Interview with Dr Aaron Balick

Dr Aaron Balick will be speaking at our upcoming Interpretation Conference alongside Patrick Casement and Maggie Turp. His topic is “Using the Relationship in Therapy: What makes a relationship with “me” so special?”

We caught up with Aaron before the event to get an idea of his passions and interests, and how these overlap with the work he does in the consulting room. In particular, Aaron speaks eagerly about his aim to apply the value of therapy to people in a much broader way through various media. He has also taken an interest in the other side of that coin: how new media (specifically social media) affects us as humans and the way we interact. This is truly a great interview and we hope you’ll come away from it feeling both enriched and perhaps having had your views around therapeutic practice challenged in some ways. Enjoy!

Interview with Dr Aaron Balick

How did you start out in counselling & psychotherapy?

To be completely honest, it was a moment of serendipity (Jungians may call it something else).

When I was about 24 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than to stay in Europe; I was an American Europhile without a visa to stay! So, for a few years I managed to stick around through a variety of schemes since graduating university (where I had spent my final year on exchange in Norwich). However, I was really running out of options, so I signed up to do an MA in Continental Philosophy in exchange for another student visa, where I read Freud seriously for the first time. I got very excited about him and psychoanalysis. I was clear I didn’t want to be an academic at the time (this changed much later), but I did want to activate my knowledge around psychoanalysis, so I immediately set out to find a psychotherapy training course that would suit me.

After attending a series of open days at training institutes I settled on Integrative Psychotherapy because I felt it had the widest scope and was clearly open to different perspectives – something that appealed to my personality. I never, however, fell out of love with psychoanalysis, so pursued my PhD in Psychoanalytic Studies a few years after I registered and eventually became an academic anyway!

The Huffington Post have described you as a “psychotherapist, cultural theorist, media consultant, and author.” Which of these descriptions do you feel suits you the best and why?

I have always been a “mixed portfolio” kind of a guy, and I like it that way.

It started early, I changed my major three times as an undergraduate starting in pre-med (organic chemistry tipped me out of that trajectory pretty effectively) while graduating with an English degree after a year majoring in Film Making and Film Theory. Literature and media continue to be very important to me, and I believe they help me be a better clinician too, because of the unique exposure they give one into the human condition. While “Psychotherapist” continues to be my central career identification, and clinical work takes up about 2/3 of my working time, applications of psychotherapy outside the clinic remains a passion of mine; so you can see where the cultural theory and media consultation come in.

Because I was working with young people very early on in my career (more on this below) I jumped at the opportunity to become an agony uncle for the BBC, first for their online Teens’ website, and later, on BBC Radio 1. When I went into this, of course I thought it would be a transferable skill – but it clearly wasn’t. In these positions one draws on the theory, but in a much more active way than in the consultation room. The radio doesn’t like silence as much as therapists do, so there was a lot of giving advice (a “no no” in the consultation room) and talking more than the “client” – no gaining histories, no drawing people out – you just jump right into it. While it’s clearly not “therapy” these roles affect many more people in one go, and offers the opportunity to educate the wider public about skills they can use in their lives without having to learn them in the traditional way of once weekly counselling or therapy, while at the same time de-stigmatising and planting seeds. I feel I have become a good communicator of these things and really enjoy impacting larger populations in non-traditional ways.

So in short, I identify as a psychotherapist who does loads of stuff with psychotherapy – and a great deal of it outside the clinic. Operationalising therapeutic ideas outside the clinic is not only something I greatly enjoy, but also passionately believe our field needs to do as a whole, much more vocally, and much more creatively. More on this below.

You have spoken about taking psychotherapy out of the consulting room and applying it to modern life as being one of your passions. Can you give an example of what you mean by this?

I was very fortunate in that I landed a very good job even before finishing my training – I was counselling in (and shortly thereafter running) the student services team in London’s largest FE college – mostly for younger people. This was a very important lesson in my development as a psychotherapist, and it’s just too bad that I cannot take that learning back retrospectively! You see, as I was still in training, I was very committed to traditional boundaries and ways of working — namely trying my best to be a consistent object by maintaining traditional boundaries about sessions, session times, contact between sessions, etc. Anyone that works with young people knows that you have to be more flexible than that – you really have to adapt your practice to the environments in which you are working. I had to learn the hard way. So very early on in my experience the environments in which I worked challenged the way I’d been trained to do therapy and I began to deconstruct my training.

When I got the opportunity to apply my therapy skills in novel ways (online, on the radio, and later, on TV) I was challenged to wonder if it was OK to do it. What would the profession think? Was it still therapy? Would I be dumbing things down or bringing the profession into disrepute? Would it have negative effects on my clients or on my reputation in the eyes of my profession? Well, it took some learning, but I realised that there was a lot of value to be brought to society outside of the traditional ways in which I was trained.

It so happened that what started as a challenge (working in schools, working in the media, consulting for the media) developed into a passion. I could see that, deployed the right way, therapy skills can be shared outside the consultation room in ways that can benefit many thousands of people. I also became comfortable with the fact that many of these activities were not therapy, but they also didn’t have to be. Once I made that distinction, I was freed up to offer what I have learned from our profession and from my own experience and re-deploy it in different ways for different contexts.

The single largest pivot in this direction came when I published my paper TMI in the Transference, LOL: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Google, Social Networking, and ‘Virtual Impingement’. I wrote this clinical paper after a client had Googled me to rather dramatic effect. This was in 2010 and there wasn’t much out there at the time to guide a therapist through this rather disturbing process. However, after working out the details with my client and producing a journal article (with his consent) to share with my peers, it occurred to me that what my client and I had encountered and worked through was happening every day between individuals who usually did not have the benefit of a psychotherapist to work out the details of their “virtual impingements”.

So in response to this, I set out to write my book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self as a way to address these growing issues on the social and cultural level, not just the clinical one. This was by far my biggest application of psychotherapy concepts outside the consultation room, and reinforced my passion for ensuring the amazing insights we accrue from the consulting room are shared with society at large – while at the same time protecting the sanctity of the confidential and private space of the therapeutic encounter.

The Psychodynamics of Social Networking

You’ve written a book for children called Keep Your Cool: How to Deal with Life’s Worries and Stress, which was published in 2014 (it’s fantastic, by the way!). What was your inspiration for writing this book?

For several years before writing this book I had been providing advice to young people in a variety of different ways – first as an online agony uncle for teens through the BBC, followed by my radio work, and then later I worked on the CBBC message boards on a support and advice platform called “bugbears”. Additionally, because of this work, I began consulting in the development of psychologically and emotionally responsible and responsive children’s programming, most recently a series of shorts for CBBC called Lifebabble.

Keep Your Cool was a natural progression from these activities and was commissioned by Franklin Watts, a children’s book publisher. In many ways, this was a logical next step – to consolidate all of the advice I had transferred from psychology to direct advice over the years. As the book was a commission, they had their own ideas about what needed to be covered (friendships, relationships, divorce, school stress, etc.) and of course I added my own ideas of issues that young people encounter but are often left unspoken (death in the family, technology, sex, and sexual orientation and gender identity). I’m very proud that, as far as I’m aware, this is the first book that confronts and deals with a variety of sexual and gender identifications as part of a general children’s self-help book, rather than one devoted to such issues.

As I mentioned, my background is integrative, but my passion is in depth psychology. The book necessarily focusses a lot on cognitive behavioural approaches, because in many ways these are the easiest to communicate and to make suggestions and exercises for children to actually do.

However, the spirit of the book honours inner experience, perceptions, and permission for a whole series of feelings and thoughts that “may not be allowed” – which comes directly from a psychodynamic perspective. In short, I wrote the book that I would have liked to have had to read when I was a boy! I am currently in talks with Franklin Watts for a follow-up book, which will focus more intensely on looking inward and becoming familiar with your own internal world – also for 11  to 15 year olds.

Keep Your Cool: How to deal with life’s worry and stress

What got you interested in delivering training?

If you hadn’t yet noticed, I have a rather extraverted side! It surprises people that this is not actually my primary, but my inferior function (to use Jungian language) – I am actually most at home in an intense one-to-one conversation such as the more introverted space of the consultation room, or writing or researching my next book.

However, I find that stepping out publicly is a nice antidote to that more inward looking function and I can very much enjoy being the performer. As I’ve said above, there is a great satisfaction in the changes derived from traditional one-to-one work, but to be able to affect or interest large crowds, to get people talking, thinking and reflecting, is a great feeling too.

Before I became a therapist I was trained in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and practiced as a TEFL teacher both in Poland and in London. Teaching TEFL is always oriented towards encouraging conversation between students, getting them excited about a subject so they can practice their speaking skills, and frequently, being enough of a “performer” to keep the rather more laborious aspects of language learning (irregular verbs, for example) interesting enough to engage with. I have a very strong sense that my early training in this area has instilled in me both a respect and joy for a kind of training that is engaging and alive.

If you weren’t a therapist, what would you be and why?

Very good question! All through school I was mostly interested in the sciences and there was nothing I liked more than looking down through microscopes into petri dishes (an activation of my introverted side). Who knows, if I had managed the maths involved in organic chemistry (never a strong suit for me)  I may have stayed the course and gone into medicine or biological research.

However, having said that, I always enjoyed the liberal arts more so than I did my intended scientific area of study, so perhaps I landed in the right place after all. Like I said in the start of this interview, I seem to have always pursued a non-linear path in my education and training. I can honestly say right now that there’s nothing else that I’d rather be, as I’m able to be a therapist, and do all sorts of other related activities that blend my utter fascination and care for the human condition with activities that don’t limit me to one way of expressing them.

Stay up to date with Dr Aaron Balick by following @DrAaronB on Twitter.

Aaron will be speaking at our Interpretation Conference in November in Brighton. Tickets are available here!

If you enjoyed this interview, please take a moment to share it with friends and colleagues!

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