If it wasn’t for a change of a heart and a strong desire to make an impact in people’s lives, Mindy Utay might still be working as a corporate lawyer somewhere. Luckily for Utay’s patients, she recognized that corporate law didn’t actually help her impact people’s lives; so she went back to school, got a Master’s degree in social work, and now she is a respected psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in individual and couples therapy as well as career counseling and coaching.
Creating an independent practice is exceptionally difficult, especially in New York City where there is a licensed therapist and social worker just a stones throw away. But despite the obstacles, Utay has carved out a living and she couldn’t be happier. She may not have a doctoral degree, but she is still an excellent resource for those looking for information about social work and psychotherapy.
We recognized this and reached out to her looking to discuss her experiences and career trajectory. In this interview, Utay discusses — amongst other things — how nervous she was when she saw her first patient, balancing her personal life with her work, and how her education has helped her get to where she is today. Enjoy!
How did you become interested in psychology in the first place? Was there a seminal moment or did it just happen over time?
I have been interested in psychology for most of my life. I read a lot about psychology and human behavior as a teenager but I didn’t really study it until I was a graduate student. I started my career as a lawyer first because it was a more identifiable profession, I thought I could help people sort out their problems and I could give advice.
I just don’t think I understood the psychology profession that well; I understood the legal track better and really hadn’t had any direct experience with the psychology field. Eventually I figured out that I didn’t want to continue as an attorney, so I investigated going back to school for a social work degree.
So then how did you arrive in this specific field of psychology? What drew you to counseling and therapy?
My degree is in social work because I knew I wanted to be a therapist and it provided intense clinical training in understanding human behavior. As a corporate lawyer, I didn’t feel like I was actually helping people or impacting anyone’s life, it was very business-oriented.
I wanted to deal with people on a more individual level and make a personal connection to the people I was seeing. I got my MSW degree in 2003 and became a psychoanalyst after four years additional training and eventually I went out on my own, which I always wanted to do because I liked the independence and the flexibility of a private practice.
So explain what exactly it is that you do as a psychotherapist. What kind of help are you offering people who come to see you?
People come to me for many different reasons. Some have relationship issues or career issues or feel stuck in life. I deal with the real problems of people’s lives. We generally meet once or twice per week and we speak about their life history, their childhood experiences, the people in their lives, traumatic experiences they might have been through.
That is the beginning of the way I work, and then at some point, we try to connect the current problems they face with issues in the past. We learn about their current problems and find out how it can be traced back. Once the person is aware of how they got to where they are now, then it is a lot easier to go about making changes.
I imagine it can be difficult for someone in your profession to balance the problems at work with your own personal life. How difficult is it to separate the two?
I think that an important part of being a therapist is that everyone has to practice self-care. Therapists need to recognize when things are becoming difficult and they are starting to feel stressed out. I think it is really important for a therapist to be constantly checking in with themselves so they can identify and help relieve some of that stress.
Talk a little bit about how your education helped you get to where you are today. What was the educational experience like?
The social work degree is a combination of classroom experience and internships so that you can get hands on experience. You need to do at least two internships and each one is a year long. This is where you get clinical experience and you actually get to work with patients.
As interns you are under careful supervision from both the school you are attending and your supervisor at the clinic. They keep track of your progress and stay up to speed on the way you are performing, but you are actually sitting with patients and practicing therapy.
My psychoanalytic training was particularly helpful because it gave me more clinical experience after social work school and the training is excellent if you want to help people better understand themselves and motivate real change in their lives.
So when you first sat with a patient, you must have been nervous right?
When I first started as an intern, I had no idea what to expect and I am sure I was nervous. You think you will say something wrong or do something wrong, so the first time is always a little stressful. But you learn to handle it. You can also be very helpful when you know very little.
You have a beginner’s mind and your heart is in the right place, so you can be very open with the patient. You can definitely be thrown, but that is part of the learning experience. If you really listen to what people say, you can be very helpful.
Earlier you mentioned you got into this profession because you wanted to help people. Now you have been doing this for awhile, so how rewarding is this profession for you?
It is extremely rewarding. I get to know people very intimately. I help them reach their goals and it is very gratifying. I get a lot of personal fulfillment from helping people do that. One thing that is great about this field is that you can do it when you are pretty old. I have a supervisor who is 99 years old, so as long as your mind is sharp you can still be helping people. I love it.
What sort of advice would you give to someone who was considering a career in your profession? What are some things they should consider before they pursue this career path?
I think that if you love the work, this is a great field, and you really need to love it and want to listen to people. There are some drawbacks to the field because there are a lot of therapists, which means there is a lot of competition if you are interested in private practice.
Health care is also an issue if an insurance company sets limits on sessions, which can be difficult. This is not a particularly high-paying job especially when you are starting out; you need to know what you are getting into. This is a career for people who are looking to find gratification in their work by helping people.
Practicing psychotherapy is part science and part art. You learn to analyze information within certain theoretical models. I try to understand what behavior means in terms of organizing information, so I can tell a patient something that will be helpful to them. If you are a social worker or psychologist, you will learn theoretical principles and then use them to understand material that patients tell you.
The people who do it best are the people who develop a clinical instinct. They are able to recognize that people are people, and that you need to be able to read between the lines, which comes from experience and patience.
If you would like to know more about Mindy Utay you can follow her on Twitter @MindyUtayLCSW.