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Featured Therapist for July, Virginia Mittnacht

Every month, Council for Relationships features one of our staff therapists. This month’s Featured Therapist is Virginia Mittnacht, LSW. Learn more about her in the below interview!

What makes you unique as a therapist and as a person?

It sounds simple, but I genuinely love connecting with people and their stories. I receive my fuel from outdoor summer dinners with my friends, river walks with my parents and dogs, catch-ups over coffee (or Zoom hangouts, as of late) with past and present coworkers, phone calls and reunions with professors and mentors – my relationships and opportunities to meet and connect with others have always been key pieces of who I am. I’m also someone who feels a strong connection to “place” and the places that have shaped me throughout my life. I’m a Jersey girl, born and bred. I love the outdoors, the Green Mountains, farms, and good cheese from my college days in Vermont. I’m an avid walker and explorer of city streets from a prior life in New York and in my current home of Philadelphia. People and places. It’s as simple – and as complex – as that! I’ve found my life’s work in therapy because I am awarded the opportunity to learn about people, their stories, and their places every day. I feel so lucky.

How would your clients describe you?

I’d like to think that my clients would describe me as approachable and genuine. I think being a good therapist for my clients means always bringing warmth, kindness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness to our space. I also try to approach my work from the understanding that our relationship is reciprocal and collaborative, which means that I bring “me” into the fold too. Building trust together means being authentic together.

I recently read an interview with adolescent psychologist Madeline Levine in which she said, “in order to be an adolescent therapist, you have to really like teenagers, and you have to have a pretty good relationship with your own adolescent self.” I love tapping into my adolescent and young self. I try to stay “up-to-date” with music, shows, culture, TikTok trends, popular online games…and inevitably, when I learn that I am “behind” (such as learning that my side hair part is “out” and that I apparently need to retire my skinny jeans), my clients teach me, which is always the goal. They are the experts on their lives, and I think it’s a profound privilege to be invited into their worlds.

Who is your ideal client? Describe the issues with which you work best.

I really enjoy working with older children, adolescents, and young adults who are experiencing mental health challenges. I recognize the unique stressors and pressures that kids and young people face in their school, social, family, and online spaces – they’re really at the mercy of it all. I feel it is my responsibility and my privilege to work collaboratively with my clients to cultivate a safe and affirming space through which they can make sense of and navigate their worlds in ways that are healthy and positive.

I connect well to young people who are experiencing anxiety, depression, adjustment disorders, self-esteem and self-identity concerns, life and role transitions, sexuality and intimacy issues, and grief and loss. I feel great joy and honor in supporting young clients in their journeys of self-exploration and discovery and, through this process, their ability to bring genuine and positive change to their lives.

Describe a useful tool or exercise that you like to share with clients.

I’m a huge fan of Dr. Dawn Heubner and her clinical expertise on anxiety in children. I teach her conceptualization of “Worry” with an upper-case W to most of my clients. Worry, she says, can be thought of as an external, personified “creature” that tells us how to feel and think in times of perceived danger or threat. Sometimes, it can be a “bully in the brain” that bosses us around and makes us feel scared and fearful of our worlds, or sets off “false” smoke alarms, even when there isn’t a fire. We discuss ways to talk back to our “Worry creatures” or bullies and take ownership over our experiences. I think it brings playfulness and imagination, and thus more approachability, to the oftentimes debilitating and overwhelming experience of anxiety or depression. It can be both empowering and liberating to separate our symptoms from ourselves and to own our identity as the force that can bring change to our mental and physical circumstances.

Early in my therapy practice I made a misguided assumption that the Worry tool would only resonate with my child clients, given its playful and whimsical nature, but it’s clear to me now, through practice, that this concept resonates with all my clients – from eight to 28. We all have “Worry bullies”!

What is one piece of advice you would like to give people who may be struggling emotionally and would like to seek counseling but may not be ready?

In the therapy world, we say this often, but it bears repeating – it’s ok to not be ok. In fact, I strongly believe that accepting and embracing the range of emotions we experience is essential to leading a life that is healthy and honest. It’s important to validate all the emotions – desirable and undesirable – that shape our mental and physical spaces. When you’re ready, therapy can be a place of validation for you. If you face barriers in finding a therapist – because the process can be confusing and daunting – know that you can lean on those in health care, and certainly those in the therapy community, to help guide you. If you need help along the way, the CFR community and I are here to be of support. You are not alone.

Virginia Mittnacht, LSW is a Staff Therapist at our Center City and University City Offices in Philadelphia, PA; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at vmittnacht@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 7007.