Marriage Family Therapist
Dr. Darren Adamson Ph.D. and LMFT, is a highly respected Marriage and Family therapist who has spent his career diagnosing, assessing and treating individuals, couples and families to achieve resolution and reconciliation. After initially studying law Adamson was led into Marriage and Family therapy by his interest in the human condition and desire to help people overcome issues. After an extensive career and years of work experience he is now a highly trained therapist and professor at Northcentral University (NCU).
Marriage and Family Therapy is a specialization that is both specific and diverse at the same time, using the principle of engaging with more than one person and so communicating with a community. Therapists like Darren Adamson dedicate their careers to working with families to guide and progress their relationships. Learn more about Darren’s remarkable career journey and how he achieves success both personally and professionally below.
How did you first become interested in counseling and therapy? Was there some seminal moment when you knew it was what you wanted to do or was it more of a natural progression?
It was both, really. I was studying political science with the intention of going to law school. In a gen ed course on marriage I had an assignment to write a paper on divorce. In one of my poli sci courses I had an assignment to visit a court. I combined the two and visited divorce court. The attorney for the husband (who was divorcing his wife of 30 years for a much younger woman) was someone I knew. As I watched him question the wife to the point of causing her to sob uncontrollably, it dawned on me that I could not be something professionally that I was not personally, so law was not an option. Because of some of my classes and through interactions with others, I had discovered a fascination with the human condition and helping people to overcome issues and so a career was born.
With so many different types of counseling to choose from, what drew you to marriage therapy and family therapy in particular? What was it about this specialty that really interested you?
The most compelling aspect of MFT is the focus on the whole system rather than on the individual. Intuitively it makes sense that intervening with as many members of a family system is much more effective than focusing efforts on only one person. Interaction among people affects all involved in a circular way. This simply felt very logical to me. In the 26 years of my practice it has been shown time and time again to be the best approach to doing therapy. Even though I do see individuals, I always am thinking in systems. My interventions are designed to impact as much of the systemic patterns as possible, even when I am only seeing one member of that system.
Considering marriage and family issues can be so unique, maybe you can help us by describing what your responsibilities were as a therapist in that area? What sort of things did you do to try and help your clients? What sort of problems are you listening for?
As a MFT, my responsibilities are to seek understanding of the issues that are upsetting the balance or patterns of functioning of the client. It is critical to let the client(s) tell the whole story and to seek as deep an understanding as I can. I am looking for patterns of communication and interaction that are dysfunctional. These are the objects of intervention. The next most important responsibility is to observe strengths in the client(s) and highlight those strengths. Change comes more readily when approached from the foundation of strengths. It is critical that I “stick with” the client through the process of change. I am their guide and advocate as they sort through the issues and find solutions.
Can you talk a little bit about how your education continues to affect or help you as a professional? What were some of the important things you learned while getting your PHD that you still use today? Are there particular theories or experiences you had in class or as an intern that helped shape you as a professional?
In virtually every client case, I am reminded of things that I learned in my doctoral program. Of course, there are concepts from books and papers and discussion in class that are helpful in my clinical work. However, the most memorable and applicable experiences came in interactions with professors and with classmates, particularly in the practicum courses. These were instances of application of concepts and they are most memorable now. For example, Dr. Margaret Hoopes taught me that clients are the best teachers for the therapist. They will help me to know what they need from me, if I will but listen with my head and my heart. She also taught me that, “the more I learn and the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.” We are always learning and must be committed to that natural process.
As someone who is married with children, how do your experiences affect your work with clients? Or perhaps the better question is how do you keep your own experiences in marriage and childcare separate from client issues? Is it difficult to strike an effective balance? Are there specific ways to try to avoid letting your work and your personal life and relationships blend together?
At times it is difficult to keep these boundaries clear and firm. The most difficult direction is from work to home. This was especially true when I was first starting my practice. I would find that there were times when I was very emotional at home with my wife and children. These were times that I was hearing about very painful experiences from my clients. I found that I had to become very deliberate about the process of separating work from home so I created a ritual of closing the office at night. I would shut the door and think of leaving all that I heard that day in the clinical office, reminding myself that I had made notes and that I could refer to them before meeting those clients in the next session.
I would then reinforce that when I closed and locked the outside door, that everything I heard that day would stay in the office for me to use when needed during the next session. After practicing this for quite some time, I was able to create and maintain effective boundaries. In terms of my personal life affecting therapy, I have lived by two mantras or guiding philosophies, “Do no harm” and “Anything I say or do must have the intention to help my client(s)”. So, if an experience or lesson from my personal life is applicable to a client situation, I will briefly share it. It must be clear to me that it has some applicability and it must be BRIEFLY shared. Because it is too easy to do my own therapy when working with clients, I am hesitant to share too frequently and too much of my own experience.
You have worked in a private psychotherapy practice and you have worked and currently work as a professor of marriage and family counseling. What made you decide that you wanted to try your hand in higher education? How did the opportunity come about? And what were some of the hardest things you had to learn as you became a professor?
I think the greatest influence regarding me desiring to teach came from the really powerful teachers that I have had the privilege of working with. They were very effective at sharing knowledge with me, but mostly they had a powerful personal impact on me because of who they were and how they were. These mentors changed my life and I wanted to do the same for those studying marriage and family therapy and psychology. It has been a wonderful, life-changing experience for me to share with others what I have learned and to be a witness to their learning process. It is a remarkable experience to be present when another human being really grasps a concept and takes ownership of it. It is humbling to be a part of that and has enriched my life. I first began teaching during graduate school and then had the opportunity after graduation to teach as an adjunct at my undergraduate alma mater, Weber State University. That was where my love of learning and my love of teaching were born and nourished. Because of Dr. Hoopes I knew that I did not know it all, so this common challenge was not mine. However, I have noticed an evolution in me as a teacher regarding the art of determining what is most critical to teach. It is so tempting to simply share everything that I have learned in a big “data dump.” That is not effective so I try to sort through what is most important for the learner and then teach that.
What has your experience been teaching the subject? What levels do you teach? What is different about the curriculum from when you were in school? What are some of the pros and cons to teaching? What are some of the rewards and what are some of the obstacles you need to overcome?
I have discovered that teaching is, and always will be, a learning process. My humility has grown as I have had opportunity to teach. Although I have taught at the undergraduate level, I currently teach at the masters and doctoral level. The curriculum now is very focused on application of theory rather than just on the theory. This is a welcome change and leads to outcomes that students want. They want to learn how to be a marriage and family therapist, not simply know what marriage and family therapy is. The greatest advantage of teaching is the powerful learning process that it is. Not only is the review of what is known helpful, but it is incredibly powerful to learn from students as they sort through the content and the process of learning. Another advantage to teaching is to have consistent challenge to do better and learn more. That keeps one on her or his toes, so to speak. It helps me be more effective as a practitioner as well. I think the only con to teaching is that some students do not engage in the process. That is discouraging. The greatest reward to teaching is that I as the teacher change and grow. An occupation that pays me to continually improve is very cool! The most significant obstacle to overcome is the time it takes to stay abreast of current knowledge and to be involved in the research process that creates more and new knowledge. It is time consuming and can be exhausting.
Is there anything you would change about marriage or family counseling or psychology? Maybe it isn’t something wrong with the industry but something you would like to see focused on more? Or maybe some technical tools or practices that should be used more often? Really anything about the industry that you would like to see changed or done differently.
With the recent accreditation of the Northcentral University (NCU) MFT program by the Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), the one thing that I wanted to see changed has dramatically shifted. MFT education is moving very aggressively into the new century and millennium by giving the accreditation stamp of approval to an online program. This is historic in the MFT field since it is the first program to be accredited and it signals a support in the profession for the effective training of MFTs using modern educational tools and platforms. That is something that has needed to change for a long time and the day has arrived! Another thing that we need to change is that more research needs to be done and published within the MFT field. We have relied on other fields to do the research, but that must change if we are to fully take the leading role in demonstrating the effectiveness of systems theory.
Are there options for family and marriage counselors who don’t want to teach and don’t want to work in a private practice? What are some of the different options within the industry that students with the necessary qualifications can do?
There are some who complete MFT masters degrees that really do not want to practice. That determination is made at the end of the program or, in rare cases, at the beginning of the educational process. Because of the systems theory training received during the degree, these graduates are prepared to work in any occupation that requires the ability to see interconnections in processes or among people. For example, NCU has two academic advisors that have completed MFT masters degrees. Their role at the university is to assist students to move through the degree process successfully. They guide students related to courses and practicum as well as providing moral support during difficult phases of completion. Graduates can work in agencies as case managers, in Human Resources departments, in sales management, etc. Really MFT program graduates can work in any job that involves interaction among people and with processes that require collaboration for success.
Do you have any advice for students following in your footsteps? Any suggestions that they should follow? Any tips or advice you can impart that might be able to help them make a decision about the career and become an effective marriage or family counselor?
Students considering a degree in MFT must be clear about their motivation. A desire to help people is a noble goal but it is too general to sustain the drive needed to complete a rigorous program of study. If there is a desire to explore complex processes and problems and to figure out how to make things better then there will be a strong enough motivation so maintain drive. This stronger motivation also leads to fulfilling the desire to help people. Be realistic in your selection of this career. It is an amazing career filled with challenge and growth and wonder over the complexity and resiliency of the human species. It also has disappointment when clients don’t make progress. Be prepared for a wondrous, growth-filled, lifelong career experience. If this is what you want, then a degree in MFT is for you. I suggest to students that they need to leave fear of looking less smart behind. When learning material that is new, everyone is in an uneducated state, so do not be embarrassed by a question that seems silly. Simply learn with gusto, without the fear of how you might look to others. That openness to the process of learning allows for deeper and broader learning to occur. It allows for you to fit the profession to you rather than you trying to fit yourself to the profession!