Monday, September 11, 2017

Are You For Real? A Tip For Avoiding Con Artists Posing As Psychologists

Most of the information we see online about  psychologists comes from the EU, North America, Australia and New Zealand. That's a problem if you don't live there because it gives a very false impression of the field.

Psychologists deal with vulnerable people but in most of the world, the profession is totally unregulated.

Shocking, right? If you're in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Indonesia and goodness knows how many other countries, you can simply announce, "I'm a psychologist!" and nobody will do a blessed thing to stop you messing about with people who are suicidal, struggling with learning issues and other serious problems.

There are con artists with no training whatsoever, not even a basic diploma in psychology, running companies that advertise in newspapers, setting up their own endorsement agencies, and even their own training centres.  They  'diagnose' you and often charge the earth, too.

There is plenty of discussion about it in the field, but in my opinion, this will be an ongoing issue for some years to come. Even if you fix the problem with a quick bit of legislation, enforcement is difficult - especially as these people will simply rebrand themselves as "lifestyle gurus" or whatever other title sounds cool.

So when you need a psychologist, how do you avoid the cons? I had the look yesterday at the social media (Facebook and LinkedIn) of several leading lights in the community and then I compared it to some known crooks.

The legitimate people were posting cartoons of owls, photos of their lunch, moaning about their kids, giggling about silly things that happened to them, sharing jokes - and very occasionally commenting on a psychological issue.

The cons had a steady stream consisting of shares of journal articles, press articles, motivational quotes and their own evil advertising.

Depressing, right?  The cons looked so damn legitimate that if I didn't know better, I'd consult them!

So what can you do? One thing that did stand out was this: real people have connections to universities. They don't necessarily work in them but they'll have friends there.

So I'd say this: if you are looking for a psychologist online, first see who their friends are. And if they are posting, see if their pals commenting are from recognisable unis. If they are, you're probably okay.

You can also ask me. I may not know the people you want to consult myself, but I have a South East Asia network that I'm happy to draw on.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Should your counselling psychologist give you advice?

Sigmund Freud, Wikipedia
If you’ve never been to see someone about a mental health issue before this may seem a weird question.  However, there are two broad approaches to our kind of work.

In the old days, clients would pitch up, describe what was going on, and receive an expert opinion.  Possibly this came about because many of the first modern generation of mental health providers were psychiatrists, medical doctors specializing in mental health.  So they’d act like traditional doctors, dispensing wise counsel to their patients.

Carl Rogers, Wikipedia
But in the 1940s, the idea of a client centered approach became popular. It was championed by Carl Rogers, a psychologist (not a medical doctor!) who believed that we are each our own best expert. He advocated that mental health workers should listen to and work with the client to set goals and find solutions.

Today mental health providers who give advice are called Directive and those who are client centered approach are called Non-Directive.

Generally speaking, people in the West lean towards wanting Non-Directive practitioners because it generally falls in line better with our individualistic, egalitarian cultural approaches while people in South East Asia lean towards wanting Directive practitioners because it falls in line better with their group oriented, strong hierarchical cultural approaches.

I say generally and am making sweeping statements because this is just a casual blog post. If you want to debate this, we can talk about it.  For now the question is, if you are looking for help and a bit uncertain about what you want, what should you know?

Here are some thoughts:

A big pro of the Directive approach is that you don’t have to make any decisions. You pay someone to do it for you. If you get someone good, who thinks like you, that can work very well. However, the main drawback is that what works for me, may not work for you. If you are not totally in sync, the advice may not work - or make things worse.

A big pro of the Non-Directive is that you are involved in every stage of the process, and so you are much more likely to develop good approaches that suit your unique person and situation. The main drawback is that it takes a lot of work, and it can be tiring.

Me, I suggest it’s best to work with someone like me who does a bit of both. You see, there are times when something is clear to me because of my training and experience.

For example, I’m very happy to say things like, “There are three ways of doing this, A, B and C. From what I know of you, I’d go with approach B as it’s most likely to suit you best.”

I’m also not shy about giving opinions. For example, “I think you should consider looking into your relationship with your MIL, because it sounds toxic and I think it may cause you trouble if you don’t address it.”

But then I also check with you that this is what you want. And if you disagree, that’s okay too. Because I’m someone you work with; I’m not your nanny.

PS: if you are looking for discreet support, you can contact me via

Saturday, August 19, 2017

When hate gets to you, reach out

Does it seem to you that hate is becoming mainstream?

My brother called me this morning, worried about the terror attacks in Barcelona, Cambrills and Turku over the last few days, coming right on top of Charlottesville, Manchester and London. As he's in Saudi and I'm in Malaysia, we are also aware of the many hate crimes that don't hit main stream news media.

"I don't believe in profiling," he said, "but we have to do something about violent arseholes!"

In case you're confused which particular violent arseholes we were thinking about, the answer is all of them. 

You see, if you take me, my brother and our partners and their sibs and partners, just us very close family, you will see a kind of United Nations effect. We range from Nippon Paint's brilliant white to the finest dark chocolate in terms of skin, and we cover most of the major faith groups. We're from Europe, North America and Africa and we live in all those places plus the Middle East and Far East Asia.

In other words: whenever someone blows up "the enemy" or mouths off about "the x problem" you're talking about one of us. It is very hard not to fall into hate. Especially when politicians and faith leaders make speeches about how you are Evil Incarnate.

I can't fix the world but I can help manage my feelings.

What helps me is engaging with people who are cheerfully accepting of differences. The kind who  just respect that we're all different and celebrate it.

When I'm having an anti-X moment, I pick up the phone, and go for a coffee with a friend who isn't like me, and we just hang and have a good time. It can be a Malaysian Christian Mala or a Cambodian Muslim May or a Thai Hindu Myriam - it doesn't matter. Just reminding myself that friendships cross divides cheers me up.
Good random experiences are a tonic too. Like when me and my friend Emanar were in Central Market a week or two ago, talking to two Malay girls running a clothing stall.

"I need a party shirt for my husband," I said to them.

They hauled out a lovely batik, perfect for a posh event.

"I love it," I said. "But I'm thinking more of a party at the pub."

"He can wear this there too," the sisters giggled. "And he'll look so handsome!"

"He's dressed nicely all week at work. Do you have something more relaxed?"

The sisters thought for a second, and then dived into their stock, producing the best beach party shirt I'd seen in years and asking, "Will tuna fish be suitable for the pub?"

"The tuna fish," I said seriously, "will be the talk of the regulars for weeks!"

"Tell them where you bought it!" the girls chorused instantly.  

Such a simple story, right? An everyday occurrence. But when I hear hate speech urging us into "Us & Them" remembering that little scene gives me hope.

Hate isn't universal. And when we reach out and remind ourselves of the ordinary people who are quite happy to accept differences, the world looks a little better.

PS the sisters have the stall on the first floor, on the balcony, directly facing the main door. Their batik shirts are awesome, and they had several more tuna shirts! You should go and take a look.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Review of How to Remove a Brain: and other bizarre medical practices and procedures by David Haviland

My first thought is that if you were suspicious of doctors, How to Remove a Brain: and other bizarre medical practices and procedures  by David Haviland will drive you screaming away from them!  This is a wonderful book devoted to dragging up every weird and wacky idea in medical science from times ancient to present.

Well written with a pen dipped in sarcasm, you’ll find yourself laughing and groaning.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!

On a more serious note, I wanted to read this because it also has a nice little history of how Western doctors used to deal with their patients. It seems that the posh ones didn’t bother talking to their patients directly; they wrote letters to each other. Because actually seeing someone and possibly viewing nasty body bits was just too eeeeeewwww.

I have a feeling that this is what influenced early mental health practitioners to adopt the stand-back-and-don’t-engage policy that still permeates the profession today. As I’m a counselling psychologist, I found a lot of food for thought in this book as well as a lot of giggles.

I would very much recommend How To Remove a Brain. However, I do worry that with the present hate campaign against science, David Haviland’s book will add to this trend as it completely ignores all the positive innovations. Still, let the truth prevail!

I received this book from the publishers via NetGalley and am reviewing voluntarily

Friday, July 28, 2017

Review of Shame: A Brief History by Peter Stearns

"Shame: A Brief History by Peter Stearns is a well researched beautifully written thought-provoking book! A must read for psychologists, leaders, teachers, parents, managers and anyone interested in human nature." Ellen Whyte, upcoming Amazon review 

I love this book! Peter Stearns did a brilliant job of presenting shaming uses and norms in societies past and present, and I love the way he examines the resurgence of shame 's use as a force in today 's social media.

Stearns thinks that the rise of the individual led the demise of the use of shame as a tool for power and control in the US. He points out, though, that it has risen again, thanks to the anonymity of the internet. Thus, shame is still used to control, but the nature of its use has changed. You'll have to read it to find out more!

I loved this book because I live in Malaysia, a country with a collective and hierarchical culture, which means shame is perceived and used in ways that we don’t really see much of in the West. This book really helped me pull together some threads of thought, and I am certain that I will be better at my job because of it.

My immediate thought is that I see many of the traditional uses of shame here but there are also significant differences. For example, girls and boys who are abused, raped and victims of incest, are still regularly blamed and the family is shamed into keeping silent so that the perpetrator gets away with it.  However, I see more and more people standing up for victims. Malaysia is a collective society, not an individualistic one, and yet, we're seeing large changes in thinking, just like the US saw in the 1800s. 

I'm going to read this book again next week, and then I'm going to talk to some activists, lawyers and HR managers to get their input. Then I'll read the book again. I'm certain this will be one of my most influential books of 2017.

It comes out 15th September 2017 and if you can get your hands on it, do buy it!

I received a copy of this book from the publishers through NetGalley and am reviewing voluntarily.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Check out this therapy plan for tackling stress and depression at work

Thanks to geralt from pixabay
When you go for therapy, a treatment plan is essential for tracking progress and reaching your goals.

Tony Soprano and Adrian Monk visit their therapists for years, talking about themselves and exploring their motivations in order to gain personal understanding. The positive is that it can be very revealing but the downside is that it can take a long time (read: expensive). Also, with a goal as vague as “self understanding”, it can be difficult to track and evaluate progress.

While I can provide that kind of service, I prefer to help my clients develop effective strategies for managing themselves. To do that, I use treatment plans that list goals, therapy strategies and timelines.

Check out how that works by looking at this hypothetical case.  

In our initial free session, Alex has decided to look for therapy because of stress, 
“I get this uptight feeling at work all the time. Every time the boss talks to me, I have this inner voice that says I suck. It’s getting to me so much that I’m having trouble sleeping. Help!”
In our first session, we find the following:
·        History reveals no family history of depression. Current physical health is excellent with medical exam for insurance showing no issues.
·        Alex scores 12 on the PHQ-9 depression inventory, indicating moderate depression. Items scored were low interest, low mood, sleep issues, little energy, feeling bad about yourself.
·        Alex scores 1 on the SBQ-R Suicide Behaviors Questionnaire-Revised, indicating almost zero risk of suicide.
·        The life stress evaluation form (Ellen’s design) highlights the following problem areas: a recent promotion, upgrading of home leading to renovations lasting 6 weeks, minor money budget issues, and upcoming large family gathering. Good solid marriage, nice kids, no issues with in-laws.

After a discussion, Alex decides on these therapy goals:
1.      Help me get over my depression
2.      Get me sleeping again
3.      Stop me thinking that I suck

I then go away, consider everything Alex has told me. I come to these conclusions:

First off, lack of sleep magnifies depression, fuelling the particular symptoms of low interest, low mood, and little energy. If we fix the sleeping problems, some of the depression will lift. It is my priority.

Second, I suspect the depression and “I suck” thoughts stem from pressure of promotion that are magnified by the stressful events at home - the renovations and the big family events. These mean extra money pressures and with the whole family focused on, “What’s new and exciting?” Alex is feeling the pressure to excel. This is a problem because of the recent promotion.

I think that when Alex understands why he’s thinking, “I suck” and learns to stop thinking it, his depressive symptom “feeling bad about yourself” will lessen.  Because of his new promotion, it would also help to give him an overall more secure sense of happiness at work.

So this is my plan:

The Big Picture
Alex is feeling less interest in daily life, is tired all the time and has unsettling “I suck” thoughts at work
Longterm Goal 1: Help Alex get back to an even keel, demonstrated by scoring 3 or lower on the PHQ-9
Longterm Goal 2: Help Alex to stop thinking, “I suck” and replace it with confidence, “I can do this” thinking.
Longterm Goal 3: Help Alex boost his overall happiness at work

#1 Problem Insomnia
Description: Alex can’t fall asleep, lying awake and worrying for hours
Goal: Help Alex go back to falling asleep within 15 minutes of going to bed.
Steps to Achieve Goal:
·        Sleep hygiene evaluation to pinpoint weaknesses and suggest improvements
·        Teach relaxation technique, choose Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique or Visualisation technique
Should take 3 sessions to reach goal

#2 Problem “I suck”
Description: when the boss talks to Alex, Alex’s first thought is, “I suck”.
Goal: Help Alex manage this by stopping the negative thought and replacing it with a positive thought of confidence
Steps to Achieve Goal:
·        We will tackle the “I suck” thoughts with Cognitive Behavioural (CBT) therapy
·        Should take 6 to 8 sessions to reach goal

#3 Problem depression at work
Description: Alex has been promoted and is feeling a little uncertain about his capabilities at work.
Goal: Help Alex boost his overall happiness at work
Steps to Achieve Goal:
·        Use Self Determination Theory to identify and boost areas that are weak: autonomy, competence and relatedness
·        We will identify Alex’s support structure in order to help provide long-term support.
·        Should take 5 to 8 sessions to reach goal

Plan and Schedule

Time and Cost
Discover background and broad goals
20 minutes, free
Set contract and evaluation
2 hours, RM100/ US$30

Ellen develops therapy plan
·        Sleep hygiene evaluation to pinpoint weaknesses and suggest improvements
·        Teach relaxation technique
Homework: practice relaxation technique
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
·        Check on how relaxation technique is working
·        Practice if necessary
“I suck”:
·        Explain and practice Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT)
·        Anticipate and model real life opportunities to practice over the next week
Homework: practice CBT
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
·        Check on how relaxation technique is working
“I suck”
·        Review and practice CBT
Happiness at Work
·        Use Self Determination Theory to examine and boost autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Homework: practice CBT
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
·        Should be good now! But check
“I suck”
·        We should be seeing some positive results now from CBT.
·        Review and practice CBT
Happiness at Work
·        Develop support network to underpin successful change
Homework: practice CBT, practice leaning on support network
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
“I suck”
·        Review and practice CBT.
Happiness at Work
·        Use Self Determination Theory to examine and boost autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Homework: practice CBT, pay attention to boosting self determination
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
“I suck”
·        Review and practice CBT.
Happiness at Work
·        Use Self Determination Theory to examine and boost autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Homework: practice CBT, pay attention to boosting self determination
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
“I suck”
·        Review and practice CBT.
Happiness at Work
·        Use Self Determination Theory to examine and boost autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Homework: practice CBT, pay attention to boosting self determination
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
At this point we have done the minimum sessions: 6 of CBT and 5 Happiness at Work
We may need to do 2 more sessions here. But supposing we’re doing great! Then we move on to the final stages.
Redo depression inventory
Redo stress inventory
Examine goals and progress
Decide if more sessions are needed
1 hour, RM100/ US$30
Follow up two months after
15 minutes, free

Note that this assumes that you are doing the homework and not blowing it off, and that you don’t turn up in session four saying, “Can we just have a chat about my dad who used to beat the hell out of me when I was six?” Of course you can, but then we need a new plan of action to tackle that issue.

If you’re still reading, thanks!  I hope this gives you an idea of how therapy works and how you might use a treatment plan to track progress and effectiveness. It’s also essential for budgeting.

If you want to ask something, or are looking for a counselling psychologist, contact me at 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Be Happy At Work - When You Don’t Like Your Job

Some of us are lucky enough to have a career that fascinates us. However, there are many more who exchange labour for money so that they can enjoy the other part of their lives. That’s perfectly fine but it can mean being less than enthusiastic about work. And when the job takes up 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, it can quickly become a miserable experience. If this is you, check out this suggestion for you to be happier at work.

While there are lots of different psychological approaches to working on this problem, one of my favourite go-tos is Self Determination Theory.

What is it?
Basically, this is a macro theory that suggests motivation relies on us having three things:
  1. Autonomy - having control over your own life.
  2. Competence - developing skills you are proud of and having them recognised
  3. Relatedness - being part of a team, or at least feeling connected to the people around you
Okay, now if Edward Deci and Richard Ryan ever see this over simplified summary of their forty odd years of research, they’d probably have fits. However, this is a simple blog post and it’s good enough for you to get started.

How do I use it?
Look at your work and analyse your average month.  Then ask yourself questions and use the answers to pump up your happiness potential.

Question 1: At what point in my work do I feel as if I’m Mistress of the Universe? Look for that feeling of control and purpose.
Question 2: What parts of my work mesh with my own beliefs about how life should be?

For example, suppose you work in a customer service centre and feel at the beck and call of faceless others. By asking these questions you might find that your core values include kindness and making a difference. If so, know that each time you help a customer, you are making the world a tiny bit better. If you shift perspective and tell yourself you really are spreading joy, work becomes more joyful.

Question 1: What do I do that’s fantastic?
Question 2: What do I do okay at that I want to become fantastic at?

Simply put: we love doing things we do well, and we often do well at the things we love. So when you pick a work skill and turn it into your super power, you will get a thrill every time you use that work skill. This pushes up your overall happiness level. Bonus: if you become a true skills ninja, you may be able to get a job you like better!  

Question 1: Do I feel connected to the people around me? And if I don’t how do I make that happen?

For me this is a fundamental part of happiness. People who feel cut off from the world around them fall into despair. There’s no getting away from it: we need to feel connected, even if it’s only to one or two people.

So my advice is, if you can connect to the people you work with in a friendly way, you will feel happier about work. Make friends, and then spread your wings and start connecting with others in your field. LinkedIn is good for that!

If you want more
Like I said, this is a super short blog post that introduces one of the ways you can go about improving your happiness at work.

I’ve made it look like a simple 1-2-3 but clearly there’s a lot more to the theory and what goes into using it in therapy.  This is a conversation starter; it’s not a substitute for proper professional help.

If you are stressed and depressed, and you need help, please do contact me: Ellen Whyte at