Psychologist Amy Bowers found her career calling via a circuitous route. When she started college, her first major was math. “I pursued a math degree because I liked looking at patterns and abstractions and making sense of things,” she says. At the same time, she was working as a resident assistant (R.A.) in her dorm. She enjoyed helping students who came to her seeking assistance, and wanted them to have a good experience educationally and personally.
As time went on, she started to struggle with her math courses, but remained engaged in her work as an R.A. It fulfilled her in a way that math studies somehow did not. She decided to switch gears. After finishing undergrad, she went on to get a master’s degree in college counseling and student personnel administration that she thought would ultimately lead her to a career in residence life. But a specific conversation with her clinical supervisor and mentor changed all that.
“I was going to graduate in the spring, so during one of our supervision meetings in October we talked about my career development,” she says. “I told him I loved counseling—I was now doing my first counseling practicum and seeing clients for the first time—but I didn’t think I could ever do it as a career. So, I told him I intended to complete my master’s and then work in residence life after graduation. But he looked at me and said, without hesitation, that I should pursue a doctorate in counseling psychology. He gave me some information on how to apply for programs and talked with me about doctoral study. I made it out to the parking lot from his office before I burst into tears. From that point on, with the encouragement of my mentor, it was very clear to me that this is what I was meant to do.”
If there’s one misconception Bowers would like to dispel, it’s the notion that physical health is more important than emotional health. This simply isn’t true, she says. She’d like to see people give both areas of their life the same attention.
“Most people agree that attending to their physical health is important, so they get routine physical exams and know they should monitor their diet, get enough sleep and brush their teeth,” she says. “But paying regular, ongoing attention to our emotional health is just as important as what we do for our bodies.”
Taking charge of your emotional health begins with self-care: taking deliberate actions to attend to your basic needs. There are many ways to do this every day, and they can add up and help make you feel good.
"First, think about setting reasonable boundaries with others, especially if you feel like it's hard to say no to things," Bowers says. "Also, make sure you engage in activities that you find relaxing on a regular basis: Go outside for a walk, exercise, spend time with loved ones, take some time to rest or take a break from the grind of working. I think we are often taught that if we just push harder, the outcomes and the rewards will be better, and that's not true. We need to take breaks. It helps us perform more optimally. Also, when we are responsible for others, we're more likely to be better able to help them as friends, parents or loved ones when we're taking care of our own needs. So, self-care is anything that rejuvenates us rather than depletes us."
If you decide to celebrate Valentine’s Day this month, it can be a great day to recommit to showing yourself some love and care. Do something nurturing for yourself, Bowers says: Re-read a favorite book, take yourself out to dinner or buy yourself flowers.
Bowers has spent more than a decade helping adults work through life changes and other personal concerns. While many can benefit from therapy, she knows it can be hard to make that first call seeking help.
"I ask my clients to think about what their boldest selves would be like, and how life would be if they lived that way," she says. "Therapy can help someone be their boldest self, and help them live a more fulfilling life."
If you’re considering therapy, you shouldn’t assume that you’re in for a long-term commitment. Some people, Bowers says, start to see improvement in therapy after 6-12 sessions. And, research shows that 75 percent of people who seek therapy experience a positive outcome in terms of what they came in to address, and 80 percent of people who go to therapy have more positive outcomes than those who don't seek it.1
People obtain therapy for many reasons. How do you know if therapy may be helpful to you? Sources like the American Psychological Association offer recommendations for when you might find therapy beneficial. Bowers adds that while sadness and worry can prompt some to seek help, others pursue therapy if they want to enhance a particular aspect of their life or deal with a specific concern, such as a recent divorce, a death, or a health issue, such as a chronic condition.
There are several ways to find a therapist. Bowers recommends talking with two or three practitioners before selecting one. One place to seek a recommendation is your primary care physician, especially if you have a good relationship with her or him. Also, she suggests searching in one of the online directories put out by the American Psychological Association or Psychology Today magazine.
Before a first session, Bowers schedules a free 30-minute phone consultation to find out what someone is seeking from therapy and how she can be helpful. Most therapists do this, she says. The initial phone call can give you a good sense of how you fit with the therapist: Are you comfortable? Do you feel relatively understood and accepted?
"The alliance between the therapist and the client is absolutely essential, so finding the right fit is extremely important," she says.
A typical first session tends to be more about information gathering. Bowers takes notes, asks questions, and gets a sense of a person's overall functioning, presenting concerns and support systems. She and a client establish goals for the upcoming course of therapy: What does the client want to address? What would he or she see as a successful outcome? After that, they meet once a week. Sessions last 50-55 minutes.
"Therapy is foremost a relationship. To be present with someone at points that are vulnerable and painful . . . often really personal . . . is a real privilege for me," she says. "To be with someone in a lot of pain and suffering, to be very much with them, empathic with them, is very difficult. That's probably the hardest part of the work, but I say to myself, 'If this person has lived this, then the very least I can do is listen and help them put it into words and start to work with it to change.' It's an honor to be present with someone with such vulnerability, sharing things that are meaningful to them and very hard emotionally. At the same time, it's gratifying to help people reach a place of mastery or a place of change. When people reach those points in therapy—and they do!—it's amazing to witness. People have a lot of resilience and resources that they come to recognize and share in therapy."
Learn More: Dr. Amy Bowers, Licensed Clinical Psychologist