“This Therapist’s Life” is an interview series intended to demystify therapists to the public while giving permission to therapists to speak from the heart about the joys and challenges of what we do, in and out of the office.
Introducing, Esther Boykin.
Who is Esther Boykin?
I’m a mom, wife, writer, therapist, entrepreneur… a lot of things. I’m also a lover of coffee, interior design, good writing, and quiet mornings. I own a group private practice called Group Therapy Associates in Haymarket, VA (Washington, DC metro area). I’ve always wanted to be a therapist since I was in middle school so it’s kind of cool to be doing something that I dreamed of doing. Starting my practice and having such amazing therapists join our team has been even better. I love the balance between being a therapist and being an entrepreneur- it’s a perfect fit for me. And as a marriage and family therapist I am really passionate about working with people and their relationships- romantic or otherwise- so being able to create a whole practice dedicated to that work is really great.
On the personal side, I have 2 teenagers that are totally hilarious and fun to be around even though they do all the annoying teenage stuff you imagine they would. And I’m married to a great guy who is kind of the opposite of me which after 20 years has proved to be a great balance for both of us. He keeps me practical and I keep him open to new stuff and always talking about his feelings. Ha!
What do you enjoy about your work?
The people. I love the experience of watching and supporting someone as they work on creating a life or relationship they want. I see a number of clients with traumatic experiences in their past and that can be such a painful and overwhelming thing to work through but the process of helping someone feel more loving toward themselves is something I can’t explain. I am constantly amazed and honored to witness people’s resiliency and courage to just be authentic and vulnerable in life.
What is challenging?
The people. Just kidding. What I find most challenging is accepting that not everyone is ready to do the work necessary to reach their goals. I’m a very optimistic person and I see the potential in everyone but I have come to understand that just because it’s possible to grow doesn’t always mean that we are ready or willing to do so. The hardest part of that for me is when I see a couple where I can see the possibilities of their relationship but either because of hurt and pain or for other reasons they aren’t able to get to that place of connection. It’s one of the reasons that I encourage couples to try therapy sooner rather than later- sometimes when you wait so long the pain you cause each other becomes too much to overcome. It always makes me sad when people who were connected and in love find themselves too far apart to make it work again.
What is one of your greatest experiences in therapy?
When a client comes in and is proud of themselves for doing something new or changing a pattern in their life, it is the one of the best feelings. I would love to take credit and I work hard daily to be a ‘good’ therapist but ultimately for a client to grow and change they have to do their own work. Watching someone reach their goals and recognize that they in fact had the power to change their life or relationship is priceless. It is absolutely the best part of my job.
Do you have any regrets in your work? In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
Years ago I worked with a couple where the wife suspected her husband was having an affair. I met with them together and individually and found him genuine when he said he really loved his wife and family and wanted to work on things. I took that at face value and I still believe that it was true but so was her instinct that he was being unfaithful. The wife trusted my judgement and I think that influenced her to put aside her concerns and just invest at really working to reconnect with him only to find out through friends that he was in fact having an affair. Typically I live by the philosophy that no matter how great my expertise, people know their loved ones better than I do. That doesn’t mean their judgement can’t get clouded but in this case I was clouded. In hindsight I should have encouraged her to trust her judgement first and treat my opinion as valuable information to consider but not enough to overrule her instincts. In the end, they both continued to do individual work through their separation but she had to work to get back to trusting her judgement and that’s something I could have helped her with much sooner and potential reduced some of her pain along the way.
I think in any profession it is easy to have missteps and mistakes. The goal is to learn from those moments and minimize the potential damage. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to keep working with those clients through the challenges and think of them often when faced with clients who may be inclined to let my opinion overrule their own. My job is to help identify obstacles and alternate perspectives but in the end that case reminded me that my job is also to empower clients to learn how to trust their ability to see their situation clearly and make good choices, even when they differ from what they think I believe.
What would you like your clients or potential clients to understand about the work you do?
My job is not to fix anyone. They don’t hand out packets of magical therapy dust with our license nor do I have the power to make someone do something that they don’t want to do or don’t believe in. I think often, especially for clients who come in to deal with relationship issues, there is a hope that I will have all the answers and simply “fix” the issue (or their partner!). As a therapist my job is much more like a guide on the journey to your goals rather than the driver. When clients come in ready to clarify their own goals and do the work with my support and guidance, the experience is often most successful. If you’re looking for me to make your life the way you want it without doing a lot of uncomfortable work, you’re going to be disappointed.
Are there ways your work positively impacts your personal life?
It makes me more patient, more willing to work, and definitely more appreciative of my husband and children. I see first hand how minor irritations and small conflicts, when left unresolved, can snowball into really hurtful relationship habits, so I am probably more diligent about repairing things when something doesn’t go well. I am the friend, wife, and mother who will go the extra mile to make sure the people I love feel like their opinion matters to me and that I always have time for them. I’ve learned that so often just the simple act of giving people time and attention can make all the difference.
Are there ways your work has been a challenge to your personal life?
Sometimes being a therapist is emotionally draining and the hours aren’t always great. Particularly because I am also a business owner, there are times when I just feel exhausted by the demands for my time and attention and don’t want to be as social as usual. Sometimes that makes me distracted or less available but I work hard not to become a habit.
How would people close to you describe you as related to your work?
I think most people would say that I always see the good in others and am much more understanding than most. I definitely have a reputation of being soft but honest. I think that my friends and family see me as the go to person when you want to feel like it safe to say anything. I like to think I’m pretty compassionate and happy to listen to everyone’s story without psychoanalyzing. Strangers often assume that I’m analyzing their every move but the people who know me well just think I might have good advice and be willing to listen. I’m definitely not a therapist 24/7 but the personality traits that drew me to therapy never really go away.
Is there something others might find funny to know about you?
My movie tastes are generally a combination of 13 year boy and a 16 year old girl- I can watch silly comedies, action movies, and chick flicks all day. I think a lot of people assume that I’m more likely to watch documentaries or psychological thrillers. But the truth is I like my movies and tv to be a distraction so you’re more likely to find me watching the Mindy Project or whatever the latest superhero movie is in the theater.
What are some things you would do if you had more time?
Read more books, paint my bathroom, and go to the gym or run more often. Or maybe just hang out with my friends on the patio in front of a fire with a good bottle of wine.
Why do you do the work of therapy? What does it mean to you?
I genuinely believe that having even just one relationship where you feel someone has unconditional respect and compassion for you can make everyone’s life better. Sometimes therapy is that relationship. It’s an opportunity to help people connect to the best part of humanity- kindness, self-worth, compassion, and growth. Being a therapist allows me to be part of that experience and I think truly help couples and individuals enjoy a better quality of life.
Esther Boykin, LMFT runs Group Therapy Associates, a private practice working with individuals, couples, and families in Haymarket, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington DC. Learn more and get to know her colleagues at www.grouptherapyassociates.com.
See previous “This Therapist’s Life” interviews: