Q&A with: Tina Tessina, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
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interviews licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Tina Tessina (). Tessina specializes in both individual and couples counseling and is the author of 13 books. Her popular blog, Dr. Romance, was named as one of Redbook’s Blogs of the Month.
Below she talks about what marriage and family therapy entail, and what students should ask themselves before starting in the career.
Q: What is your current position?
I’m a PhD and a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m in private practice in Long Beach, California. And I’m also the author of 13 books, which have been published in 17 languages.
Q: What is psychotherapy?
Therapy, in general, is working through blockages that are preventing you from enjoying your life and living your life the way you want to live it, whether that’s in your couple-relationship or as an individual. In couples’ counseling, I consider the relationship itself to be my client. It’s the only way I can be fair to both parties. If I’m doing individual counseling, then the individual is my client, and I’m totally on his or her side.
Q: In your work, what is an average day like?
Well, an average day now that I’m semi-retired includes about four or five clients. I used to have about seven clients per day. I start seeing clients around 1 p.m. until maybe 9 p.m. with time in between clients. Or, I may have several clients back-to-back; it depends on how the schedule works out. My day changes according to the clients that I have scheduled.
Q: How did you get started in this field and what kind of preparation does someone pursuing this career need?
Interestingly enough, I was an accountant for 15 years before I became a psychotherapist. I used my accounting business to put myself through school to become a psychotherapist. It took me five years to complete my schooling. I had had two years of a bachelor’s degree before I went back and completed my BA, got my MA and received my license as a marriage and family therapist. Then 10 years later I went back to school and got a PhD.
In the process of getting licensed, I had to have 3,000 hours of counseling under supervision, which is how I feel I really learned to be a counselor. I had excellent supervision, an excellent mentor. I think that therapy is like an apprenticeship; you have to learn on the job. You can’t learn it intellectually. It’s an emotional and kind of subconscious thing that we have to do. It’s an art.
Q: In general, are there any specific traits that work well for a marriage and family counselor?
My personal bias is that you have to do your own therapy. It’s very difficult to understand what a client is going through if you haven’t been through it yourself. I think the majority of counselors become interested in doing this because we have our own issues to work through. Some people, though, I’ve experienced, become counselors as sort of a way to avoid having to deal with their own issues. That does not make for a good counselor because your issues are going to come out in the counseling process. In California, we are allowed to get, I think, 500 hours of personal therapy as part of our hours of counseling. I think it should be much more than that because it’s critically important for a counselor to have gone through the process.
Empathy and a sense of humor are also really good traits to have. A lot of the training – if you get good training – is in how to not take on your clients’ problems. You can’t stay objective if you do that. You need to understand their pain, but you also need to have enough objectivity to help them through the pain and to the other side rather than helping them to avoid it.
Q: What are some of the challenges that psychologists in the field today face?
Actually, I think it’s so much easier than it was when I started. We don’t get much insurance coverage usually. And I don’t take any insurance now in my practice because I’ve struggled with the insurance companies so much. I think that the whole insurance thing with the HIPAA rules and all that is the toughest thing.
If you want to be in private practice like I am, you really have to learn self-management, time management and money management. Those are the things they don’t teach you in school.
Q: What kind of changes have there been in your area of practice in the last few years?
In California, the changes have mostly been for the good. We have a really powerful organization called the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, which fights for our rights, and they’ve done a good job.
My practice has been about the same the whole 35 years I’ve been doing this. I know that, especially in California, there are a lot of people that are losing their jobs. For me, a bad economy tends to make my practice better because people get stressed, and they need help.
Q: What do you see for the future of this field?
I would love to put myself out of business – I would love to heal enough people that I don’t have any more coming for help, but I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I think what we’re doing is getting more into the underpinnings of the society. Definitions of healthy relationships and practices are getting in there. Things like the 12 steps are helping to educate the mass population. On the other hand, we have all these destructive influences from the media and entertainment that are showing norms that are not healthy norms – the addictions, broken marriages and all that stuff. I’d like to see the healthier norms being more publicized.
Q: What are some of the critical questions students should ask themselves before entering the field?
Can I handle this? The things that people tell me that happened to them as children or things they’ve been through – rapes, incest, addiction problems and all that – they’re so painful. And, you have to empathize with that pain, but, at the same time, you have to learn how to create a distance. Be sure you know you really want to get into this kind of business. All the dark side comes out and is exposed. You have to understand your own dark side so you don’t get tangled up in that, and you have to be able to create that distance for yourself.
Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring psychotherapists?
I feel very blessed to be doing work that feels good to my heart and is helping people. I never know who’s coming in through the door; it’s very creative. It can be taxing in a way – I have to come up with an exercise or an explanation for people. When I got enough people, for example, with addiction problems, who needed the same things from me (in addition to their 12-step programs), I wrote, The Real 13th Step. When couples were fighting, and the same exercises worked with a lot of different couples, I wrote Money, Sex and Kids.