I Am Collingswood: Amy Salmon Kasten
Collingswood provides the sense of community that made therapist Amy Salmon Kasten want to move here. She talks with Patch about stress, parenting, and the Gestalt.
Family therapist Amy Salmon Kasten guides her clients toward stability and healing with Gestalt method. This week, she tells Patch about her therapeutic style, how most of us are overstressed, and offers some pointers on improving our relationships.
Collingswood Patch: You've been a social worker and therapist for more than ten years. Can you talk a little about your career trajectory?
Amy Salmon Kasten: I studied anthropology in college and I loved it, although I don't think I ever really saw myself going out to be an anthropologist. I had fantasies about it, but I don't think I could leave my family for years at a time like that.
I got a job as a foster care social worker in Philadelphia and I was working with families that had their kids in foster care. I would do family visits and there was a lot of sexual abuse, child abuse; I was seeing a lot. I just felt really ill-equipped. I mean, I was like 23 talking to people how to take care of their children! What did I know?
But there was clearly a need for people to do what I was doing and I needed more experience so I decided I would go to graduate school for social work. I went to Byrn Mawr and I loved it.
After that I started at Garfield Park Academy in Willingboro as a school social worker. But I really wanted to do therapy, and as a school social worker you do some therapy, but you do 20 other things too. You do anything and everything that people need you to do. So, I just got to the point where I was like, “I think I'm just going to start seeing private clients.” And so I did!
Patch: In your work with children and families, is there an unhealthy pattern of behavior that you seem to see over and over?
Kasten: One thing that I see is a lot of parents coming in wanting me to “fix” their children; wanting me to make their children fit into this mold of what they think they should be. You know, when our children don't do well, parents think, “Oh this is reflecting on me. I'm not parenting well enough,” and they try to control their children.
What kids really need is to be supported in whatever their experience is and whatever their feelings are. They need somebody to listen, they need somebody to be with them. They need somebody to validate them and acknowledge them and help them discover what they feel, who they are, and what they think.
I think parents, in a really good-hearted attempt to have their children be good, successful people, try to control when it's really about how can we help our children find their own voice and their own strength and who they are.
Patch: What advice you find yourself giving most often to your clients?
Kasten: Therapy isn't really about giving advice. It's about helping people find answers that feel right to them.
I had somebody come in the other day wanting to know how to talk to their child about their mental illness. As she talked, she was describing how she had been suicidal for 10 years, but how she doesn't really think about it anymore. She has better coping skills now.
So when I reflected that back to her, I told her, “You can really talk to your daughter about this in a context of recovery.” She had her own answer, she just couldn't see it.
My job is to help people find their own voice, their own feelings, and their own answers. If I give it to them, it's not theirs, they don't own it.
Patch: One of your specialties is teaching people how to manage stress. What is your feeling about how stress can affect people's health?
Kasten: Stress is all around us. I think we have a ton of stress. I know I struggle with managing my own stress. I think it affects our bodies, I think it affects our minds. I think it affects us emotionally, spiritually, really everything.
I think connection with other people is important. I think taking time to slow down is important. Taking time to breathe and taking time to disconnect from TV, Internet, phone, all of that. It's really hard! It's embedded in our culture and our lives. A lot of our culture tell us to work, work, work and achieve, achieve, achieve.
I really don't think that necessarily makes people happy. When you're breaking from that, you're breaking from everything around you that says, “This is what makes you successful, why aren't you doing it?” It's really hard to break away from those cultural norms.
I always go back to breathing. It may sound stupid, but breathing calms your nervous system down. We forget to do it when we're stressed out, so, when we take a deep breath we're calming our nervous system down. We're remembering to come back to the present, that we can't control everything around us or what's in the future or the past. But, we can be right here.
Patch: You do some group and family counseling as well. What are the most important things we can do to improve our relationships?
Kasten: I think that people need to take time to be with one another in a really connected way. So that means that you're present, I'm present. We're not off thinking about other things. We're really listening to each other.
We have to allow space for what we're feeling and for what the other person is feeling and we don't have to agree. But we just have to slow down, listen, and hear each other.
Patch: Dealing with other people's issues full-time probably takes a real toll on you. How do you wind down and de-stress?
Kasten: I breathe. I meditate, sometimes; I wish I did it more. I spend time with my family and my son. I talk to people, I go to therapy. I run, sometimes, not very well, but I do it.
Part of the reason I quit my other job as a school social worker was so I can do this two to three days a week. That leaves more time for me to take care of myself so that I can be a good therapist.
When I was crazy doing two jobs, I wasn't as good of a therapist. I wasn't as good of a wife, or a mother. Or a person! I really try to listen to myself now and take care of what my needs are.
Patch: What are some of the warning signs people should look for to know they may want to seek professional counseling?
Kasten: If they're feeling sad, depressed; if they're feeling like they're not connected, like they don't have close relationships. High anxiety.
A big one too is feeling really dissatisfied with your life. I think a lot of times, people are dissatisfied. One day they wake up with these lives that they don't want and they don't know how they got there. They think, “What do I do now?” and it becomes a crisis.
Obviously, if they're feeling suicidal, if they're thinking about hurting themselves or others. But also, just feeling lost, ungrounded, unconnected. Therapy's really good for a lot of things. Sometimes people come in and say, “I don't even know why I'm here, but...” So we start to figure it out together.
Patch: You spent three years studying Gestalt therapy, which emphasizes holistic treatment of the patient. What drew you to that technique?
Kasten: Gestalt therapy is really about the relationship between the client and the therapist—so there's you and there's me and there's us and what we create together.
So, if you're totally a Freudian psychoanalyst, you don't really say anything. You're a blank screen, your client talks and lies on a couch facing away from you, and you sort of pretend you're not in the room.
Gestalt therapy says that's crap—of course you're in the room, you're a person! It says that you may be a trained therapist, but you're also a human being with your own reaction. And my own reactions as a therapist can sometimes let me know what's going on with my client. So if I say, “I'm really starting to feel anxious right now,” the client might say, “Oh yeah, that's how I'm feeling.”
Because of my training in Gestalt techniques I really listen to what's going on within myself and I gesture toward my body a lot. In Gestalt, you're really taught to notice your bodily sensations, and that even if you're not aware that there's something going on with you, if you pay attention to your body, often images will come up and feelings will come up that you weren't aware of before.
Really deep stuff that can be really painful. There's the idea that we sometimes hold memories and feelings in our bodies. It's really amazing. It's really given me a new respect for how body stuff is so important with respect to emotional, psychological healing.
Patch: How do you incorporate play into your therapy with children?
Kasten: Children don't have the same cognitive level, obviously, so a lot of their stuff is processed through metaphor, through play, and through story. So, I usually let children choose what they want to do.
I have a sand tray; I'm trained in sand tray therapy. It's like a sand box with shelves with hundreds of figures on them. And they choose figures and they create a story in the sand and we talk about the story. Usually the story relates to their lives. Sometimes I know what it is, sometimes I don't, but it doesn't really matter.
The important thing is that the child is doing the work that he needs to do. If you support them and validate them and you listen and are present in a non-judgmental way, they will work through it on their own. That's kind of the basis of what they call non-directed play therapy. You let the child lead you.
I've seen how spending that time with a child, being really present and totally non-directive and non-judgmental can help them develop more of a sense of themselves. They're more connected to themselves, they get stronger, and they're suddenly more free to express themselves outside of the work we do together.
Patch: What's it like when someone you're working with makes a breakthrough?
Kasten: It's a gift. It really is. I think I do this work, in part, to help people heal and then when I see them heal, it gives me a renewed faith in the human spirit. I struggle with the same issues my clients struggle with, I'm not any different. I have my own struggles with my marriage and myself and my child. So, as I see them work through things, I feel really privileged to be a part of that, they they trust me. We're all working through stuff. I feel really lucky to be doing this.
Patch: Have you found that most of the Collingswood citizens that you've encountered have healthy attitudes and relationships? As a town, how do we rate mental-health wise?
Kasten: What's nice about Collingswood is it's a small town, and so people are really connected moreso than in other places. My husband and I grew up in Cherry Hill, and there was really no town center there. So, when we were looking for a place to live, we wanted a place with a town center, where people knew their neighbors, where there was more a sense of community. I definitely see that here.
(Laughs) But I don't know if I can speak to people's mental health!
Learn more about Amy Salmon Kasten's practice by visiting her website.