Q + A with Sally Brown: Agony Aunt for Healthista
How did you get a job as an agony aunt?
I was approached by Anna Magee, the brains behind the dynamic wellbeing channel Healthista.com. She was looking for an agony aunt and heard on the grapevine that I had retrained as a psychotherapist (I have also been a journalist for a long time). We called the column ‘Ask Sally’, and we aim to post a new question every other Wednesday.
Who is Healthista for?
Healthista, the women’s health and wellbeing channel, is a source of health advice, products, discussion, along with insights from doctors, nutritionists, personal trainers, and psychologists and real women’s health experiences. It started around three years ago and has just undergone a major relaunch and redesign with the backing of Touker Suleyman of Dragon’s Den fame.
Do you think you have any special qualities that make you a good choice for advice?
I grew up with very low self-esteem and made some unwise life choices as a result. It wasn’t until I started training as a therapist and went into therapy myself for two years that I learned to accept myself, and to become self-compassionate rather than critical. I know how easy it is for life to go off the rails, but I have also experienced how change is possible and that you can turn your life around and become your ‘best self.’
Do you believe agony aunts should be qualified in any specific way?
I trained as a psychodynamic psychotherapist which immerses you in developmental psychology and relationship dynamics, so I know what ‘red flags’ to look out for in relationships. I have also done training in CBT and therapeutic coaching which helps you recognise unhelpful thinking patterns and self-sabotage. But to make the columns interesting to read, I have to say things that I would never say in the therapy room, and be far more directive, so in many ways, there is a conflict between my professional persona and me as ‘agony aunt’. And my two favourite agony aunts are both writers with no psychological qualifications – Heather Havrilesky, who writes the very funny and straight-talking Ask Polly column for the New York Times’ The Cut magazine; and Cheryl Strayed who writes the remarkable Dear Sugar for Rumpus.net. I think the most important attributes are compassion and curiosity.
What else do you do?
I am in private practice as a therapist (therapythatworks.co.uk) which takes up around 20 hours a week. You can view my welldoing.org profile here. I’m also on the executive committee of BACP Coaching, working to raise the profile of therapists who coach. I also work as a freelance journalist, specialising in psychological and emotional health. Among other commissions, I write news features for Therapy Today, the journal of the BACP, and I compile the monthly ‘psychological tests’ for Psychologies magazine. In my spare time, I try to coax my teenage children to step away from their screens.
Are there any problems that come up more often?
The typical Healthista readership is in her late 20s and 30s, so relationship issues, and decisions around commitment and having children come up a lot. But there is also a theme of being overwhelmed – one of the post popular questions recently was ‘Am I having a nervous breakdown?’
Is therapy or counselling something often suggested?
Of course, I think everyone should be in therapy! But I know it’s not always easy to find the right therapist and not everyone can afford it.
Do you ever suggest using apps?
Occasionally, usually Headspace, which I use myself, or Pacifica, which helps you overcome unhelpful thought patterns and is based on CBT.
What about self-help books? Which ones?
I have had read hundreds of self-help books and happily recommend them. I read a lot of fiction but I always have either a therapy textbook or a self-help book on the go as well. The best ones are like having a conversation with your wisest friend. At the moment, I have Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy on my bedside table, but I am not sure what I make of it yet! One of my all-time favourites is Dr Carol Dweck’s Mindset – The New Psychology of Success. It changed my whole relationship with failure. I also regularly re-read Jon Kabat Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living – it is so soothing and reassuring. Other top choices include Marianne Williamson’s iconic A Return to Love, the source of the famous quote often misattributed to Nelson Mandela – ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us’; and What’s Stopping You? Why Smart People Don’t Always Reach Their Potential and How You Can by executive coach Robert Kelsey, which looks at our capacity to self-sabotage and how insidious low self-esteem can be. At a point in my life when I felt frustrated, I also got a lot out of The Reality Slap, by GP-turned therapist Dr Russ Harris, based on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) about how to find fulfilment even when you can’t get what you want.
Do you think women are more likely than men to turn to an agony aunt for advice?
From my experience, I would say yes. They’re also more likely to go for counselling. I think culturally, men are still brought up to see seeking help for emotional problems as a sign of weakness. But we have had some high-profile men talk openly recently about seeing a therapist, like Prince Harry, so I am hopeful that change is happening.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’m actually very bad at taking advice and accepting help in general. It’s been something I have had to work on and is still a work in progress. My natural tendency is to internalise problems and try to work them out myself. But my husband has a very different approach to life from me and I have come to value his insight and his more pragmatic perspective.
Do you think advice can be generation-neutral?
I think the best advice is bespoke to the individual. I constantly come across generational differences in my practice, particularly in regard to sex and relationships. I am wary of applying my code of ethics to someone from another generation.
Does any time of year bring more letters or emails?
The busiest times of year tend to be (not surprisingly) New Year, when people tend to think big picture and feel motivated to make changes, and September, when people have that ‘back to school’ feeling of wanting things to be different.
In the two years since you became an agony aunt, how do you think readers’ problems have changed?
I haven’t seen any changes in the time I have been an agony aunt but I am seeing changes in the problems I’m seeing in my private practice, specifically an increase in anxiety, social anxiety and OCD-related problems, particularly among digital natives. It would be easy to attribute this to social media and digital life in general, but this generation is also very clued-up about emotional health and it may be that they are simply more proactive about seeking help than previous generations.