Jeffrey Sumber, a practicing psychotherapist for many years, wrote Renew Your Wows: Seven Powerful Tools to Ignite the Spark and Transform Your Relationship, last year. He’s an interesting guy, thoughtful, and very passionate about what he does. And what he does is to do his best to help people find happiness. From his book: “Your life is meant to be poetry. The way you feel when you just fall in love with someone is the way you’re meant to feel about yourself when you wake up each morning.”
Jeffrey was kind enough to take some time away from his busy clinical practice to speak with me about his book and his work. He’s in Chicago, and I am not, so we did this interview by phone. Here’s what he had to say.
Date: February 18, 2016
Hometown: Mahopac, NY
Current town: Chicago, IL
Occupation: psychotherapist and author
It was very interesting to read your book, and it did seem to offer some good and practical advice. What has been its reception so far?
A lot of people find it helpful. I’ve gotten great feedback. I think the action guide, the downloadable workbook, really helps a lot of people. Some people just have skimmed the book and used the workbook for the bulk of it. A lot of couples who are struggling are desperate for something concrete to make a difference. The three-step template for communication, the check in–99% of the people who use it do find it helpful in 30 days. It’s so basic and useful, that I’ve put it for free on the homepage of my website. People download it often.
That’s very altruistic of you!
If it helps people, it’s great.
Did you find your book difficult to write? Sometimes a message comes across very differently on paper than in person.
I like writing, so the writing was fun for me. I had many edits, though. In high school I would have these long run-on sentences, meandering; my English teacher, Mr. Height, called them Sumber-isms. I still do that. But I had a really great editor who helped me hone things down and keep it focused.
Of course, you can reach more people with the written word than you could possibly meet with as a counselor.
Absolutely. The goal is to touch more people. I am committed to helping people one by one. But that is a little limiting at times. I can’t share my insights unless you come and sit in front of me for 45 minutes. The book hits a lot more possibilities with people, and it’s also a good business card. I think business cards’ days are numbered, between social media, twitter, LinkedIn, a lot of people don’t even have them any more. A book to hand to someone is the best business card! It costs me $5 to print it wholesale and it’s a far more effective tool to connect to clients in general.
Do you mostly concentrate in your practice on helping couples, or do you work with family dynamics as well? Does your advice on working as part of a couple translate well into other types of relationships (work, friendships, etc.)?
The book is about our individual work, it has less to do with couple-ship than in how I relate to myself and to other people in general. The tools in the book are more important for the way I see my self vis-a-vis humanity and less important in terms of romantic partnership or long term partnership. The tools I focus on are really self-growth and self-awareness.
60 percent of my work is with couples; the other 40 percent of my clients are people working on anxiety, depression, career changes, substance abuse, addiction: it spans the spectrum. The advice transcends relationship work in particular. The book is a great relationship book, but it starts with a relationship to self.
I recently spoke to someone about his work on social entrepreneurship and also on coaching (life coaching, career coaching). He thought that many people could use coaching to help them focus on what they were trying to accomplish…so not just people who were struggling, but people who want to achieve some kind of excellence. What are your thoughts?
Well, I did go through the iPEC coaching training, so I am a graduate of iPEC. I have a coaching background that informs the way I do therapy. The difference between coaching and therapy is that therapy is generally about creating an overall healthy life. Coaching is geared toward optimizing that functional life, tweaking the two millimeters from good to great.
Coaching is a great supplement to counseling or therapy, but it’s not a replacement. I think it’s soothing to want to skip over the deep work…some people will jump straight to coaching and want to avoid the deep process, but then it comes back to bite us. Another important difference: a good therapist won’t give you answers but will ask you lots of questions. My experiences with most coaches is that they tell you what to do.
So you have studied theology and psychology and political science; do you bring these various disciplines to your work as a counselor?
Yes. I think it’s all part of who I am. I think all of them show up in my work. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing per se, it’s just part of who I am.
I once managed to really annoy a courtroom clerk who wanted to know if I could put aside my knowledge of law to serve on a jury. I tried to tell him that I wasn’t sure I could do that since my education was part of who I was and it wasn’t really possible, I didn’t think, to turn off part of my background. In any case, I couldn’t give a good yes or no answer to what I thought was a big philosophical question. I didn’t get put on the jury.
It’s impossible to differentiate where a political science degree enters the therapy room. It’s an integrated part of me.
Do you have another book in mind? What else do you have to tell the world?
Yeah, I do think about that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I have a fantasy of doing a children’s book. I’ve also thought about writing a workbook for couples to do pre-marital counseling. A course to do your own personal growth together.
I don’t generally read a lot of “self help” type books, although, depending on how broadly you define the genre, I’ve definitely learned from a few. Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, Games People Play by Eric Berne, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. I tend to get very annoyed by books that are gender essentialist…Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus…no, human beings are from Earth, thank you! I tend to be pretty happy, so maybe I’m not drawn to them because I don’t feel too much of a need for them. But different people, of course, get insights from different things. Besides your own, what books do you think are practically helpful to most people?
I love the concept of books…I have a short attention span to get through most books, though. Unless the book is captivating and incredibly useful, I tend to get bored. I use Brian Johnson’s PhilosophersNotes. They’re ten to fifteen minute summaries of great books. While I get ready in the morning, I listen to classic psychology, business, entrepreneurship, awesome summaries and high points of books. I think that’s a better use of my time, for the most part. I like books that are short and segmented into practical pieces. A good book you can pick up, read three pages, and find enough to sit with it.
Thich Naht Hahn is one of my favorite authors. His books are typically very short and simple and mindful, in potent ways. I can read a few pages, pick it up a month later, and still find it relevant.
One of my favorite psychology researchers is Sue Johnson. Her books are super long. Her workbooks are tedious as hell, and hard to get through. So I go to hear her talk. I get more out of hearing her in a workshop than in reading her book. I don’t think there are that many great books out there to warrant my time. One of the reasons that I did the action guide to my own book is that I wanted to boil it down into five to six page chapters, with little highlights and summaries.
Do you have a fiction recommendation?
I just read Shanteram by David Gregory Roberts. I loved it. It’s a great, captivating, powerful, book. And it’s long! With fiction I can handle longer books. For non-fiction, it should be a pamphlet size, in an ideal world. Shanteram has been my favorite book of late.
How about a movie? What should everyone see?
Great question…what did I like this year? I just saw The Revenant. And it was really powerful and I just thought the acting and the directing and the cinematography were all perfect. Not an easy film to sit through, but powerful. What else have I liked? Let’s see…I really liked The Big Short. That was a fun take on a terrible topic.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
When I left Santa Fe to move to Chicago, I sold three properties and liquidated everything that I had, because I didn’t think I would ever come back. I wish I had kept one of my properties there so I had a vacation home.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Most people don’t know that my wife and I are avid square dancers. We participate in an organization here in Illinois that is dedicated to preserving American folk art, and folk dancing is a part of that. And we go at least once a month and learn new dances. There’s always a live bluegrass band, and a new caller and we learn new dances and connect with people, and get lots of steps on our Fitbits.
I think that’s a problem with our culture, actually, that we don’t dance enough. I don’t go to bars and nightclubs that often anymore, so I generally only find myself dancing at weddings these days.
It’s a fun event, a potluck, chips and soda, (and no alcohol) and everyone hangs out and has fun. And it’s very cross-generational.
Unlike a bar or a nightclub.
What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?
Strangest phobia…I guess the strangest one is that when I’m sleeping I can’t have my left hand covered. If my wife puts the blanket over my hand I feel like I’m going to suffocate. Only on one side, though.
What’s the best or worst thing that happened to you this week?
The best is that my wife gave me a massage and salt tank soak for Valentine’s Day, which I’m going to do this afternoon with her. It’s really cool, you lay in the dark in giant tank of salt water which makes you float, and you sit and breathe for an hour, or until you lose your mind.
It’s intended to relax you. It’s great, a deeper sense of mindfulness and peace. I like it.
I hope you have a great time this afternoon. Do you have a favorite celebrity?
Interesting question. I’d say lately I’m into Bill Maher. I appreciate his sense of humor and liberal politics and I like that he is a catalyst and instigator. And he says what a lot of people don’t have the guts to say.
Can you tell me a joke?
What did the fish say when hit the wall?
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
My book, which you can get at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and my website. On my website you can read my blog, and you can sign up to get newsletters, and get in touch with me if you’re interested in distance coaching.
Lead-In Image Courtesy of Nadezhda1906 / Shutterstock.com
Portrait, Book Jacket and Book Quote Courtesy of Jeffrey Sumber
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
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