Dugal Bain lives in San Francisco and is currently a management consultant specializing in leadership performance and strategy execution. We talked to him about his experience going to therapy and how it helps him bring his best self to work every day.
Why did you decide to go to therapy?
About 5 years ago, I was going through some conflict in my personal life and felt like I needed someone to help me manage that. I think that I was at a stage in my life where I wanted to understand myself more clearly and I thought that seeing a therapist would help with that. That’s how I first started looking for a therapist and I’ve been seeing one fairly consistently for the last 5 years.
And by consistently, what do you mean by that?
I’ve probably seen a therapist on average once every month for 5 years. There have been a few periods within that when I’ve paused therapy for various reasons, but for the most part it’s been constant.
What was it like to go to therapy for the first time?
To be honest, I think the idea of going to therapy for the first time was quite uncomfortable. There was definitely some apprehension there, mainly because growing up there was a certain story around what therapy is and what sort of people have therapists. The way I thought about it back then was you go to therapy if something’s broken, if you’re sick, if you have a mental health problem. I also grew up with a fairly traditional idea of what it means to be masculine and how men are expected to process their problems. The first time I went to therapy, I was wrestling with those assumptions around what it means to see a therapist.
“Therapy is a fundamental component of how I try to maintain a happy and high performance life.”
What were some of the first benefits that you took away from therapy?
When I first started going it was a bit more like triage. I was in a complex and intense situation and needed some immediate help with that. Therapy was really effective in giving me that sort of acute support. It helped me see a different perspective around the situation so that I could manage myself in a much more constructive way. Then, based on the experience I had with processing that particular issue, I started to think, why not maintain therapy as more of a core part of how I manage my life? To make sure I have the stamina and mental capacity to be my best at work but also with the people close to me. I think moving to a very open minded city like San Francisco only added more weight to this idea of therapy being a fundamental part of how I try and live a high performance life.
So what that looks like in practice for me is a lot less reactivity to circumstances. I think one of the things that therapy has given me that’s been really useful is this ability to maintain my composure even in stressful circumstances and create a little bit of a distance between what’s happening and how I react, so that, ultimately, I can make better decisions. It has also given me an expanded understanding of who I am as a human being. I’ve come to understand that self-awareness is itself a huge asset but is hard to come by without expert help.
Can you share an example of how therapy helps you at work?
I work in a client service industry and things are pretty unpredictable; there’s a lot of change, there are a lot of failures or fire-drills that happen unpredictably day-to-day. I think having the ability to control your reaction in the those circumstances and not feel like the sky is falling in, is a really important skill when you’re leading teams. I need to hold my composure, I need to hold my center. That ability just to pause, to notice my own reactions and then to have the option of handling things differently has been incredibly helpful. In terms of my career development, therapy has also given me great clues about the shifts I should be focused on to improve across my life, and the way that consistent themes show up inside and outside of work.
“I’ve come to understand that self-awareness is itself a huge asset but is hard to come by without expert help.”
What is a tool that you learned from therapy that you still use?
One of the tools that was really helpful that I picked up from a therapist in the UK was an exercise where you take a high-emotion, stressful situation and deconstruct it so that you can separate facts from interpretation. You leave out anything else: any of the stories, assumptions, or other liberties that you’re taking that might be creating unnecessary anxiety or stress. It’s a really practical framework for when you’re getting into a state that’s not helping you or others. It’s just a very simple thought exercise but it’s been a very helpful.
Thanks–people really like to hear about tactics learned in therapy. I think it gives them a sense of what they can get out of the experience. Are there other really good insights you have from your therapy experience?
This one is a little bit deeper but one thing that’s been hugely valuable, particularly in my personal life, is developing a more complete understanding of forgiveness and how I can get to a place of forgiveness more quickly. There was a quote from Buddha that a therapist shared with me once:
“Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
That’s a sometimes overused quote, but the work I did around that concept was a big breakthrough for relieving a lot of unnecessary burden and making sure that I can tap into compassion and forgiveness much more easily instead of getting stuck in grudges and other things that are a complete waste of time.
Tell me about your belief that therapy is something you do for maintenance. I think there’s this whole idea, you go to a doctor regularly, you go to a dentist regularly, why are we not going to a therapist regularly to maintain our emotional being? Why do you invest your time in seeing a therapist regularly even after you’ve gained all of these mental skills?
The analogy I think about is, if I’m expecting my body to perform to a certain level, I would be seeing a sports masseuse, a personal trainer, and a dietitian. I’d have a whole system of support around me to make sure I can maintain that performance. That’s really what I’m trying to do from a mental and emotional standpoint. To live a life that’s really busy, really complex, with a lot of pressure and some pretty high expectations. It’s a no brainer that I’d invest in my mental and emotional condition. So, I think that therapy goes beyond just addressing specific issues and problems. It helps me go from good to great. That’s the key difference. When I started to realize that therapy was a process that helped me reach that next gear in all sorts of ways, it became such a fundamental part of my life and a really easy decision.
“Therapy is the most direct route to helping people understand and unlock themselves so they can work and live at their best.”
How would you explain therapy to someone who has never gone before?
Therapy is space in the week for a different sort of conversation that I can’t have with anyone else. Even if the people closest to me want to help me, they’re still interpreting things with their own agendas and perspectives. Therapy is a totally neutral, completely objective space where I can slow down, reflect and bounce ideas off someone who is a professional, who has tools, new ways of thinking, and new angles that help to open my own lens into my life. My session is an important punctuation point in my week where I can take stock of what’s happened in my life between my last session and get really clear on some intentions on the week ahead. When I go to therapy, feel like I’m really getting myself equipped for what comes along within the next 7 or 14 days.
Awesome. What happens in the in-between with therapy? Obviously that time when you’re in session is as you described but what are some intentions that you have set in the past?
Often my therapist will ask me to make some commitments to things that I should be practicing between our sessions. An example is that in the next conversation I have with a certain person, try to ask specific questions, or try to notice how I react to the conversation. I’ll experiment with different tools throughout the week. Like a coach, your therapist is there to hold you accountable which helps me get things done, even when my week is busy. I’ll also take notes on what I want to bring up in my next session or think about themes and topics that I’d love to get my therapist’s thoughts on.
How is your life different now that you go to therapy?
One example in my personal life is that I had a really close relationship with someone that I’d fallen out with several years ago. This is someone whom I used to spend a lot of time with. For a number of reasons our relationship ceased to function. Through therapy I’ve been able to revisit that relationship, to understand the circumstances around how and why we had a falling out, and to come up with a strategy to rebuild a healthy relationship with that person. What would I need to do? What contribution would I need to make in this relationship to try and get us back on track? The therapist was able to provide me with enough nudging and support to climb out on the skinny branches and make those approaches to this person whom I hadn’t spoken to for a long time. The result was better than I even hoped it would be. I gained a new attitude, a new way of thinking about things, that really allowed the other person to also meet me in the middle and we repaired the relationship. We’re now friends again. It’s in the early days but it’s looking like we are going to be able to be a big part of each other’s lives again which means a lot to me.
“When I think about what it would look like to have an organization where everyone was receiving regular therapy…the potential increase in performance for the companies involved would be huge”
Why do you think therapy is such a valuable tool to someone for instance, an employee? How does it change the way you can work?
The sort of consulting that I do focuses on team performance and leadership. What does it mean to be a great athlete? What does it mean to be a great team? What I’ve realized from doing that for the last few years is that so much of being an effective leader comes down to self-awareness, the ability to understand yourself, the ability to understand how you react, the ability to understand why to make the decisions that you make, and being much more in charge about that. When you zoom out and think about the most effective way to build that sort of self-awareness, it’s through therapy.
I think the more that leaders can be in tune with themselves, they will lead their teams more effectively and contribute more to the organizations that they work in. When I think about what it would look like to have an organization where everyone was receiving regular therapy, I see a place where everyone had a much more honest and comprehensive understanding of themselves and the decisions they make. The potential increase in performance for the companies involved would be huge. I think that coaching is really popular at the moment in part because it’s partly therapy. It’s a version of some of the same tools and techniques in a less concentrated way.
Where do you see the benefits of therapy over coaching?
I think one of the things that’s becoming clearer to the business community is that this line between personal and professional life is incredibly blurry if exists at all. When you’re trying to provide people with some sort of support to help them perform well at work, you’re really talking about how to get people to perform at their best as human beings. Again, it’s not about fixing things or people but about identifying what’s working really well, what’s not working well and can be changed, and what new things would energize and excite people in the organization. I think that you can’t be a fully functioning leader if you’re trying to live two separate lives between work and the home. The skills you need to excel in both realms are really one and the same. Therapy is the most direct route to helping people understand and unlock themselves so they can work and live at their best.