Meet the Therapist: Patapia Tzotzoli
What attracted you to become a therapist?
Close to where I grew up there was a mental health institution. My father would often take me with him to visit and play games with the people there. He always managed to lose so the patients could win a prize(!), which meant I had to go to the kiosk and buy them refreshments. I remember how differently they behaved during those few minutes while we played – their faces lit up, they laughed out loud, and they often won fair and square! My experience of the people there differed entirely from what the "grown-ups" saw in them. Where others saw sickness and misfortune, I saw life that was worth being embraced and celebrated!
Thirty years later, after four university degrees and various posts at different hospitals, I have the privilege of working privately with people who, while differing from the patients I met as a child, also face their own challenges. I help them to deal with their struggles so that they too can lighten up and laugh out loud again.
Where did you train?
I studied at the Universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained in the UK’s oldest clinical psychology programme within the department of psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London. Over several years, I undertook specialist placements across three world-renowned NHS Trusts: South London & Maudsley, King’s College Hospital and Guy’s & St Thomas’, known collectively as King’s Health Partners.
I always look back on those years tenderly. Given where I come from, I was breaking new ground. Not only were those years exciting, creative, and productive but they were also so damn difficult because of the challenges I faced as a young (and foreign!) student. But those years have proven to be the most significant of my life in terms of what I learned, massively shaping my thinking as a person and as a consequence my approach as a psychologist.
Can you tell us about the type of therapy you practise?
Every client has a unique story and they present with different symptoms. So it’s imperative that I can adapt to my clients’ needs. This is majorly important – as anyone with clinical experience will tell you, one size does not fit all and a therapist needs to be considerably knowledgeable in order to adjust her assessment style and create bespoke treatment plans. Due to my extensive training and continuing professional development I am able to make use of various treatments, including cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, acceptance and commitment therapy, solution-focused brief therapy and schema therapy. For example, there are clients that I invite to walk out in the garden with me or clients who I meet outdoors; clients with who I have long discussions and others with who I am more solution-focused; clients with whom I more often use allegories, humour or sketches in our discussions; clients who are introduced to more cognitive strategies and others who are given more behavioural tasks or mindfulness techniques; clients who are advised to carry out their own experiments and clients who are encouraged to keep their own journal; clients who are given books to read and others who are given videos to watch.
Therefore, while clients may not necessarily be aware of it, they profit from my ability to adapt to their needs. I believe this is key to my ability to work successfully with my clients. For them this translates into a smooth experience in therapy while they meet their therapeutic goals. So, when a client comes a few weeks after we start working together and tells me they are doing well but can’t put their finger on what has helped, it makes me happily giggle (inside) every time!
What sort of people do you usually see?
I focus on adults and couples but I occasionally work with adolescents. I see people with all sorts of difficulties such as anxiety, phobias, depression and relationship issues. My clients usually go through a transition phase that requires adjustment such as marriage, divorce, pregnancy, miscarriage, parenthood, redundancy, promotion, illness, bereavement, etc or they are stuck and often in front of a challenging crossroad in their life.
What I do best is helping these people find their answers – in other words, helping them understand why they think, feel and behave the way they do or why they are in their present situation. We then move on to either awaken unused skills or develop new ones that can serve them better so they can progress with their life by improving their current situation, personal effectiveness and eventually their overall quality of life. All my intervention plans are bespoke and tailored to the needs and personal circumstances of each individual.
What do you like about being a therapist?
I feel whole and I like that! A therapeutic relationship is defined and has a contractual agreement. Clients choose me to help them. I know that I am there because I really want to help them and my training and experience equips me well to do so. So we have the same goal, and all I know and all that I am can contribute to this goal. I love this alignment because it feels as if everything falls in place.
When I find myself having very similar conversations to those I have in therapy in social situations, it can be difficult at times to judge where the line lies; i.e., how much do I say and how much do I explain without “sounding like a therapist” while protecting the other person’s self-regard? It is inevitable that my understanding of people’s narratives is different to that of someone with an untrained ear so it takes some effort to balance this out.
So when I work, I feel free!
What is less pleasant?
Sometimes timing isn’t right or the circumstances are not ready for a breakthrough. This requires patience, as well as the ability to accept and go with the flow while witnessing and containing the situation in front of me. This was harder for me in the earlier stages of my career because I was prioritising my wish to help. But I quickly learned that accommodating my client’s rhythms was good practice and a skill in itself that I needed to develop as a therapist. Now I know that the time some things take to develop is as valuable as the breakthrough itself because it prepares the client for the arrival of new concepts, emotions and behaviours and so I’ve learned to embrace it.
How long have you been with welldoing.org and what you think of us?
I believe I was one of the psychologists who registered when welldoing.org was first established and started trading. I remember thinking the name was well chosen; an interesting play on words that echoes the direction in which the world is heading with regards to wellbeing, wellness, etc. The website was also founded by a woman, Louise Chunn, and as an enthusiast of women in business I wanted to support the cause.
From a practical perspective, the clean and friendly web design was attractive and easy to use. And my interactions with people behind the site always felt more personable compared with many other directory sites I have worked with. I guess on a personal level this appealed to me as I also strive for personable service in my clinical practice.
Do you ever suggest books or apps to clients?
Yes…and podcasts and websites and psychoeducational leaflets, images and videos that I’ve developed! I do this all the time, when appropriate and depending on the topic. It’s another way of communicating with clients by which I can introduce new concepts or strengthen information that we discuss during sessions. I have found that people can be receptive to these ways of communicating and so I use them to enhance their therapeutic journey with me.
Personally, I love the creative challenge of finding the right way to pass a message to different clients!
What you do for your own mental health?
I practise everything I preach, so to speak! There is no technique in my repertoire that I have not experimented with so I not only know the evidence that supports every technique but also know first-hand how it feels when one tries to apply it and the obstacles one might come across and how to overcome them. This has proven invaluable in my therapeutic sessions as it helps me have a different insight into my clients’ experiences.
I have always followed my own wellbeing plan but recently I took this to a new level, something that I am so excited about! Drawing inspiration from discussion with others, I used my knowledge and experience to develop a pioneering plan, called “o-p-e-n.” The plan helps people understand how they make decisions that shape their life right now and how they can shift the course of things by designing their week differently and scheduling every day in order to meet their work and life goals. The plan has been trialled by volunteers and myself over the course of four weeks with amazing results. It’s revolutionised my own approach to life!
I have already applied this plan in my therapy sessions with some clients and I am working on an online version that people could do by themselves or with my support, if needed. The idea is to empower people by boosting their personal effectiveness and mental health as they learn how to understand and meet their needs.
You are a therapist in Richmond. What can you share with us about seeing clients in that area?
Besides in-person therapy, I offer online therapy and as a result I work a lot with clients from all over the world. I do also see people who live in Richmond but they are only a part of my workload. Because my clientele is so broad, it’s difficult to find anything common that defines them. In general, they suffer from anxiety, depression, addictions, work-life challenges and relationship difficulties.
What’s your consultation room like?
With its big couch, fireplace and garden-view, my consultation room feels like someone’s living room and if it wasn’t for my desk and library, you might forget you are in a psychologist’s office. On the floor there are usually books and notes about whatever project I am working on at the time and I often have fresh flowers.
The colours are easy on the eye, but this is contrasted by the black furniture, colourful books and my favourite painting The Approaching Man by Edwards. I’ve always seen the painting as symbolic for therapy but none of my clients have commented on this yet! I’m still waiting for that day! My latest decorative addition is Teddy Bear from the Ted movie. He adds a humorous touch to the room.
Overall, it’s unassuming and welcoming. People come in with or without their shoes, they can sit on the couch, on a chair or on the floor, or just move around, and I adjust accordingly. It’s important that they can make use of the space in a way that suits them so they can feel comfortable in it. And it’s important to me to be in an environment where I also feel at ease but also inspired. It is in this setting that the magic happens!
What do you wish people knew about therapy?
I wish people knew how much more we can all stretch ourselves mentally in order to push the limits within our lives and within ourselves. I wish people knew that this is our own responsibility, because we live in a world that hasn’t yet learnt to nurture people to the best of their abilities. I wish people knew how much I admire and look up to those who make the decision to seek therapy because it enables them to awaken their unused assets and develop new ones. I wish people knew that therapy can offer them the chance to make a better life.