November 2017 Potentialista of the Month: Aimee Barr, LCSW
As Seen in HuffPost: Overcoming The Odds At a Young Age Will Give You Problem Solving Skills For Life
How one woman went from hiding her perceived weaknesses and being bullied in school to thriving as an adult and advocating for others to never give up.
Imagine what your childhood would have been like if you had focused on your strengths instead of your weaknesses. At a young age, we learn that if we are struggling with something we need to ask for help; we focus on the things that do not come naturally to us, and try to get better at them. For children with learning disabilities, this means being removed from regular classes. They are taught how to work around their disability and given a support system where they are encouraged to never give up. Although going to her school’s “resource room,” was humiliating for Aimee Barr, a licensed clinical social worker, she refused to let her learning disability hold her back.
From a young age, Barr was determined to help other people like herself. At 16, her first article about understanding those with learning disabilities was published in The Star Ledger. In the article, she shared her experiences and how hard it was to feel “not smart” and “different” in school. Even though she had all of these ideas in her mind, Barr couldn’t organize them. Her modifications were publicly announced and as a result she was bullied. Barr describes this as “the darkest period of [her] life”.
She may not have known it as a teenager when she was publicly sharing her pain, but Barr was on her way to becoming an advocate for others who are frustrated and overwhelmed by their own perceived weaknesses.
Fast forward to today and Barr shares, “I have days where I pinch myself in terms of where I am now. At the time all I wanted was to go to college, and I was told that that might not happen.”
It is an honor to be able to share this incredible woman’s journey of resilience and determination.
What is an example of an interaction with a teacher or something that was disclosed about your disability that particularly affected you?
When I was in 8th grade, I would lie about where I was going for a class because I didn’t want people to see that I was going to what was called “the resource room.” I remember taking a different stairway or making things up. Of course, it always comes out. I felt ashamed for being different and not learning things the same way everyone else did. It’s so interesting because it was such a big part of my life back then, but now I really honor the fact that I see things differently. Sometimes I have someone look over my writing to see if things are reversed, but I’m not embarrassed by it. I think because I had to work through those years of struggle, I never give up, even where others would walk away. I am not afraid of hard work.
The thing that I am hearing you say is that no matter how your learning disability affected you in the past, it does not have to define your future. We talked a little bit about your experience in school - how do you think you were able to change your story by reframing it for yourself so it would be empowering.
I believe that you need to apply the skills you use with clients to your own life. The number one thing I recommend to people is self-awareness. For example, my sense of direction is terrible, but I always leave myself a lot of extra time to get where I need to be. What I find is that people are always complimenting me for being “right on time”. Every time this happens, I think to myself, “Yeah, that is because I leave a ton of extra time because my spatial relations are not so great.” Rather than letting it take over, I keep a sense of humor about it, adapt, and use my resources. I am a mess with maps and directions. Luckily, Google Maps will read directions to me and I can listen to them on my headphones. Over time, I have learned to appreciate myself as I am and take responsibility for the things that could be perceived as weaknesses. I could get really frustrated but instead I focus on the things I am really great at. I am a terrific listener and my auditory memory is excellent. Because things weren’t ideal when I was younger, it forced me to learn about myself and do a lot of personal assessment at a time when other people my age weren’t doing that. Now I have a ton of information about who I am, whereas many of my clients are just now asking themselves “What do I really want to do?” and “Who do I really want to become?”
"From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to be a therapist because I loved to piece things together and bring kindness to situations."
It sounds like you have a lot of self-compassion too.
Totally; you have to! We’re all just doing the best that we can, and we have to work with what we have. Things that I used to see as detriments, I now see as strengths. Learning that there is more than one way to do things was a hard lesson, especially because I wanted to fit in and learn the same way that everyone else did. Now, I celebrate it! I have a great business and I love being able to incorporate things like astrology and neurolinguistics, among other tools, into my practice. I have come to realize that I am not defined by any one thing. I recognize that is true for my clients as well so it is important for me to bring in different modalities.
I think so often a lot of people try to fit into a box and they find that they aren’t happy or fulfilled. Do you think that is a point at which people come to work with you or at what point in realizing that we are all different as individuals do you think people decide to seek help in figuring it out?
I think that people have to get tired of their problem. This can mean different things from, “I am fed up” to feeling “helpless.” If I had to really quantify it, it would be, “I am tired of the same repetitive experience that keeps happening over and over again and I want change.” Sometimes it takes being in real crisis. Some of us have the capacity to endure really bad situations for much longer than we need to, while others say, “You know, I just really don’t like this and I can either sit with it or go get help.”
I have worked with some of my clients for years because they want to have the weekly check ins whereas others just want to get through a rough spot and then they will move on. Other times clients return for something totally different.
I love that you mentioned working with people on a regular basis for a long period of time and also having short term clients. We all have things come up that we might need help to get through. I think a lot of times people might have the misconception that once you are in therapy, you are in therapy forever and there is no endpoint where you “get better” or feel better. What is your philosophy on working with people and helping them through these challenges and turning them into opportunities?
I think we always have to work on mental health, especially in a city like New York where there is a lot of toxicity and always an abundance of things going on. The main things I focus on with clients are self-awareness and acceptance. With the self-awareness piece, I want people to understand who they are at their core. I also want people to understand what has held them back from embracing who they are (family, attachment style, trauma, etc.), as knowing who you are is just as important as knowing what holds you back.
The second part is acceptance, which is ultimately at the root of everything: How can we work with what we have? Acceptance doesn’t have to mean loving or even liking something, but it does mean that you are willing to take it in and acknowledge it, what other choice do we have? You can either have fun with something or fight it, it’s all about how you use your energy.
The beauty of awareness is that we are always growing and evolving and we can always deepen our skills. Internal thoughts can often feel stagnant. There is something very healing about saying them out loud; this is the beauty of therapy. Sharing with an objective party who sees you differently than anyone else in your life does is very freeing.
It can be so overwhelming sometimes for someone who isn’t a mental health practitioner or who doesn’t have a background in healthcare to find someone to talk to who they connect with. Do you have any insight into how someone who wants to talk to a therapist can go about finding the right person?
Yes I do! This is such a good question because the therapist-patient relationship is very intimate so you want to be thoughtful and approach it with care. I always recommend speaking to someone on the phone first and speaking with multiple people, noting who feels right. You also need to determine what is most important to you; location, cost, and expertise are a few of the most common search criteria. Word of mouth is very useful and while you may not want to see the same therapist as someone close to you, friends or family (or their therapists) can often recommend a therapist who specializes in what you need. Psychology Today is also a wonderful resource; a lot of my clients find me there.
One barrier to getting therapy can be cost. On my website I have some great questions you can ask about reimbursement. If you find someone you would love to work with but they are out of your price range, ask if they have a sliding scale or inquire about off-hour appointments when they might be willing to charge a lesser fee. You can also say something like, “I really like your orientation and approach, can you recommend someone like you who doesn’t have as much experience, but has the same orientation and insight?”
You have been in private practice for 4 years and you made the leap to full time private practice a year and a half ago. Congratulations! As a female entrepreneur, what do you think has been the biggest benefit and the biggest obstacle you had to overcome when taking that leap from employee to business owner?
The biggest benefit is the flexibility; from scheduling (if I want to take a gym class in the middle of the day, I can) to being able to incorporate different modalities, like art, into my practice.
The flip side is that it can be isolating at times. Luckily I have great friends who are also practitioners and we often meet for lunch, share our experiences, and brainstorm about our work.
You spend your days giving so much to others to help them heal. How do you recharge at the end of the day so you can wake up every morning and be ready to help the next person?
It is so important to have balance in your life and I wholeheartedly believe in practicing self-care. I exercise 5 days a week, see an acupuncturist, and spend time with all the wonderful people in my life, my “tribe,” so to speak. I also make a point to take vacation. Taking time away was really hard for me at first. It sounds funny, but after working jobs for so many years where you are only allotted a few weeks of vacation per year, I realized I was only using my vacation time for weddings or family events. I am just about to embark on my fourth actual vacation this year; I was never able to do that before.
It is important for me to live the life that I am helping my clients achieve: a life that is full of freedom and choices. I have to walk the walk.
What does the future hold for you and your business?
I have been studying astrology independently since 2007, but recently began formalized training. I would really like to bring this work into my practice. I also consider myself spiritual and I believe that we can learn a lot about ourselves by going into this dimension. Beyond that, I am very open and it totally scares me, but I think what is really important for every entrepreneur is surrounding yourself with the right people.
For more tips and resources available to help you overcome the odds in your life click here.