Julie Zelig is a licensed psychologist who recently relocated her practice from New York to Sarasota, Florida. When she speaks, you can simultaneously hear her thick New York accent and deep well of warmth. Trained in the art of listening, she allows for spaciousness in conversation and is curious to learn more about everything that is said.
At the beginning of our conversation, I ask Julie why she decided to become a therapist. She responds, “I feel like I was born to be a psychologist. I know how funny that sounds because most people decide later in life what they want to do or their career has some twists and turns, [but] from as early as I can remember—beginning in like elementary school—I was very ahead of myself and very curious about my peers.” I appreciate both her candor and her confidence in owning that she has been on her path for a very long time and that—in fact—she may have been put on this planet to be of service in this way. She shares more about what it means to be aligned with a calling, “I think that means it’s a really great fit when you have that passion and that early interest that comes from deep inside [of] you. . . . It feels good to do what you naturally like to be doing.”
Julie and I then begin to discuss the comparisons and contrasts between a therapist and a coach—a question that we both are regularly asked. She notes:
“The ethical principles that guide psychologists are pretty strict. [We are taught to believe that] the therapeutic relationship [is] the number one vehicle to change and so a strong therapeutic alliance is what is central to someone making progress towards their goals. . . . But at the same time, there are boundaries that are very important—professional boundaries—and I would say most of my training really emphasized that it’s really important that the client is the center of the process in the sense that there’s not much sharing on the therapist’s part unless it’s really appropriate.”
She continues by describing how she approaches her clients:
“I tailor my approach to each unique person who comes in and at the same time kind of assess what’s appropriate in terms of how much I share about a certain situation that possibly reminds me of something that I’ve been through. . . . But I do think that [that has] been somewhat [of] a limitation—the level of emphasis on how much you share about your personal history or your own experience.”
We are not trying to claim which modality is better or worse but rather demonstrate some of the difficulties that can exist in the therapeutic approach of withholding personal information and not sharing vulnerably in front of one’s clients. Sometimes one has to show his or her cards in order to allow for others to feel safe in doing the same. Julie notes, “It’s situational and it’s an intuitive process. I don’t think there’s one model.” We continue to explore how these professions overlap, with Julie explaining that “being able to pay attention to other people” is a gift in our line of work but “it can also distract you from your internal experiences and can get in the way of your own process” in personal matters.
Julie and I then discuss the importance of feeling one’s feelings as a matter of claiming one’s highest self. We talk about how we live in a society that encourages us to distract ourselves from intense and uncomfortable emotions when we’d be better off in the long run processing the feelings as they happen. Julie explains, “[It’s] the idea of just sitting with whatever you’re feeling and knowing that the feeling will pass and that [you’re] actually not avoiding it [and that it] is going to get you to the other side.” Feelings rise up inside of us when something is out of alignment. And even when these feelings are totally overwhelming, the only way out of them is through them.
Julie shares a story of freezing from fear when she got up to give a presentation in middle school. Although this was many years ago, the experience largely influenced how she related to her instinct and intuition. She shares that as she stood in front of her class, “I felt overcome with a lot of physical sensations. My body got very hot. I couldn’t concentrate. I had a stomach ache. I forgot everything I was trying to say. I got very flushed in the face.” This experience led her to believe that any situation in which she could be judged negatively by others was inherently unsafe and she convinced herself of that by equating it to that sense of deeper inner knowing inside of her. Years later, as she recounts this early childhood experience, she is wildly aware that her reaction was actually fear and her fight-or-flight response, not intuition. She notes:
“It becomes a familiar experience. . . . It’s easy to twist your mind to that. [Like] this is really the truth of what’s happening and I think it can be limiting to go with that idea. It’s taken time for me to overcome those type of emotions and the fear response. It’s taken a lot of hard work on my part to undo that. But I think this is something that a lot of people struggle with: trying to determine [whether or not] something is . . . an intuitive response or a fear response because the internal experience can feel similar.”
As Julie recently let go of her therapy practice in New York and relocated to Florida with her husband, I ask her about the inevitable discomfort that so often comes with change and the unknown. Although she is familiar with anxiety and fear, she “loves not knowing what is going to happen. . . . thrives on new experiences and crave[s] that adventure.” She remembers learning in her training “the idea of surrendering to the unknown and just letting things fall into place . . . [to] follow the stream where it takes you.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask Julie to share some professional insights on how to decipher the difference between fear and intuition. She states:
“Slowing down is probably one of the best skills that you can have when you’re not sure what’s happening for you. Let’s say you’re having an emotional experience or you’re feeling uncomfortable or you’re not sure what’s going on, just slowing down to get quiet with yourself . . . to just be with yourself for a little bit of time and check in with how you’re feeling. So that’s all central to mindfulness and, you know, tuning in and trusting that you deep down will figure out what’s going on.”