Dr. Valéry Fradkov is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). He had earned his Masters of Social Work at Adelphi University (New York) and his Doctorate in Science at the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow). He consults his clients on interpersonal issues, provides relationship counseling and psychotherapy, and performs research on the role of verbal and nonverbal messages and emotions in the interpersonal communication process. For his distinguished work with teenagers and families, he is included in the list of NJ's Favorite Kids' Docs . Dr. Fradkov is listed and rated at AllTherapist.com
(For the Russian version please click here)
Q: Dr. Fradkov, your professional biography is impressive. For many years you were teaching material science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, performed research in theoretical physics for NASA and in financial mathematics for Goldman Sachs, BofA, Deutsche Bank and other Wall Street institutions, published over fifty research papers, lead a team of software developers in a hi-tech startup, and now you have earned another advanced degree in clinical psychology and practice psychotherapy. How did you manage the transition from mathematics and hard sciences into one of the most humanitarian professions?
A: You know, when I first was asked this question, it took me some time to figure out what I was asked about. That is because I don't see the world as being partitioned into physics, math, biology, psychology, and, for example, music. Everything is connected and intertwined. Trying to understand something in one field, I always find similarities with what I already encountered in other fields. Besides, the very nature of my work has not changed: both in my lab before and in my office now, I need to identify the issue, ask the right question, find an answer, and explain it to other people.
Q: But why psychology, of all things?
A: Imagine a person coming to me with their unique universe, putting it on the floor, opening the door and saying: I am afraid something is not right here. Could you have a look please? And I enter this world and try to understand it. Some of that world is similar to mine, some of it to the worlds I've visited before, and some is like nothing I've ever seen. The more I understand, the more I can help. It is like travelling to another country, maybe even another planet, and I like to travel. Besides, when I see the result, when a person's life becomes easier... I don't know how to describe how great it makes me feel.
Q: How and why does therapy work? How is talking with a therapist better than talking with friends or family? They surely know and understand you better than a stranger, regardless of the degrees and expertise.
A: A therapy session is different from a conversation with people from your immediate circle in many ways, and I am not even talking about the professional training. The main difference, as I see it, is that you hire your therapist to work for you, and you pay them for specific help just like you would pay your plumber or landscaper. You can fire me at any time: for example, if you say something you may regret afterwards. You cannot fire your parent or a friend. An urge to talk will be subconsciously suppressed if there is the potential to feel ashamed or ruin an important relationship. Many things my clients talk with me about would never be a topic of conversation with someone they are close with.
Q: And still, how and why does therapy work?
A: Therapy processes are as unique as the issues presented by my clients, but in general... We all have skin that protects us from the dry air and rough surfaces, from harmful bacteria and viruses. Without skin we cannot live. Similarly, we cannot survive without surrounding ourselves with psychological defense mechanisms. Most of the time, they work perfectly and we don't even notice they exist. But sometimes they have negative side effects making our lives difficult. The problem is, you can't just take these protections away because they are there for a reason. My job is to help my clients find out what they protect themselves from and design a better defense to replace the old one. This cannot be done without help: protection mechanisms are designed so that we are not aware of them. It is difficult to shave or put on makeup without a mirror. A large part of my job is to serve as such a mirror for my clients.
A few years ago, a woman came to me and asked if I could hypnotize her to cure her of her phobia. She had been in a car accident and was afraid of driving. I asked her questions about the accident. No, she was not hurt. Nobody else was hurt either. No, the car had not been severely damaged. But the event scared her so much she could no longer get behind the wheel. She was really surprised when I told her that although I could do what she asked me to do, I was afraid it could hurt her more than help. Her phobia was not really post-traumatic. It made her life more difficult, but it had some purpose. We should not break a fence unless we know the reason it was raised. If we cure her phobia, who knows what else her mind would design instead? It could be much worse. It took us a few sessions to figure out what the root of her problem was. While we worked on this underlying problem, her phobia disappeared without any special treatment.
Q: In psychotherapy, there are multiple schools and approaches: psychoanalysis, CBT, gestalt, art therapy, hypnosis... What school do you belong to and why did you choose it?
A: I've never had two clients whose problems were so similar that the same approach would work for both of them. I doubt that any school of psychotherapy may work in all situations. It would be unwise to practice psychoanalysis with a client in an urgent crisis or to use cognitive-behavioral training with those who have a desire to reinvent their lives. Therefore, depending on what my clients need most, I borrow ideas and techniques from various schools of psychotherapy. My approach is eclectic, which means, "selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles." It also helps that my expertise is not limited to psychology alone. With one of my clients, I used calculus as a therapeutic tool, and I taught another one to program and helped him to prepare for a job interview. I work together with a talented artist and art therapist Lenny Levitsky who works with people on their emotional issues applying his own artistic magic. Live is diverse, and so is therapy.
Q: Everybody has problems, but not everybody needs therapy. What is the criteria for seeking professional help?
A: Many people think that psychological help is only for the crazy or the weak. Wrong. When your car is acting up, it's OK to bring it to a mechanic, and when your leg hurts, it's OK to see a doctor. But if you feel cornered, if your relationship is falling apart, if you are hurting, why are you supposed to pull through on your own? Such people are sure that there no such thing as depression, just laziness and lack of will. In reality, it is choosing to ask for help that takes much courage and character.
Q: But how do you know you need therapy? Where is the boundary between the norm and a mental disorder?
A: Not where most people would look. Any diagnosis is based on specific criteria, but in psychiatry, a condition would only require clinical attention when it significantly impairs the person's ability to function. If it makes your life miserable, it's a disorder; if it doesn't, it's just a character trait. Most of my clients are absolutely normal, and their problems are of psychological origin rather than medical origin. They may suffer from depression and anxiety, and it does interfere with their lives, but under no circumstances would you call them crazy.
Q: What do you specialize in, and why?
A: Personal relationships, family issues, and related conditions: stress, anxiety, depression, guilt and hopelessness. Almost always, such problems are caused by a lack of understanding and poor communication. My training in math proves useful when I am trying to make sense of it. I work with adults and teenagers. Some of my clients are highly intellectually gifted, with their unique complex of problems. Many of them come to me after failing to get help from other therapists: when the client is significantly smarter than their therapist, the effectiveness of therapy diminishes.
Q: Is it true that only people with money can afford therapy?
A: Certainly not. If we are not hungry and have a roof over our head, and we say "I can't afford it," most of the time we mean we'd rather take our money elsewhere. It is a question of priorities. When people feel that their health, family, and psychological comfort are important for them, almost always they will find resources to afford counseling. Besides, health insurance will pay for psychotherapy if it is focused on a clinical condition, such as depression, anxiety, or panic disorders.
Q: You see your patients not only in your office but also on Skype. How is the experience different? What are the limitations of video conferencing as compared to an office visit?
A: I avoid the word "patients" when talking about people who seek my help. I call them clients. The word "patient" assumes illness that is to be treated, whereas clients may be perfectly healthy people who need help.
It is true that some of my clients come to me not as protein molecules but as electrons and kilobytes. This makes a difference: I cannot touch or smell them, but I never do that anyway. We also only see a part of each other, and some nonverbal information transferred through body language is lost. However, most of this information is conveyed through facial expressions and hand gestures, which are visible on screen. A few minutes into the session, we both forget about the glass screens that separate us from each other. This is why I much prefer video calls over voice-only sessions.
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