Interview with Julia Shalkovskaya – Part One

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What Is a Psychologist?

Psychologist Yulia Shalkovskaya speaks about psychologists, psychological help, and the peculiarities of working with someone with limited abilities.

Yulia, why do people come to require a psychologist’s help? Why has this profession become so important now?

Psychologists’ help was actually needed in the past as well, but right now people have become more aware of their psychological issues. Each of us has our own problems, our own experiences, and our own comfort zone in which we reside, but sometimes life forces us to venture beyond its confines. The question is how we go about that and how much effort we spend doing it.

For some of us, this comes naturally. Others can do it with a certain degree of effort, but they succeed by being quite labile, i.e. flexible. They say to themselves: “Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable, maybe even a little unpleasant, but I will get through it because it will open up something new for me. I will try to do things differently than before or even do something that’s entirely new to me.” However, there are those who are very bad at going beyond their limits, climbing out of their comfort zone. They just don’t want to – their comfort zone is tremendously important to such people. A person gets confused, lost in their thoughts and emotions, and these can be very different, often even contradictory.

Such a person could really use a psychologist to cope with this state of mind and deal with their problems. And not even just that – they can learn a lesson from what’s happening to them. A psychologist can help them escape their comfort zone, learn how to react adequately to what’s happening around them, accept their own reactions and emotions for what they are. A psychologist, roughly speaking, can teach them how to do these things.

For some people, working with a psychologist may seem shameful, while others pay it no mind. It’s all a matter of perception: some may think that others will judge them, that it’s not normal to visit a psychologist. It’s important to realize that, no matter how it’s viewed, working things out with a psychologist may help people make decisions and implement changes that would otherwise seem impossible. Remember how Dostoevsky described all these hesitations and anxious doubts with a single phrase: “Am I a trembling creature, or have I the right [to do what I want]?”

A psychologist’s task is to help you get rid of such a view of yourself, to offer directions where you can move next. For example, they can suggest that, if you go straight ahead and then turn left, you will see a door with a handle that opens it. The person then only needs to decide whether to open said door, wait, go back, or do something entirely different. A psychologist doesn’t give advice, they only provide directions, and it falls on the client to makes a decision. I repeat – psychologists give direction, they have no right to do anything else.

To help and guide, to help reach a decision… The psychologist in no way has the right to advise. This is not what a person needs a psychologist for.

Can we then say that a psychologist helps the client develop their own rules of action in this or that situation?

Yes, we can say that a psychologist helps the client develop such rules. We can also say that working with a psychologist is the acquisition of skills, the consolidation of new behavioral patterns.

If a psychologist realizes that their client has not only psychological problems and difficulties with getting out of the comfort zone, but needs other kind of help – who can assist them in such cases?

A psychologist can also work with other specialists, depending on the client’s state. It’s important to understand that a psychologist doesn’t diagnose nor prescribes any pill-based therapy. They generally work with mentally healthy people, but can cooperate with a psychiatrist or a neurologist when needed. This makes sense, since members of these professions have varied educational backgrounds. Although I have a good medical background, work as a clinical/medical psychologist, know what personality disorders there are and can detect them, it will be a psychiatrist who has to diagnose an exact one and prescribe treatment.

Have you ever worked with clients who are being examined at a hospital? How do you establish trust in such cases and get them to open up to you?

If a person is an inpatient, they are already a psychiatric patient, so a psychologist would cooperate with a psychiatrist. It’s more difficult to work with such clients because they may already have a diagnosis or require counseling. Things can be complicated for such patients. For example, they may hear voices or suffer from obsessions that make contact difficult. Such people tend to initially distrust the psychologist trying to help them.

To first establish contact and then trust with such a patient, a psychologist has to get on their level, as it were, by talking to them in a way they understand. Then, word by word, we monitor their reactions, responds, and speech. A psychologist can start with questions about the weather or show interest in the voices that the patient hears, which is not uncommon, then step-by-step get the patient talking.

Such conversations are very helpful, since it’s important to scratch through the shell that the client has grown around themselves and find a personalized approach by talking about everything, even the weather if needs be, always keeping in mind the specifics of this particular person’s diagnosis.

If we move on to other people with limited abilities, for example – those who see poorly or not at all. How does a psychologist establish contact with them?

Strangely enough, it’s easier to establish contact with such clients, easier to get through to them.

If there are no problems on the psychiatric side, then everything depends on the psychologist’s tactics and the other party’s mood. In this case, it’s easier to choose a topic to start a conversation, easier to find a point from which the psychologist can push back to continue the conversation. Yes, the client may be depressed, and it will not be easy to talk to them in this case, but it’s still easier than the previously mentioned examples.

It’s way harder when a person has only recently stopped seeing or their vision is rapidly deteriorating with no hope of improvement. In this case, depression is so painful that the person may not want to talk at all, much less discuss anything with a psychologist. Here everything depends on the psychologist’s qualifications, whether they can push the client to talk or not.

What techniques does a psychologist use in such cases? Do you also start talking about the weather?

You can start with the weather, but it all depends on the person. You can spark a conversation about nature or some unexpected topic. There is also an attempt to evoke sympathy: “While I was getting to you, I broke my heel or,” for example, “got my feet wet.” It’s possible that the client will condemn what happened: “It’s snowing out there, and you’re wearing heels? Why?!”

The mirroring technique often works well, too. It’s when the psychologist slightly copies the client’s posture, lets the other person know that they’re understood and shows interest in their situation, which is especially important.

Can you tell me how mirroring works?

If a client, for example, sits with their legs crossed and their hands folded across their chest, the psychologist can adopt almost the same posture and thus show the that there is interest in establishing dialog. Mirroring allows you to position yourself and inspire trust, which in this case will be showing the psychologist’s hands, symbolically keeping them open.

If we’re talking about those who do not see at all, then the psychologist is obliged to listen very attentively to what they’re being told. Suppose a client says that they don’t like the rain and prefer the sun, then the psychologist agrees and says that they also like sunny weather because it’s warm, and they’re usually eager to go swimming or just lie on the beach.

In this way, the psychologist may earn the client’s disposition, demonstrating commitment to their interests. Thanks to this, there is now a thread linking the client to the psychologist. This sets the stage for a continued conversation, finding more points of contact, ultimately making it possible to ask the client about their emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations.

Cut-in: Mirroring demonstrates a commitment to the client’s interests.

Once the client opens up, the psychologist gets a chance to listen to them, observe how they speak, note what exactly they’re saying and what emotions they show while doing it.

A psychologist’s main professional skill is to be able to listen and stay silent. During a consultation, the client’s speech usually occupies at least 70% of the session, but it can be more – up to 90%. It also happens that, during dialog, a client and their psychologist speak for roughly the same amount of time. Everything depends on the client’s, their needs and interests.

Can we say that a psychologist is a qualified listener?

Yes, though it would be a rough and inaccurate statement. Rather, psychologists are like good teachers who don’t force their student to learn, but help and guide them through the entire process.

The psychologist does the same kind of work by suggesting a path, which can help the client solve their relationship problems, resolve work issues, or stop being angry at their parents. It’s not like a ready-made solution, but a direction to move towards. A psychologist should never give advice and/or offer an exact solution.

Cut: A psychologist suggests the road that can be used to solve the problem.

If we’re talking about, say, a romantic relationship and the young man in our story hears from the girl that she doesn’t love him but wants them to remain friends, what will a good psychologist do?

A good psychologist will ask the client to consider several options, starting with the one where he agrees to the girl’s proposal, then the option where they go their separate ways, and perhaps weigh in on the possibility of occasional meetings and correspondence. The decision is ultimately up to the client because only he has the right to decide what’s important to him, and which outcome would best serve his interests.