Interview: Jeffrey Kottler

Prof. Dr. Jeffrey A. KOTTLER … You are a Clinical Professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine. You have served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Peru and Iceland and worked as a Visiting Professor in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Nepal, and other countries throughout the world, We are...

Prof. Dr. Jeffrey A. KOTTLER … You are a Clinical Professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine. You have served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in Peru and Iceland and worked as a Visiting Professor in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Nepal, and other countries throughout the world, We are grateful to you for adding Turkey to this intensive schedule and offering an insight through your trainings for the people who want to improve themselves. Let’s start the interview to get to know you better. What is the main thing that brings you back to Turkey?  What is the motivation that led you to provide training for the second time in Turkey?

          I made some wonderful friends during my last visit—and I miss them. I just love the country, the food, the culture, the resilience of the people, especially during these challenging times. I’ve lived all over the world and yet I have found that Turkey has everything I enjoy most. I don’t care that much for buildings and tourist things—I’m all about people. And I’ve found Turkish students and psychologists to be so incredibly generous and welcoming and appreciative.

You are one of the best-selling authors of over 100 non-fiction books on personal development, group leadership, professional development of psychotherapists and teachers, social justice, help, and healing. What are you paying attention to when writing your books? Or how do you decide when you are done with a book or text? What is your criteria for your internal evaluations while writing?

Well, these are three quite different questions and I don’t have the space to answer all of them. But I write about the things that I’m most confused about. I write books that are a journey for me. I write every day. I am working on five different books right now, each in a different stage. And the reason for that is that because I need to write every day I’m always waiting for publishers, editors, sometimes coauthors, to do their part. So while I’m waiting, I start something else. Right now my most exciting book is called Fallen Heroes and it is about a dozen famous sports figures who struggled with mental illness that led, eventually, to some resilience and reinvention. The nature of their struggles is fascinating.

We know that you don’t think of an incident separate from its context and we know that you revise your trainings according to the cultural background of client/group. What should we consider when we make cultural arrangement for therapy, and how do you explain the impact of culture on psychology in your own perspective?

These are very separate questions. I see cultural as much more broad than ethnicity or religion or gender but includes all the groups to which someone feels an alliance, whether related to hobbies, geography, family values, profession or job, and so on. I think it’s important to explore all of these and to ask clients for guidance in teaching us what we need to know to better understand their experience and worldview.

In your every presence, in any kind of work you do,  we can see that helping people is always your main purpose. But this help is not just about your therapies, your books. We know that you are the founder of the Empower Nepali Girls where you do amazing things. We are curious about the founding story of the Empower Nepali Girls. How did this foundation come up? What are you doing? What do you feel when you are with them?

Helping people is not always my main purpose: often it is to help myself. But I do want to be remembered for as much as I can do in my short life. I didn’t choose to start this foundation in Nepal to save at-risk girls; rather, the circumstance chose me and it feels like I didn’t have a choice at all. If I didn’t act decisively, a little girl would have been sold into sex slavery. And once I took that first step I felt trapped: if I didn’t continue my effort she would have disappeared. And then since I was committed to help her, I figured why not help a few more girls. And a few more. And now there are hundreds all over the country. These efforts start small, with gestures that build over time, especially with like-minded people as part of a team.

In a sense I am “ruined” when I go to Nepal because ordinary life back home is never the same again. I live in the moment. Every day I see what good I can do. I don’t care about material things or future plans. I hold girls on my lap and read them stories and play with them. I talk to them about their lives. And I love the connections and intimacy we develop within our team. This is hard, hard work. The hardest work I’ve ever done. I am emotionally overwrought. I am physically exhausted. I am sleep deprived. I’m overwhelmed by everything. Sometimes I just can’t hold any more. But I live for these experiences and never feel more alive.

Based upon your efforts in Empower Nepali Girls, what kind of responsibilities can a psychologist have for social sensitivity, what do you think about it? How can we be involved in social responsibility projects as psychologists?

I don’t have an easy answer for this. Timing is important. For many people they are so consumed with their own lives they don’t have the time and energy and resources to go beyond what they are already handling. I hate it when leaders in our field scold and shame others about being more active in helping others. We do what we can, when we can. We are each in different stages of life. I think students have enough already just getting through school, paying off debt, trying to establish themselves. I’ve taken hundreds of students with me over the years on my projects and none ever regret it but they also made huge sacrifices, financially and personally, in order to make it happen.

Human beings don’t like to face their mistakes. Well, should there be a feeling or a competence that a good therapist should have in order to recognize his/her mistakes? If so what is it for you?

I think it takes a lot of courage, and a very safe environment and trusted colleagues, to admit mistakes, much less talk about them. In my supervision and jobs It was not safe to do that. We would be shamed or criticized. And doing therapy for me is such a confusing, mysterious process that so much of the time I don’t really understand what’s going on anyway. And mistakes hurt. A lot. They trigger my own feelings of incompetence, that I don’t know enough, that I’m not good enough. I’ve also learned that it is by owning and processing my failures that I’ve become so much better at what I do. I am a fearless critic of my own behavior.

While watching one of your interviews, we came across a question that you asked  and we loved it. So we want to ask it to you this time: When you go back in time to those years that you just started doing therapy, what would be the one thing that you wish you knew it then but didn’t?

Did I really ask that? Good question indeed! I suppose what stands out is that I wished I had trusted myself more. I had a few very powerful, very famous mentors whose influence totally encapsulated me. I tried to be them, not just like them. I lost myself during that process. They were so amazing that I was pretty good as well but it took me so many years to finally figure out what I believed, to stop hearing their voices inside my head, and finally to hear my own. But it took me SO long to do that.

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We are very excited that we will be able to see you in Turkey again and attend your trainings in May. Could you tell us about the contents of these 4 trainings that will bring us together in May and June? What is your basic vision in the trainings? What are you aiming for? And what is waiting for us?

It’s always difficult to have people in a room for such a brief period and hope to make a lasting difference. And then working through a translator is another layer of challenge. So I’m all about EXPERIENCES. There just isn’t that much new content. I know everyone thinks they are looking for the next magical technique or strategy that will change everything but as we well know, lasting changes are about novelty, emotional arousal, taking risks, challenging oneself in new directions. I also have an allergy to boredom. There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a room all day and seeing endless slides as the presenter goes on and on. So I think being entertaining and engaging is important. So, what I’m aiming for is something magical in the room—but that is as much up to the participants as it is to me. Since there will be people there who attended my programs last year I also have to avoid repeating myself and making sure we create something altogether new and different. But I’m sure I’ll return with some amazing new stories from my adventures.

We want to get to know you a bit more through your own trainings. Such that  in “The Power of Stories in Therapy and Everyday Life”, we believe you are bringing an awareness to the power that stories have and enabling us to experience the power of being good storytellers. Well, allow us to ask this time: What’s a story that changed your life?

Well, one story? This happens for me every day because I’m always searching for this. I’m just letting my mind roam around for a minute to see which one pops up. Okay, got one. And the reason why this one pops up is because I’m going to see this young man today. He is a medical student I am working with. And he was born with only one arm. In addition he is from Pakistan and has some other challenges in his family. I said to him, after first meeting him, “How did you get in medical school, or how can you be a doctor, with only one arm?” He looked down at the missing limb and said, with perfect confusion, “What do you mean?” I repeated, “Dude you’ve only got one arm! I mean how are you going to do surgery and things like that?” He honestly didn’t understand the question because he doesn’t see himself as limited or disabled in any way. He has adapted completely and says he can do anything that someone with two arms can do. I have to tell you that it wasn’t just his answer that blew me away, but the completely honest, authentic way he responded. I love this guy. I just thought of all the silly little things that I might complain about—the annoyances, the disappointments, the inconveniences, the politics and leadership in my country (Okay, that one isn’t so silly) and realized once again how far resilience and courage can take one anywhere.

You argue that the leadership is now a concept that is used everywhere in everyday life. And you deliver your “What You Don’t Know About Leadership but Probably Should” training for people who want to have a different perspective on a very worn out term. We believe you present as a great model of leading through the way you enlighten people’s lives in your trainings. Have you always been a good leader? If you think back in time, did you have such good leadership qualities when you were young? How was your childhood? Was there a leader you were influenced by?

I as a shy, withdrawn, insecure child with many problems. Vision problems, Learning problems, Self-esteem problems. Family problems. I never thought I could do much of anything in life. It wasn’t until I discovered I could write that I realized I had a powerful voice to describe my own inner experiences. And I realized that my own suffering was a bridge to be able to connect to others. So leadership in my life occurred only after I found my voice as a teacher. I had so many teachers who were hypocrites, who were mean spirited or who couldn’t do what they asked of us. I realized that leadership is, above all else, being who we want others to be. So I work hard, every single day, trying to be a better person, trying to access greater compassion and kindness for others.

In “The Power of Relationships in Psychotherapy and the Therapist’s Life” training, you  emphasize the importance of the therapeutic relationship and suggest that it is the very nature of this relationship that defines good therapy despite various school of thoughts, methods and therapy models.  Well, as a good therapist, what are you considerate of when you bond with your clients? How do you control your inner and outer circles in therapy?

I’m not exactly sure what this means. But what I have to say about relationships in therapy is that they are all different. What I’ve learned to do over time is to negotiate with clients the most advantageous relationship for both of us rather than imposing a vision that I expect them to comfort to. It is the same with trainings. I have done a lot of preparation. I do have some content and slides prepared. But until I see who is in the room, what it feels like, what people are responding to, and what isn’t working well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think improvisation is the key. I think therapist (or teacher) rigidity is trouble. My greatest resources is my flexibility, my willingness to do whatever it takes, to make connections. I think that is happening right now as I write these words. I don’t know who I’m writing to. I can’t see any of you. I don’t know how you are responding. So I’m trying to connect with you by being as open and authentic as I can. That way if I say something that offends you, or something you disagree with, you might forgive me if you trust me.

When we attend your trainings, watch your videos, and read your books, a single word comes to mind: perfection. At this point, you say “Learning Through Our Worst Failures” and you make us believe that there is no bad therapy. Well, how did you turn your misfortune into luck? What was it that you gained most after a mistake you made?

Well, I’d say the single word is IMPERFECTION. I’ve made a career out of talking about my mistakes and failures—because hardly anyone else does. I’m really hard on myself. But then, I’m very forgiving afterwards. I take a lot of risks. I try things I’ve never done before. All the time. Mostly because I get bored with myself. I see what we do is as much artistry as anything else. I love making things up as I go along, but that means that it is awkward, unpolished, and yes, often likely not to work out. Oh well. If I have a solid relationship with clients/students/audiences they forgive these miscalculations and we move on. But I am trying to model what I teach.

*Thank you very much for this beautiful interview.

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