Above: Mary and her dog Sammy
Below: Sammy right after a haircut
Author, Psychotherapist, M.S.W, R.S.W
MARY K. ARMSTRONG spent her working life as a social work psychotherapist, specializing in psychological trauma. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from the School of Social Work, University of Toronto, and has trained extensively in the techniques of Focusing and EMDR. Now retired, Mary lives in Kingston, Ontario.
I grew up in southwestern Ontario and went to Toronto to study Modern Languages and Literature in a four year honour course at the University of Toronto. In my last year, I married Harvey Armstrong who was a second-year medical student. I taught high school English and later worked for a literary agency before we moved to Labrador where Harvey opened his first medical practice.
Around this time, I was becoming increasingly interested in yoga. When we returned to Toronto, I entered a period of my life when I studied the ancient practice of yoga intensively and finally became a yoga teacher. We have one child, our son Frank, who was born in 1969. As he grew more independent, I was ready to take on a new challenge. Reflecting on my future, I realized that a really satisfying part of my work was the ad hoc counselling I did before and after yoga classes. My training in yoga stressed psychological growth as a necessary adjunct to spiritual wellbeing. Much of the emphasis was on personal growth and maturity.
I looked around for training which would prepare me to be effective in helping people change their lives. I had been studying eastern psychology and philosophy. Now I needed to study western psychology. I chose the Masters programme at the University of Toronto’s School of Social Work. There I studied individual, couple, family and group psychology. This was between 1978 and 1980. When I graduated, I set up my private practice with a large room for yoga and a small space for counselling.
This was around the time I became aware of the philosophy and psychology of Dr. Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago. I had been looking for a way to integrate what I knew about eastern philosophy and psychology with western psychology. I found this rich fusion in Gendlin’s Focusing which is an “inner yoga” and also psychologically sound in terms of western psychology. Dr. Gendlin became my psychological mentor.
In time, I opened The Centre For Focusing. My mission was to train others to use Focusing for their own personal growth, to train therapists to use it in their work and perhaps most important, to assure Toronto of an ongoing supply of qualified Focusing teachers. Having fulfilled this vision, I closed The Centre in 2000 to concentrate on my psychotherapy practice.
How I View Psychotherapy
For 30 years, I practiced as a client-centred psychotherapist. That means that the client and I entered into a partnership to address the issues they brought to therapy. My belief is that the client knows the origin of the problem and where the healing lies. My role as a therapist was to help clients move past the blocks which keep them from accessing their own knowing.
The purpose of therapy is to improve the quality of life. To this end, the client and I explored together what stands in the client’s way and sought to change the way this impacts on the client. Often, changes cannot be made in the external world. However, we can almost always change the way we carry an issue within ourselves.
Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy was my main approach to therapy. In this work, clients learn to listen to their own wisdom and end up having these skills to use for the rest of their lives. Focusing accesses our deeper wisdom, giving access to information which is not available at our usual level of awareness.
I have now closed my practice.
Training and Education
I started out by earning my Master of Social Work at the University of Toronto. I have spent many years studying Dr. Eugene Gendlin’s Rogerian based Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy. The old therapies worked slowly and laboriously. The therapist took a detailed history, made an assessment of the problem and interpreted the client’s statements. Most newer therapies such as Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy, do not give advice or decide what the problem is or what the client’s words and actions mean. Rather, the therapist helps the client in arriving at these conclusions experientially.
I trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). I highly recommend this approach with trauma, phobias and other problems which do not make sense to the adult mind, but nevertheless make life embarrassing or painful with their power and persistence. EMDR is a new, so-called power therapy which can change the way you hold traumatic events. With this new technique, we can often do in half a dozen sessions what the older type of therapies would have taken years to accomplish – if they had succeeded in even touching what was stored in the brain as trauma.
In 2015, being retired, I moved to Kingston, Ontario. I now live close to family, overlooking beautiful Lake Ontario.
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