Allison Heiliczer, Psychotherapist, Penguin Author, Coach & Founder of Rethink the Couch

Allison Heiliczer is an American psychotherapist who has been living in Asia for over a decade. She specializes in working with individuals and couples navigating relationship or work issues. Heiliczer is the first therapist in Asia to be certified in Relational Life Therapy (RLT), a transformative form of couple’s therapy pioneered by The New York Times bestselling author Terry Real. In addition, she is an ICF-certified coach. She graduated summa cum laude from New York University (NYU) with a Bachelor of Science, a Master’s from NYU, and a second Master’s in Counselling from Monash University (Australia).

Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Allison shared her insights on her professional journey as a psychotherapist in Asia, what makes her latest book, ‘Rethink the Couch’ unique and its key takeaways, some misconceptions about therapy and therapists, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Allison, why did you become a therapist, and why Asia?

At 16, I moved from New York City to San Diego, California and stumbled on an article in The New Yorker magazine about a Japanese family, the Chinos, growing produce in San Diego. I was totally captivated and ended up working with them.

Working with the Chinos was a deep dive immersion into many new things: rituals, family unity, food, language, culture, and how many practices we think of as “conventional” can be done differently. It’s also where I began my fascination with speaking to people, hearing their stories, and appreciating human diversity and uniqueness. I would chat to customers every day about themselves and their lives. I honed my ability to listen to others, drown out the world around us momentarily, and drop into a shared reality. I had this endless patience to hear it all: the stories, unique experiences, hopes, dreams, and challenges, what meaning they applied to all of this, and ultimately, what transformation they sought in their lives.

It was the spark for what would years later become my career and calling. I was drawn to Asia, partly because of the Chinos and partly because of living in Hong Kong for over a decade, I felt compelled to stay. Now, based in Singapore, I have an even deeper appreciation for Asia. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

What makes your book, ‘Rethink the Couch: Into the Bedrooms and Boardrooms of Asia with an Expat Therapist, published by Penguin Random House, unique?

Few therapists have written about the cultural nuances of working in Asia, and I am an outsider looking to write about them. Many Asian cultures tend to prioritize the collective good over the individual and logic over emotion – unlike in the West, where it’s often the other way around. The issues and big questions for my clients about work, marriage, love, and betrayal can be found in most parts of the developed world. Still, this region often has multiple layers of complexity and context that shape how these unfold and therefore how they’re supported therapeutically.

This book explores these themes and more from a wholly unique perspective, the one I have been privileged to have as an expat working in Asia for over ten years, but also because I call Asia home.

Are relationship and work challenges connected in ways that may not be obvious?

For many people, there is a direct impact that relationship challenges have on work and vice versa. We are, first and foremost, relational beings. That means we have an innate need to connect with others. This doesn’t mean we are a world of extroverts – there is a spectrum in how much and the type of connection each of us needs. However, without connection, we die. Years ago, people may have interpreted this as a kind of soul death, yet we now know that not only does loneliness literally kill but also “bad” relationships. Therefore, the quality of our relationships both at work and at home is influential on health. Many people focus on their food and how much exercise they are getting. While both influence health, connection is largely overlooked as a mental and physical well-being determinant.

Some people are blessed with both strong relationships at work and at home. Many others have challenges in one or both domains. Work challenges can translate into stress and shift the emotional climate at home. I work with many couples whose work stress also impacts their parenting — it’s hard to put the key in the door and compartmentalize a toxic office, a challenging co-worker, and the threat of being terminated or made redundant; therefore, the whole family tends to feel the effects of work. Conversely, when people thrive at work, this tends to translate into better mental states. There is sometimes a danger to thriving insofar as it sometimes translates into grandiosity or entitlement in relationships. Yet, for many, a strong sense of work satisfaction positively impacts outside relationships. Lastly, challenges at work can often lead to self-medication with substances or other addictive behaviors – these impact relationships.

On the flip side, people with solid support systems outside of work also tend to navigate work challenges healthier. Some people may only be able to improve relationships in one domain – personal or professional – and I work with people to understand what kind of growth and connection is possible.

My upcoming book, Rethink the Couch: Into the Bedrooms and Boardrooms of Asia with an Expat Therapist, also discusses the unshakable connection between our personal and professional lives overlaid with lots of cultural factors.

What are some misconceptions about therapy and therapists that you wish to dispel and educate people about?

A definite caricature comes to mind: this “all-knowing and all-powerful” Freudian therapist sitting behind a couch with a patient who is just this blank slate, for the therapist to endlessly analyze every word. People often imagine they’ll end up on that couch endlessly, and maybe they’ll walk away with a few epiphanies but ultimately be clueless about what to do with that.

The reality is that this setup does exist. However, many therapists also work with a collaborative model – one that has the therapist and client empowered to work together, as a team and be clear about the goals and how to get there. Having said that, most therapy is not linear, it often does takes twists and turns to reach goals and transform. So, on the one hand, therapy can be collaborative, empowering, and goal-oriented. Still, people have particular challenges that require a very specific kind of therapy. For example, if someone came to me with a fear of flying, I would send them to a therapist who works specifically on that kind of fear. In many cases, though, rapport with the therapist is the number one determinant of outcome.

What are some of the tools we already have at our disposal that could help us get through life, and through relationship and work challenges? Those that have been there all along, that we somehow forget or don’t realize are quite useful? How do we tap into them?

Some of the tools that people may already have at their disposal that might support relationship and work challenges outside of therapy include:

Broadening or tapping into a more comprehensive social network and community – for some, this means friendships, family, and community in the form of religious, spiritual, and/or cultural groups or hobbies.

Losing yourself in nature can be a powerful anti-depressant or anti-anxiety tool.

Protecting sleep may mean turning your phone off 30 minutes earlier, coming up with a soothing bedtime routine, or reducing caffeine throughout the day.

Counting chemicals, not calories – there’s a strong relationship between food and mood. We eat too many ultra-processed foods, which can be very damaging to our health. Instead, focus on a plant-based diet, and remember to “eat the rainbow” to include as many different naturally colored foods as possible. If you don’t understand an ingredient on a food package, then your body and mind will likely not either.

Writing – this may mean pulling out a journal, emptying your mind onto a notepad or on your phone, or jotting down ideas on a ripped piece of paper. What’s vital with writing is not to reinforce thinking but rather to have a space to dump it out; for some, that alone is therapeutic. For others, they want to see their thoughts and feelings on paper and then ask how they might frame things differently or seek support.

Exercising may mean five minutes of dancing or wriggling your toes; lower the bar if needed. Many people are black and white with exercise – I either run 20 km or sit on the couch and eat ice cream – yet even small amounts can dramatically impact well-being, so forget the excuses and focus on any effort you can make today.

Remember that motivation often follows action, not the other way around. The motivation will likely show up after the five minutes of dancing you do in your living room, the ten-minute walk you take, and the flight of stairs you hike, don’t wait for the motivation.

Helping others – I have a personal deal with myself. Whenever I feel down or anxious, I reach out to support someone. This adds a different perspective that is often therapeutic and a way to connect, so both are helpful.

Sometimes therapy is not the needed instrument or one deep enough to truly support people. Therefore, I recommend that people seek additional support, including some ideas above; sometimes, therapy is not indicated with a particular challenge someone is facing.

If there are any facts about you, your upcoming book, your other projects, and anything else that you wish to include, you can tell me here.

My upcoming book, Rethink the Couch: Into the Bedrooms and Boardrooms of Asia with an Expat Therapist, has been endorsed by two New York Times bestselling authors, a few other bestselling authors, and two multinationals. I’m so grateful to hear it being described as “ground-breaking” and a “page-turner” as it’s the first of its kind. My book discusses many taboo subjects and is a call to action to preserve cultural values while evolving the support people have in Asia.  It’s vital that there is more Asian representation when speaking about mental health, as it’s one step in helping to end stigma in Asia.

What is something that may surprise readers while reading the book?

The stigma individuals feel about mental health and how their culture and family background can influence this and create more complications or challenges; and at the same time, there is much to learn from Asia in terms of how to support people with challenges.

The stories are also a blend of common issues and extraordinary ones. It may surprise readers to learn what others go through, but also maybe that they aren’t alone in going through what they might be facing in their own lives. There’s a compelling balance—one I see as a therapist, too—of how alike we can be in many ways and how unique we all are.

What does literary success look like to you?

Engagement and connection. If readers are able to connect with this book or develop a richer appreciation for the themes I explore in it, that’s when I know I have done what I set out to do. Therapy can be transformative, and the opportunity for me to take readers into the therapy room and reveal how that is possible and that there is always a way through a problem or a crisis continues to motivate me in my work advocating for mental health in Asia.

Please brief us about the main takeaways from your book, ‘Rethink the Couch’.

That Asia is a fascinating, complex, and remarkable place—but it has much to answer for regarding mental health and wellbeing. Also, many of us have insecurities, issues, challenges, struggles, and complicated histories – and there is always the potential to transform, grow, and navigate through these.

One piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring authors.

I would have to share some advice I received myself from prolific author and inspirational activist Matthew Friedman. He said, “Every day I write, and I remind myself that writing a book is 10% writing, 90% re-writing.”

I also followed this humbling advice: Wake before the roosters, get words down on paper, and – most importantly – get over yourself and any silly excuses your mind cooks up. Writing is a process, not a performance. Think like a sculptor, chipping away at a block of stone. Your final creative vision will be revealed if you tackle it a little at a time.

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