Interview Q&A with Janet Burr and Lisa Heidle
Janet Burr joined Art It Out Therapy Center in 2013. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Kennesaw State University, where she is now on faculty as an Instructor of Psychology, and her Master’s degree in Clinical Counseling Psychology from Brenau University. Janet’s clinical experience includes working with children, teens and adults in a variety of settings providing individual, couples, family and group counseling; treatment intervention; and psychological testing. In this interview, Janet talks about her dual roles of therapist and teacher and how they enrich the lives of her clients and students, how therapy can help support chronically ill and terminal patients as well as their families, and why she thinks success in life and in the therapeutic process is always changing.
Lisa Heidle: Can you tell us about yourself?
Janet Burr: I’m originally from New Jersey and I’ve lived in the Atlanta area since 1999. I went straight from New Jersey to the University of Alabama, which was quite a culture shock. I ended up moving to Atlanta because my dad’s job transferred him to Georgia and I would come to Atlanta to visit on the weekends.
LH: What made you decide to become a therapist?
JB: Originally, my major in school was deaf education. I was really passionate about that, but after my first semester at Alabama they did away with the program because there weren’t enough people enrolled. So I got shoved into elementary education, which I wasn’t passionate about. I was a dance minor, and I loved it and that kept me going for a while. After school, it had always been my dream to open a dance studio, so I opened one and ran it for several years. At the studio, I found myself mentoring the teenage girls and I really enjoyed the relationships and decided I wanted to pursue counseling. I sold my business and went back to school to study psychology. I loved it and knew I wanted to go to grad school and make it my career.
LH: You are a practicing therapist and an instructor of Psychology at Kennesaw State University. Do the dual roles enrich each other?
JB: I definitely think they do. The classes that I teach get so much from hearing about my experience as a clinician. It’s one thing to teach from a book but to be able to share with them what really happens is invaluable to them. I remember as a student having teachers that were working in the field and teaching and it was such a different experience; I remember feeling that it was a deeper experience and I was able to learn through them in that experiential way. For my clients, it’s absolutely beneficial to them because I constantly have to read and do research, keep up with the most up-to-date interventions and techniques.
LH: What should a person look for when searching for a therapist? What should a parent look for when seeking a therapist for their child?
JB: If a person is looking for a therapist, the best gage is how you feel when you meet them. We know from research that the therapeutic relationship is the only thing that gets people in the door for a second visit. If a person does not feel connected during that first visit, they won’t come back. I don’t know that you can get that feeling from my picture on Psychology Today or even calling and talking on the phone, so if therapy is something that you are truly willing to engage in, it might take a couple of times to find someone who fits you best. I think it’s important to know that and to be willing to do the work to find that perfect fit.
I always tell my students to do their research. Find out if the therapist is licensed. Are the other therapists they work with licensed? From what perspective do they work? Not everybody fits from one therapeutic perspective to another. Know who you are going to meet before you meet them. Once you meet them, then decide if this is a good fit for you. Ultimately, an adult client is sitting down with a stranger and divulging all of their personal information and if they don’t feel comfortable, they won’t be able to let their walls down and let their insecurities show so the therapist can help.
For children, the relationship is as important and trust is just as important, but it’s trust in a different way. What I find with child clients is that if they are willing to be silly with me then we’re a perfect match. If they’re not willing to be silly, that’s my gage on whether they will let their insecurities show and if we can go somewhere in therapy.
Parents who bring their kids to a place like Art It Out are giving their children such a gift. It will not only help them right now with what they’re struggling with, but we know that long term those children have better outcomes in any type of setting: in school, in relationships and in employment. Parents who are engaged with their child’s therapist and ask for help and suggestions to transition the work into the home and school environment are able to take that gift and let it impact the kid in all realms, not just the hour they are at Art It Out.
LH: You work with clients who have chronic illnesses. How is your approach different when working with a client who has a chronic illness?
JB: I don’t know if my approach really differs. I find that what I do with patients with chronic illness besides teaching or learning long-term coping strategies is that I let them know they’re not alone. Chronic illness, especially cancer, can feel very isolating, like others don’t know what you’re experiencing or how you feel. Letting them know that there is somebody they can process their emotions with or that may know how they feel can be very therapeutic in and of itself. The therapeutic relationship is the tool I use most in those settings. Positive Psychology is really important because they need to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that every day is worth living. They need to learn how to make each day count even with limitations they may have due to the illness. Rather than “I feel in the dumps about this” we figure out how they can work with it. I don’t think my approach changes necessarily, but I do find that the relationship is generally the focus verses strategies or techniques.
LH: You also work with family members of chronically ill patients. How is that beneficial?
JB: It’s beneficial for a lot of the same reasons. I found it interesting when I started working with chronic and terminal illness, that the patient and the family members, especially the caretakers, have a parallel experience. They experience different things, but on a parallel path. The caretaker needs just as much support as the patient does and a lot of times, the caretaker, the husband or wife, the mom or dad, or the adult children of the patient, their relationship and their role shifts. They are not only the husband or wife, they become the caretaker. That can be unsettling when the person realizes they might have to step over some boundaries that they wouldn’t if they were not in this new role. And that can be uncomfortable or difficult. The caretakers are also processing what is happening to their loved one, so they need care and attention as well.
LH: How does using art in therapy sessions help your patients?
JB: It helps tremendously. I don’t think we as humans realize how poorly we communicate at times. Ineffective communication is a trigger for so many problems. Art allows us to communicate things we just don’t know how to say. Both children and adults sometimes don’t know how to verbalize what they are experiencing and art allows them to put it onto paper in some way, in some realm, to get it out. In the therapeutic process, I can help them process what they are feeling through projective interpretation. A lot of times it’s very enlightening for the client. There’s stuff that comes out that they didn’t know they were experiencing or withholding, that they were trying to delineate or decipher for themselves. I can’t say enough about what art does in therapy, for children and adults. Children are so much more open to it than adults, but any time I use art with adults they fall in love with it. The art projects that we do are so meaningful to them, more than they expect.
LH: What advice do you have for someone who is interested in attending a therapeutic art session?
JB: I would advise them to be open, to be willing to be outside of their box. It’s not something we do every day. And be open to both the process and to what you may learn from the therapist about yourself. I believe using art in a therapy session is perfect for everyone, but it takes a person who is willing to engage with it through self-exploration, someone who is willing to go outside their box and do something different. Let their walls down.
LH: As a therapist, what is your own definition of success? How would you define success with a client?
JB: My definition for success in the career has changed since I started. Initially, it was to get licensed. Then it was to get full licensure. Once I got full licensure, it was so anti-climactic. I’ve worked in so many different environments—I worked in in-patient substance abuse, I worked in oncology, I worked in the community setting where I went to children’s homes and worked with them, I’ve done assessment, I teach. My ultimate goal when I left graduate school was to do what I’m doing now—to work in a private practice, have a flexible schedule, teach at the university level part-time. I think success has to be fluid. That’s the only way to grow. And that’s true for clients, too. Success has to be fluid. We might meet our initial goal, or our immediate goal if a client comes to me in crisis, but there are always goals after that. Not that everyone has problems necessarily, but we all have the potential to grow. I think success is ever changing. I don’t think there’s just one way to define it.