“People are the experts on their own lives:” A Conversation with Michael Silverstein, Ph.D.

By Elizabeth Helen Spencer

Michael Silverstein, PhD
Michael Silverstein, PhD

Clients who walk into Dr. Michael Silverstein’s office are sure to feel accepted and understood. In our interview, I was struck by his openness and the wealth of knowledge and experience he brings to his work. If there’s a single attribute that quickly comes across, it’s “non-judgmental.” Dr. Silverstein considers all sides of any situation, as well as many possible solutions, without criticism or opinions about the “right” thing to do so much as what will help his clients feel better and achieve a positive outcome.

Dr. Silverstein supports and encourages clients to explore their goals and how to reach them. Decades after working with his first clients during his early training, he still experiences joy and excitement in his work, approaching each new case with curiosity and enthusiasm. He finds it both rewarding and energizing to help people reduce suffering and achieve their dreams.

Read on to learn more about Dr. Silverstein’s expertise and approach to counseling.

What drew you to the field of psychology?

Reading Freud and watching Woody Allen films made me interested in psychology from a young age. I felt that becoming a therapist was a calling and that my personality suits the job. I’ve always offered emotional support to the people around me, helping them feel better about themselves and figure out how to get what they want out of life. The first time I conducted a therapy session as a young trainee, I felt like I would do it for free! Over the years I continue to enjoy and feel passionate about what I do. Each new client provides the opportunity to learn about, connect with and help another unique human being — what could be more interesting or rewarding than that?

How would you describe your style?

I practice Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and various offshoots that are collectively referred to as “third wave CBT.” These include theories such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Gottman Method Couples Therapy would fit into this category as well. I’m always looking for research-supported, “evidence based” methods of change. In conversation I try to balance validation with gentle confrontation and encouragement to do things differently. I always try to keep in mind that whomever I’m working with, whether an individual or couple, is part of a larger system, and that this context defines and shapes their behaviors. I also like to find out what’s already been helpful or worked in the past, and encourage clients to find ways to apply that to their current situations or problems.

Let’s look at substance abuse as an example. Someone may have started drinking for a variety of reasons, for instance to feel good and have fun, to relieve anxiety in social situations, to reduce depression or to otherwise cope with a difficult situation or unpleasant mood state. However, over time they find that alcohol no longer works as an effective coping mechanism, and is also causing more and more problems in its own right. With encouragement, clients can then increase their awareness of the situational cues and triggers for drinking, develop more effective ways to cope and make conscious choices about how to react or respond to stressors.

What should a new client expect the first session?

I need to collect a lot of information in the first session, so there’s a brief questionnaire for clients to fill out, and I’ll ask about their family, health, educational, occupational, medical, developmental and relationship history.

Then we talk about why they’re coming to see me — what problems they’re experiencing and what obstacles are in the way of solving those problems. I want to help my clients clarify their goals in the first session, find out what’s helping or hindering their attempts to reach those goals, and orient them to the structure and methods that we will be using.

In other words, we set a plan for how to work together. I view the people who come to me as experts about their own lives, knowing themselves and their environment better than I ever can. My role is to provide a safe place in which clients can learn new coping skills and discover how they can best handle the problems and challenges in their lives. Above all, the first session is a mutual evaluation. As much as I’m learning about my client, they are learning about me and determining if we’re a good “fit”.

What are your areas of specialization?

I have a lot of experience with undergraduate and graduate students at college mental health centers, providing individual, couples and group therapy. I have also been in part-time private practice for over 20 years, where I see adult individuals and couples. Areas in which I have specialized training include anxiety disorders, drug & alcohol treatment, LGBTQIAA issues, and men’s issues involving career, relationships and fathering.

Are there any issues you don’t feel comfortable treating?

Eating disorders and working with children. If I don’t feel comfortable or that I have the expertise to treat a particular problem or work with a particular population, I readily refer out to colleagues.

What is your availability like?

I’m currently available on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I can also schedule marathon couples counseling sessions on weekends with enough advance planning. Otherwise, I work full-time at Rowan University Counseling and Psychological Services, where I am an assistant director, co-coordinator of training services, and coordinator of the trauma response team.

What kind of training do you have?

I’m a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with MA degrees in Counseling and Clinical Psychology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. I’m also trained in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, The Gottman Method Couples Therapy, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing. I am nationally certified by the American Psychological Association in the Treatment of Alcohol and Other Psychoactive Substance Use Disorders.

How long have you been doing therapy?

I have over almost thirty years of experience as a therapist.

What do you do to make sure people from diverse backgrounds or minority populations feel comfortable?

I approach therapy with the belief that clients are the experts about their own lives. While I don’t want to assume cultural or other differences between a client and me will get in the way of treatment, those differences will always have some impact or influence on how we work together. Part of my role is to create a space where differences can be discussed and clients will feel safe and comfortable telling me what they need and whether my attitudes, beliefs and behaviors in session are helping or hindering our work together. Of course, I also make sure to research and learn about cultures and cultural norms with which I am not yet familiar.

Learn more about Michael E. Silverstein, Ph.D.

Visit Dr. Silverstein’s bio to learn more about him. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Silverstein, or for more information, please fill out this use this link to schedule a phone consultation or call the office at 610-642-3359 X2.