The Inner You

It is with much enthusiasm that Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates offers its latest wellness group, “The Inner You:  Improving Your Self Esteem.” Group facilitator, Ashley Hanks, MS, NCC, LPC took some time to discuss an often overlooked but very important subject – self esteem. Ashley’s group is designed to help individuals take a deeper look at how they treat themselves. Exploring how low self-esteem and poor confidence keep us from moving forward in life, this supportive group will discuss the concepts of living mindfully, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and developing integrity.

Get to know a bit more about “The Inner You” by reading Ashley’s Q/A.

In Good Health,

Counseling and Therapy Pittsburgh PAHow do you define self-esteem?

Self-esteem is made up of the thoughts, feelings, and opinions we have about ourselves. It is based on our ability to assess ourselves accurately and still be accepting of who we are. This means being able to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses (we all have them!) and at the same time recognize that we are worthy and worthwhile.

What makes it so important?

Self-esteem is important because it gives you courage to try new things and the power to believe in yourself! Unfortunately, without continuing to support it, it also has the power to hold you back from exploring life. It can keep you stuck in an unhappy place because you don’t feel like you deserve more.  If you learn how to strengthen the self-esteem foundation, then you will have the ability to embrace the curve balls life throws at you!

Is it easy to change?

Easy? No. Possible? Yes!  It requires taking some time to understand who you are – what you like, don’t like, feel comfortable with, and what goals you have. It takes time and hard work, including finding appropriate and healthy external supports. It’s a lifelong process, but it’s worth the effort!

Does self-esteem guarantee success?

Success in life? Success in your career? Success with friends? No, but if you keep trying and doing your best, you are a success. Remember, having positive self-esteem will help you to achieve what you want. But when you don’t succeed, it helps to accept the situation and move on.

What’s your favorite quote about self-esteem?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

How would someone sign up to be in your group and when does it meet?

Interested individuals should call 412-367-0575 or email to register. Most major insurances are accepted. My group meets Wednesdays at 7 pm and new members are welcome!

New Year, New Opportunities

By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

Counseling and Therapy Pittsburgh PAJanuary 1 can be a time of great optimism and hope in a world sometimes filled with darkness. The words “possibility” and “opportunity” are never quite as fitting as they are during those final and festive moments leading to the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Indeed, the New Year is a time to reflect on our previous year’s achievements while looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead. Most people you encounter are good and caring. They love their families and like their neighbors. They are just people, some struggling to get by, all hoping to share a laugh or two along the way.

Building on the momentum we initiated early in 2014 Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates launch into 2015 with much enthusiasm. This is our fourth year of serving the residents of the North Hills of Pittsburgh with counseling services, psychotherapy and health and wellness solutions, and we have established a robust set of goals and sketched a framework for several major projects we hope to roll out in the 2015. We are delighted to say we met many of the original goals set forth in our first three years, which have resulted in better services and experiences for new and existing clients, as well as our business partners, social network and the community at large.

Counseling and Therapy Pittsburgh PAFinally, we are so very proud of all the talented individuals at Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates who work to help, empower, educate and encourage our clients, our North Hill’s community, and our partners. On and off the couch, you are simply the best.  And I know you are not alone—supported by family and friends who encourage you to always give your best efforts and to reach for the stars.

So those are our final thoughts and reflections as we look to 2015 with hope and enthusiasm. If you are not doing so yet, please follow our weekly Blog, our monthly Cinema Therapy Podcast and daily inspirational quotes, articles and updates on Facebook and Twitter!

May the days ahead be filled with joy and adventure for all of us!

Happy New Year,
Don, Tracey and the Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates Staff

Alice and the Meaning of Life

By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

The following is the final condensed excerpt from Don Laird’s upcoming book, whose working title is “Tilting Windmills: A Journey Beyond the Therapist’s Couch.” Reprinted with permission.

Alice shifted on the couch, uncrossed her legs, and leaned forward. “So what do you think?” She held up her hands. “And please don’t say, ‘It’s not what I think, Alice…’ ”

The dream was impressive, massive in scope and detail; a series of metaphors and a poetic narrative that is sometimes referred to as a Homeric dream. A true Jungian delight filled with archetypes and prophetic imagery, but I’m not a Jungian and I was about to say something that she did not want to hear.

“Alice, it really is your dream, not mine.” She quickly made the Alice face of disgust. “But let’s take a moment to talk about the way things ended with your mother walking out of the mist.” Of course I had my own thoughts about the meaning of this dream, but good dream work dictates that the individual take the lead on the path toward meaning. “I’m particularly interested in how you felt when you saw her.”

“She was beautiful – like I remember her.” Alice relaxed and leaned back into the softness of the couch. “She was in her early thirties, I would have been about five then.”

“But you are the same age in the dream as you are now?” I said. This is important in discussing the context of the dream with the dreamer. Should the dreamer be a child in the dream then there may be some unfinished business from that time or it could be that the dreamer may feel vulnerable or powerless as a child. Again, it always comes back to the dreamer’s meaning.

“The same age I am now. I knew she had something to tell me, but I couldn’t hear her.” Alice paused. “She was too far away.” Alice’s eyes glazed over and for a moment, and I thought I might see her defenses slowly melting, but in typical Alice fashion she quickly regained her composure.

“So, my thought was that I wish I had a chance to say goodbye.”

Alice and I stared at each other for what seemed an eternity. She needed to do the talking.

“Goodbye is such a permanent thing, Don. Don’t you agree?”

I wasn’t biting. I responded with a patent nod and a “Go on.”

“Look, here’s my point. I told you that I felt my end was near and then there’s this dream. I’ve always been the strong one; the one who looked forward to the journey. Always the first one on the train.”

Teenage_Girl_Waiting_for_Train,_Chicago,_Illinois,_1960I had no difficulty in imagining Alice as a pacesetter.  A young woman, filled with hopes, dreams and desires, waiting impatiently for her next adventure to begin, the next chapter to unfold.  She followed her own light and it was easy to think of all those in her life whom she inspired to follow and then take their own lead. She shifted on the couch and took another hard swallow of tea.

“Maybe I was so busy being concerned about everyone else that I left myself at the station. Maybe all the things in life I thought were mine really weren’t.” Her blue eyes delicately gazed at the floor. “Was the trip worth it? When I’m gone will anyone even remember my name?”

I waited for a moment as I watched Alice lower her guard. “Alice, those are big questions, but let me take a moment to not throw them back at you. What you are asking is was your life worth it?” She raised her head and nodded. That delicate look in her eye had returned. “Think of all the lives you have touched over the years. Those people certainly remember the things you did.” And then I said what needed to be said, validation of our relationship. “Alice, you came to me because you thought you had something to share, and you did. You have shown me in a brief amount of time that there is grace and dignity in aging and reaffirmed that all my learning and collection of text books don’t mean a damn thing unless you have a life worth living.”

Alice smiled. “I think we are out of time.”

She was right, but again that was Alice. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for two weeks. Alice shook my hand and thanked me as she exited the office. That night I had a strange dream in which I was alone, waiting at a desolate train station. I awoke to the sound of a train whistle off in the distance. The words of Nietzsche again filled my head, “Die at the right time.”

Alice cancelled our next appointment. She had left a brief voicemail, but gave no excuse for the cancellation except to say that she was involved in a new fundraiser that was occupying most of her time. I never heard the name Alice again until 11 months later when I received a call from a young social worker at Mercy Hospital. She reported that Alice had died quietly in her sleep following a severe case of pneumonia. I was shocked, but my sadness was more bittersweet. Alice had given specific instructions that I was to be contacted should she die in the hospital.

The social worker had a note from Alice, written just before her death. The young woman read the note aloud, but I could only hear Alice’s voice.

“Don, I am going on a great journey. Not afraid.”

The persons and situations contained herein are based on true events, but the details of the characters and their circumstances have been modified. Any perceived resemblance of the characters to real persons living or dead is merely coincidental.

Alice and the Swans of Avalon

By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

The following is the second condensed excerpt from Don Laird’s upcoming book, whose working title is “Tilting Windmills: A Journey Beyond the Therapist’s Couch.” Reprinted with permission.

Alice glanced at me, reached for her trendy, purple hand bag and confessed, “I thought I would have been dead by now.”

I looked at her for a moment. If nothing else, Alice was candid with her thoughts and feelings. During this session, our first hour together, she had detailed the many trials and tribulations of her 72 years that ranged from pure joy to pure despair. She described the arc of her life in a most captivating fashion. Her many travels around the world with her two ex-husbands, followed by the death and burial of each of those same men; her tireless work with juvenile cancer survivors and their families; the death of her parents in a house fire when she was 26, and the loneliness of being an only child with no extended family to help; a sexually abusive boyfriend in high school. Most recently, her dog of 14 years, Mable, a yellow lab had been euthanized. Death was, as always with Alice, sitting in the room and our hour was nearly over.

“Alice, is there a question in there for me?” I asked, mindful that my next client was likely sitting in the waiting area should Alice produce a lengthy reply. I remained seated and casually braced myself for her response.

“Not a question.” She leaned forward and handed me cash for my services, no change required. Like most in her generation, Alice was always prepared. She slid the hand-bag strap across her shoulder and stood. “More of an observation, and don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt myself or anyone else for that matter. I have some things to talk to you about first and even then my time on earth will not end by my own hand, I can assure you.” There was the smile. I could see why Alice had no issues with meeting men. Her self-assured presence, her wit, and youthful beauty all contributed to an appealing allure that was at once reassuring, but not without a distinct hint of mystery.

That night, I lay awake thinking of the day, but especially of Alice. Most clients are surprised to discover that their therapist might think of them outside of the therapy hour. I can understand why. Clinicians are taught to keep strict boundaries, mind their ethics training and don’t get too close, but this practice robs a therapist of an opportunity to do the very thing they are trying help a client with: be human. As I drifted off to sleep the words of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche were taking on a whole new meaning for me, “Die at the right time.”

Alice returned to my office five days later at 10 am for her follow-up session. This was encouraging since she had made her views on psychology and psychiatry fairly clear during our first session, “How can something be called a science when it can never really quantify the subject it is studying?” Alice had apparently read some of my earlier essays in which I referred to psychology as a “soft science.” I prefer to help clients view their lives as art rather than as a science project.  Alice knew this and, frankly, I must admit it was the perfect boost to my academic vanity.  As I escorted her from the waiting area to my office, I noticed a slight change in her overall presentation. Although she was well dressed and her manner was friendly, there was something different about Alice. She wasted no time in getting to her agenda for this session.

“You’re younger than me, and male, so I won’t bother you with the particulars of what it means to grow old as a female, but you should know that I have a keen sense of the world around me, like my mother and her mother. I feel things, in my body, rhythms, if you will. In other words, I’m beginning to feel as though my days are short.” She crossed her legs, rested freshly manicured fingers on her purple skirt, and casually waited for my reply.

“I’m not sure I follow you, Alice.” I reached for my coffee and continued, “Are you telling me that you feel as though you are going to die very soon?”

She nodded.

“Then why come to me first? Have you checked in with your PCP recently?” I was beginning to feel a level of frustration rise in my voice. Besides being courageous, strong-willed, proud, attractive, creative, and intelligent, Alice was also the most exasperating woman I had ever encountered. “I’m not sure that I can help you if there are somatic issues going unchecked.”

“I had a full physical only six months ago, Don. I have a clean bill of health. Oh sure, the usual aches and pains with age, but the doc said I could live another 20 years in my current condition.” She stopped me before I could respond. “Look, as I said, I have these thoughts, these premonitions just like…”

“Your mother and your grandmother,” I said smiling, but it was clear that I needed her to cut to the chase.

“You interpret dreams, don’t you?” Her eyes softened, and I could tell we were about to go in a direction that didn’t seem like a riddle.

“I work with dreams, but I don’t interpret them. After all, they’re your dreams, not mine. I am more of a guide, someone walking along with you on the same path.” I stopped as Alice took a moment to pull a leather bound journal from her hand bag.

Freud believed that dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious.” If they are not the royal road, then they are at least a make-shift byway to understanding a person’s deepest existential questions. Many therapists today react to clients’ dreams as if they have a live grenade in their lap. A certain “what do I do now?” look seizes their faces as they wonder how to make a client’s dream applicable to modern treatment modalities. These days dream work has been relegated to the closet of psychology and psychiatry, and only occasionally sees the light of day and mostly in a misused or misunderstood fashion.

iStockphoto.comAlice opened the journal and shared the following dream she’d had two nights prior to our session:

I was a knight in the court of Camelot. Upon hearing the news of King Arthur’s death I mounted my horse and rode quickly through the meadows and glens until I reached the shore of a fog-laden lake. All at once I felt sheer terror, but also a sharp awareness of being alive. For a moment the fog lifted and there was a group of swans, each more beautiful than the next. They swam gracefully in a solid V formation and then, as if on cue, slowly turned toward a small, tree-covered island located near the middle of the lake. A light shone brightly through the trees and out of the mist stepped…”

Click here to read the final installment, Alice and the Meaning of Life. 


The persons and situations contained herein are based on true events, but the details of the characters and their circumstances have been modified. Any perceived resemblance of the characters to real persons living or dead is merely coincidental.


By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

The following is an edited excerpt from Don Laird’s upcoming book, titled “Tilting Windmills: A Journey Beyond the Therapist’s Couch.” Reprinted with permission.

Alice was dead. A client I had known only for a brief period of time, but her words still drift across my consultation room as if they were spoken yesterday. Her slight, yet radiant smile, her hands confidently holding a mug of tea as she imparted the bittersweet details of a lifetime, now mere shadows; ghosts that gracefully danced on cue as other clients revealed similarly painful details of their daily lives. Somehow, Alice had it figured out. Centuries of philosophy, tomes of written thought, the best minds in history and among my contemporaries, all debating the questions of life and their ultimate meanings, yet none of it seemed as authentic or grounded as a 72-year old woman’s journey from Point A to Point Z, with all stops in between.

Life, death, purpose, and spirituality were the topics Alice wanted to discuss. Death became the third body in the room: always with us. Alice felt as though death needed a better public relations representative. I agreed. Culturally, our public discussion of death has regressed to an infantile wish to live forever, a desperate cry for never-ending youth. “No one can die for me,” Alice often quipped throughout our brief time together.

My initial session with Alice was on a day like any other. Two cups of coffee, progress notes and a schedule that was full, but not overbooked. My noon appointment had cancelled due to illness, which gave me time to prepare for a new client scheduled for 1 pm.

Alice M., age 72, widowed, living independently, paying for my services out of pocket, and “seeking answers” ??

Minimal information scrawled on a telephone intake sheet, but not unusual. Staff is instructed to reveal as little about a new client to me as possible. It is of a higher therapeutic value to meet each client with a Tabula rasa. In the spirit of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, create a new therapy for everyone you encounter. What really grabbed my attention were the two bold question marks. Clearly the phone screening for Alice M, age 72, was an interesting one.

And so began my first session with Alice, one of only three.

She entered my office with poise and dignity, not at all visibly nervous. I was taken with her youthful appearance and attitude; poise and composure not often encountered these days. I found her beautiful. Had I met Alice under other circumstances I would have placed her some 15 years younger than her stated age. She sat gently on the couch, crossed her legs, and adjusted her skirt.

“Is this your first time seeing a therapist?” I asked.

“Yes, is this the first time you’ve asked that question?” There was that smile.

Photo: tea for one by Ayla87  ( laughed, quickly realizing that this was going to be different. Alice took a sip of the tea the receptionist had given her in the waiting area and reached for her reading glasses.

“What brings you to me today?” I said in an effort to collect all the “clinical” information I needed in this first session. I tell all my clients that I will rarely take notes after the first session. It’s not because I’m not interested, it’s that I hate taking notes. No, I despise taking notes. I detested it in grad school, and I dislike it even more now. There is nothing more debasing to a therapeutic relationship than a therapist using a clipboard or notepad to jot down every insignificant detail about something that occurred to an individual when that person was six years of age. It creates a physical barrier and an emotional divide between two individuals attempting to forge an authentic relationship.

“I could ask you the same.” She responded. “After all, there are no accidents, are there?”

“Depends on your life philosophy, I suppose. What’s yours?”

She thought for a moment, took another hard swallow of tea and said, “That’s why I am here.”

“Go on.” It sounded clichéd, but sometimes a therapist springs from his or her previous experiences like a safety net. This happens more often than not in the first few sessions, until a comfortable rapport has been established.

“I think I have some things to share, things that I’ve never talked about before. Not because they are some deep, dark secrets, but because there wasn’t enough time. Now there is, but not much.” She paused for a moment, and then gazed at the books on my shelf.

“You read a lot?” She asked.

I followed her gaze to the bookcase next to the couch where books with contents ranging from historical and modern psychology to art and human history, stood neatly displayed, all collecting dust. “It’s been a while for any of those,” I said, “but I wish there was more time to read.”

She looked back at me. “Maybe that’s why I am here.”

“To allow me more time to read?”

“One never knows,” she laughed.

Clinically, therapists go through extensive training to learn new techniques and how to foster existing skills for aiding in symptom management, while promoting emotional healing. How a therapist gets there is still up for debate. There is no statistical smoking gun, as it were, to illustrate that one form of therapy is more effective than another. So when faced with clients like Alice, most novices and even some seasoned professionals may find themselves floundering on how to proceed.

When in doubt, go the human route.  The words of my long deceased mentor, Dr. Issac Schultz, are never far from my mind.

“You have something to share with me? Tell me more about that, but also tell me more about you.” I asked, very much intrigued with what she had to say.

Alice’s life history began to unfold like a pop-up story book. Each event beautifully detailed and expressed with emotion that had me hanging on practically every word. Her travels around the world, with not one, but two deceased husbands, her work with juvenile cancer survivors and their families, her effortless and lovely talent in the use of water colors, her liberating decision not to have any children of her own, despite family pressure. Alice was her own person, proud, strong, opinionated, but above all else, caring. Our first hour together was coming to a close, just a few minutes to wrap up until our next appointment. That’s when Alice disclosed some information that no therapist wants to hear at the end of a session…

Click here to read Alice, Session II

The persons and situations contained herein are based on true events, but the details of the characters and their circumstances have been modified. Any perceived resemblance of the characters to real persons living or dead is merely coincidental.

Compassion Matters: Today and Tomorrow

by Christy Gualtieri

Family Therapy and Counseling in Pittsburgh PA

I celebrated my second Mother’s Day this year, and it was a lovely day – I got to sleep in for a few hours, and my husband and son pulled out all the stops in making me feel appreciated. When my son took a longer-than-usual nap (another big gift to me!), I logged onto Facebook and among all of the joyous messages to and from fellow moms, I read a post from a friend of mine, who is appropriately named Joy.  Joy is one of the most wonderful, beautiful people I know, who shines from the inside out, and it broke my heart a little to read her message:

Hey guys. Before you wax eloquent about Mother’s Day– and repost memes like, “Love your mother because you’ll never have another!”– please think of those of us who have lost our mothers or have been rejected by them. Not everyone has a mother who’s still around to take our calls or love us unconditionally. Many of us have lost our mommies or have [messed] up family situations. Mother’s Day can be an especially painful reminder of this. So just…hug your mommy if you have one and be kind to those of us who don’t.

Joy and her mother haven’t spoken meaningfully in five years, since Joy told her mother she was gay. Her mother has since disowned her. On a day that so many people celebrate the relationship they have with their mothers, Joy was grieving the loss of hers, and her short Facebook post was a powerful reminder to me that although life is full of many reasons to celebrate, there is never an excuse to forget about those around us who are hurting and who are in need of compassion.

Family Therapy and Parenting Counseling in Pittsburgh PAJoy wasn’t alone. There was Barbara too, a woman who has known me since the day I was born. Her mother was in her nineties when she passed away last year, and this was Barbara’s first Mother’s Day – in six decades – without her. And there was Christine, whose mother simply vanished one day when she was in high school. For over a decade she was left wondering where she was, or what happened to her – many Mother’s Days passing over her like a shadow. She recently found out her mother had died, but so many questions still remain for her and her family.

The word compassion means “to suffer with,” and it’s more than just pity. It transcends sympathy. It’s a willingness to go deep into a painful place to help a friend’s suffering be lessened, if even just for a short time. It’s the ability to open yourself up to take on part of someone else’s pain; and if you are the one who is suffering, it’s being vulnerable enough to let someone else see your pain and share in it with you.

One of the lessons I hope to share with my son is that exercising compassion does not diminish your life: instead, it expands it. It forces us to look outside ourselves, to be joined with each other in the truth that we belong to one another.

Holidays are always a wonderful time to remember and celebrate our families. Let’s continue making them a time to show compassion and unconditional love to those around us, as well!

Best Wishes,

Christy GualtieriChristy Gualtieri is a freelance writer specializing in pop culture, religion, and motherhood. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and son, blogs at, and tweets @agapeflower117. Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health!

The Stress-Free College Essay?

College bound? Feeling stressed? A little overwhelmed? Welcome to the roller coaster ride that is the college application process. Even the calmest, most well-informed student or parent can sometimes feel a little on edge during the college admissions voyage. Don’t despair, PghPsych contributor Gina Catanzarite provides some practical tips and helpful solutions to make the college essay portion of the application a much more creative and rewarding endeavor.

In Good Health,

The Stress-Free College Essay?
by Gina Catanzarite

admissions1The end of another school year is looming and for some students, that means dreams of relaxing by the pool for a few months before returning to the high school hallways in the fall. But older teens are probably thinking further ahead to life after high school and for the majority of American teens that means going to college.

But before those students can attend college, they have to apply and these days, college applications usually include (insert overly dramatic scary music here) writing a college admissions essay.

What is it about the college admissions essay that strikes fear into the hearts of so many teens? Maybe it’s because an admissions trend study conducted by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling reports that over 62% of colleges say the college application essay or writing sample was either “considerably important” or “moderately important” in the admissions decision.  

If that’s not enough to pile on the pressure, consider how broad, abstract, or quirky some of those questions actually are! Here’s a sample:

  • Brandeis University: If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs, or aliens, who would you pick and why?
  • The University of Virginia: Make a bold prediction about something in the year 2020 that no one else has made a bold prediction about.”
  • The University of Chicago: Where is Waldo, really?

College admission process and acing the application essay.College application essay questions are generally epic in what they want you to convey. And yet, most young people write a very academic-sounding term paper—thesis, body, conclusion. Their parents read it, their guidance counselors read it, their English teachers read it—and everyone makes comments and edits until it gets distilled and even more generic than it was to begin with.

Consider these tips to write a college application essay that shines:   

  • Relate it to a deeply personal and significant experience and the life lesson you learned.
  • Use creative and critical writing techniques to relate your personal experience to a universal theme, such as courage, sense of community, rites of passage, etc.
  • Provide context, i.e. background information so the reader has a basic understanding of an unfamiliar topic.
  • Conduct research to support your opinions.

Perhaps the best advice is to take a risk and write from the heart. College application essay questions are opportunities to reveal your personal philosophies and your personality. They are meant to test your critical and your creative thinking skills, as well as your ability to make abstract connections.

Done well, the essay will reveal not only what you believe but why you believe it. And that’s exactly the kind of broad thinker and bright mind colleges like to have on their campuses!

Get a good laugh at some of these genuinely quirky college admissions questions or
read the whole survey about Factors in the Admissions Decision. Learn all about writing college application essays and other forms of opinion writing at the Luminari Teen Writer! camps I will be leading this summer.

Creatively yours,

Gina CatanzariteGina Catanzarite is Owner of Arania Productions. She is the co-author of two non-fiction books and teaches broadcast journalism at Point Park University. And Gina is an Emmy Award-winning television producer, writer, family advocate and media consultant.

Follow PghPsych on Facebook and Twitter for daily updates, inspirational quotes, articles, and different events and causes related to good mental health!