is more cognitive – they can name them intellectually yet don’t necessarily feel the emotional weight.
“Regardless of whether or not one starts with naming the feelings or thoughts associated with these challenges, many people feel overwhelmed and need help knowing where to start.
“For some, that requires an introduction to learning about different feelings – many people have a limited vocabulary with feelings – or learning how to crystallise their thoughts. As one does this, it’s helpful in therapy to sometimes collaborate on identifying the challenge. On the surface, it sometimes seems like one thing, only to uncover that it is something else.”
#2 You have choices
“Once the challenge or challenges are named, I often help people create psychological optionality. That’s a mouthful, yet it essentially means allowing people to see that there are options,” she says.
“When we’re overwhelmed, our minds become rigid, unaware that we have choices. So laying down some options is often helpful in encouraging people to feel empowered.
“Sometimes the choice is to strategically remain in a relationship or work situation for a while. Other times, it’s to accept the situation and embrace anything going well. Sometimes it’s trying to work to affect change, and so on.
“Regardless of what one does with these challenges, building confidence in decision-making is often critical – being clear with why we are doing what is a helpful psychological investment in our future selves.”
More tips on relationship and work challenges
There are other ways to help equip and steady yourself. “There are some tools that people may already have at their disposal that might support relationship and work challenges outside of therapy,” Allison reveals. They include:
#1 Broadening or tapping into a more comprehensive social network and community
“For some, this means friendships, family and community in the form of religious, spiritual, and/or cultural groups or hobbies.”
#2 Go out
“Losing yourself in nature can be a powerful anti-depressant or anti-anxiety tool.”
#3 Get some shuteye
“Protecting sleep may mean turning your phone off 30 minutes earlier, coming up with a soothing bedtime routine, or reducing caffeine throughout the day.”
#4 Count chemicals, not calories
“There’s a strong relationship between food and mood,” Allison points out.
“We eat too many ultra-processed foods, which can be very damaging to our health. Instead, focus on a plant-based diet, and remember to ‘eat the rainbow’ to include as many different naturally coloured foods as possible. If you don’t understand an ingredient on a food package, then your body and mind will likely not either.”
“This may mean pulling out a journal, emptying your mind onto a notepad or on your phone, or jotting down ideas on a ripped piece of paper. What’s vital with writing is not to reinforce thinking but rather to have a space to dump it out; for some, that alone is therapeutic. For others, they want to see their thoughts and feelings on paper and then ask how they might frame things differently or seek support.”
“Exercising may mean five minutes of dancing or wriggling your toes; lower the bar if needed. Many people are black and white with exercise – I either run 20km or sit on the couch and eat ice cream – yet even small amounts can dramatically impact well-being, so forget the excuses and focus on any effort you can make today.”
#7 Remember that motivation often follows action, not the other way around
“The motivation will likely show up after the five minutes of dancing you do in your living room, the 10-minute walk you take, and the flight of stairs you hike. Don’t wait for the motivation.”
#8 Help others
“I have a personal deal with myself. Whenever I feel down or anxious, I reach out to support someone. This adds a different perspective that is often therapeutic and a way to connect, so both are helpful,” she admits.
“Sometimes therapy is not the needed instrument or one deep enough to truly support people. Therefore, I recommend that people seek additional support, including some ideas above. Sometimes, therapy is not indicated with a particular challenge someone is facing.”
Another helpful resource
Check out Allison’s upcoming book, Rethink the Couch: Into the Bedrooms and Boardrooms of Asia With an Expat Therapist for more insights. (It’ll be out this October.)
“It has been endorsed by two New York Times bestselling authors, a few other bestselling authors, and two multinationals,” she says.
“I’m so grateful to hear it being described as ‘ground-breaking’ and a ‘page-turner’ as it’s the first of its kind, highlighting the uniqueness and universality of experiences. My book discusses many taboo subjects and is a call to action to preserve cultural values while evolving the support people have in Asia. It’s vital that there’s more Asian representation when speaking about mental health, as it’s one step in helping to end stigma in Asia.”
And of course, you can always consider going to Allison for help too.
What does she love the most about her work?
“My work is my calling. I also need to work. This combination is a powerful engine for staying focused on supporting my clients,” she confesses.
“What I love most is supporting people to help transform their challenges. I love that I use my head, heart and gut in my work and that people’s pain can be transformed.”
Allison is a Relational Life Therapy (RLT) certified therapist (the first in Asia), as well as an ICF-certified coach.