6: On Being a Counselor and Pro Blogger (Michael J. Formica)

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Hi! Welcome to Session 6 of the Selling the Couch Podcast.  

My guest today is Michael Formica.  Michael's a board certified counselor, life coach, and regular columnist for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today where he writes about the intersection of psychology and spirituality. 

I wanted to bring Michael on the podcast to discuss how to make peace with perfectionism that most of us experience when we start something new (like a private practice), some tips on improving creativity, and how you can get started blogging for larger publications.

In this episode, you’ll learn to:

  • Let go of perfectionism and take action.
  • A powerful exercise to improve creativity
  • How to find guest blogging opportunities with larger blogs and publications.
  • Michael's tips and resources to become a better writer.  


Michael's Main Website 

Michael's Huffington Post Column

Michael's Psychology Today Column

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I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Michael J. Formica on perfection, the creative process, and guest blogging for larger publications.

I would be grateful if you could share it using the social media buttons on this page. 

Finally, please Subscribe and leave a honest Rating and Review for the Selling the Couch podcast on iTunes.  It takes just a few minutes.

My dream is that this podcast reaches every new, current, and aspiring mental health private practitioner, and subscriptions and 5 star ratings and positive reviews help to make that dream a reality. 

Michael, thank you again for joining me.  I felt like we could have spoken for another hour. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. 

Until next time!


Intro: Welcome to The Selling the Couch Podcast, where our goal is to help you achieve your counseling private practice dreams, and now the man who’d probably be best friends with the guys from Big Bang Theory, psychologist, and podcaster Melvin Varghese.

Melvin: Oh, man I think I would totally be friends with those guys from Big Bang Theory, although probably not Sheldon, he’s a little bit too strange for me, but yeah, probably hanging out. Anyway, what’s up everyone? Welcome to today’s episode of The Selling the Couch Podcast. Hope you’re having a great week. So one of the things that I have been thinking about this week is, you know how if you look at certain major blogs like The Psychology Today or Psych Central or Huffington Post, or some of the other bigger blogs like Marc and Angel, or The Good Men Project, any of these blogs. Sometime you’ll notice that there are therapists who are actually guest blogging on those various different blogs. 

The question that I’ve been asking myself recently is how are these folks getting on there? Do you just go up to the Huffington Post and say, “Hi, I’m interested in blogging, and I’d like to apply.” How does that whole process work? So it just got me curious, and that was the reason why I reached out to today’s guest, who is Michael Formica. Michael is a therapist and also a regular columnist for both Psychology Today and The Huffington post. Michael and I are going to be talking about several things. One of the first things that we’re going to be talking about is some of the things that Michael is actually been able to do in his own  journey as a blogger, and how it’s allowed him to reach people in populations that he’s never even thought he would be able to. 

We also talk about this own creative process in blogging. We talk about this idea of perfectionism and I think this is a common struggle for any of us that are starting in any kind of small business, right? Especially like a private practice. We want to have everything just perfect. And we are often scared to get started until that everything is just perfectly lined up. So we talk about this idea of fear and perfectionism, and some of the very practical things that Michael does on a daily basis to be able to overcome some of those tendencies, and when he notices those things. And then we get kind of into the more nitty-gritty things of guest blogging, and blogging just in general. So Michael is going to be talking about it. And we spend some time sharing how to even get on to some of these larger publications and the places, and the resources that he uses in his own writing process.

By the end of this conversation, I think I want you to start to think about this conversation. One is how can I start perhaps trying to reach a larger audience, especially if I’m trying to do a blog? And what are some of the things and what are some of the actions that I can take today as I listen to this podcast to get that started? So here is my conversation with Michael Formica. Hey Michael, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Michael: Thank you so much Melvin for having me. I truly appreciate it.

Melvin: One of the things I wanted to bring you on was one, because of your experience. I also really like the blogging component, because I think that’s such a good component and an essential component in this day and age.

Michael: Yeah, thanks for that. Yeah, it really is, because we are in such an interesting time where we need to create a public persona even if we’re not a public figure, and that includes generating content that’s going to sort of define us to the people who are looking for services, or trying to figure out their own path. Also to help them find their direction by virtue of maybe reflection, and things of that nature.

Melvin: Yeah, it’s really interesting, that idea of the public persona, and definitely I want to pick your brain about that. But before we get started on that part, one of the things when I have therapist on I love to ask them either a quote or a mantra that has been a guiding force in their lives, especially on their private practice journey. What would that be for you?

Michael: For me I would say ‘too pure water has no fish,’ which is a quote from the Buddha. And it seems like it’s a very gentle quote, but it actually speaks to a monumental act of courage. One of our greatest challenges both as people and professionals is to release our drive to perfectionism. And contrary to our expectations, that drive can actually be a significant obstacle to our self development. 

So cultivating the humility and the grace to say, “I don’t know” or “I need help” releases us from that tyranny, and it allows us the courage to embrace our imperfection. And when we realize that imperfection, it leads us to our vulnerability, what the Buddhist tradition calls the heart of sorrow. What I’m really talking about here is the ego self. Sort of the I, me, mine of egocentricity, and clinging to our perfection. And our perfectionism actually keeps us away from our authentic self.

Melvin: Yeah, it’s such a valuable quote. And I think it’s such valuable tips for someone especially that starting out in private practice. Because I imagine for most people that sense of wanting to get the private practice component just right before they launch, that’s very real I would imagine.

Michael: Yeah. I think it’s something that we all struggle with, and especially when you’ve taken the steps toward creating something from nothing virtually, you want to get it just right. And getting to a place where you realize there is no just right, there’s this much is enough. It’s very freeing.

Melvin: Yeah. The other thing I hear you say is that in a way, when you let go of the perfectionism it releases– just releasing the perfectionism also allows the creativity that’s in all of us to kind of emerge.

Michael: Absolutely, absolutely. I think one of the interesting things about creativity in any space is– in neural biology, we talk about the default mode for the brain which is basically where you’re just being. You're just sitting, you're finding the silence, and you're not getting all caught up in this or that or the other thing. And that’s when we’re at our most creative.

Melvin: What are some of the things that you do, like on a daily basis to be able to release that creativity, and to be able to hold that drive to perfectionism?

Michael: I do sort of a combination of things. I do mindfulness practice, and I also do something I like to call Michael Angeloing. There’s a story about Michael Angelo when he was creating The David and he would sit in his studio for apparently months. And he was sitting in front of this gigantic block of marble, and eventually his patrons came to him and said, “We understand that you stopped working.” And he would say, “I haven’t stopped working at all.” And he would sit there every day with maybe with his little glass of wine and his bread, and he would just look at this big piece of marble. And eventual what emerged was The David. 

And the idea here is– again it goes back to that idea of creating mental space and spiritual space to find what’s right in front of us. So what I do is I combine that sort of release with mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a very hot topic, and has been very-very influential in our profession ever since Jon Kabat-Zinn brought it to us, but it’s really not a big deal. Mindfulness is about being present. It’s about being right where you are with what you have.

Melvin: It’s not as complicated as sometimes we can make it.

Michael: Right, exactly. My favorite mindfulness practice is cleaning the kitchen.

Melvin: What is it about that that you feel the most mindful in?

Michael: It’s a combination of things. There’s a sense of order that gets created. There’s a sense of accomplishing something. There’s mindlessness to it. And so far as you are just cleaning the counter or washing the dishes, or washing the floor, so whatever happens to be. It creates this balance of focus and release. When you do that, amazing things start to happen. Very often when I write, I will keep my laptop on the island. And while I’m cleaning and percolating or whatever we want to say, I would go to whatever I’m working on and add things. You know, create as I go. So that’s sort of an active application of that combination of mindfulness, and again I call it Michael Angeloing.

Melvin: Yeah. It’s fascinating because I was just thinking like for me, I feel like some of my best ideas come like when I’m in the shower, and just being fully aware of that experience.

Michael: Right, exactly, exactly.

Melvin: How does that idea of being quiet or quieting the mind, how does that inform you as a private practitioner?

Michael: That’s a really great question. I have a professional perspective that when a therapist or counselor or a coach brings an agenda into the consulting room, it creates a certain degree of obstacle to the process. So quieting the mind – we can call it allowing, I like to call it holding space – allows you to simply be in that process. I like to think of it as psychodynamic kung-fu.

Melvin: I like that.

Michael: In karate you move in a straight line, but in kung fu you adapt, and then flow like water. So not getting attached, not clinging, not sticking to a certain idea or a certain ethic, and just allowing the client their space to be where they are so that you can be with them, that’s how it informs my practice.

Melvin: It’s really interesting. So it’s like even if the client comes in with an agenda or you notice you have an agenda, it’s sort of holding that, and just being fully present in that moment and see what emerges.

Michael: Right, right.

Melvin: That’s really– you know as we’re talking about this I was just thinking, I think when folks are getting started with their private practice right, some of the things that emerge are usually fear or insecurity or anxiety. What tips or what advice would you give to someone that has those feelings emerging, and how would you approach that kind of from a mindfulness perspective?

Michael: Interesting that you should ask that question. I actually wrote a blog about this several years ago. Chögyam Trungpa is a Tibetan Buddhist teacher; he actually was a perma [ph] children’s teacher. And he tells this story when he was a novice that he was travelling with his master, and a group of other novices, and they were going to a temple. And as they approached the temple gate, they noticed that there was a dog chained to the gate. It’s actually quite common, and so as they came closer the dog ran at them very ferociously, and it broke its chain. And it was coming at them. Now these temple dogs in Tibet are gigantic. They are like the size of a mastiff or a Bernese mountain dog…

Melvin: Oh my gosh! Very large.

Michael: Very large. So they all started to run away, and Trungpa said he turned and looked over his shoulder, and his master was running at the dog. What happened was the master and the dog met. And the dog simply lay down, and started wagging its tail. Then got up, turned around, went back to the gate, and all the novices came back, and then they all just passed through the gate. The lesson there is run at the dog, run at the fire. What that means is when you run at your fear, when you confront it authentically and honestly and you say, “Okay, I’m anxious about this. I’m fearful about this,” whatever it happens to be, then it gives you that opportunity to embrace the courage that we were talking about previously.

Melvin: One of the things that you said earlier was this idea of the public persona just shifting a little bit, and tell us a little bit more about that. 

Michael: Sure.

Melvin: Like what have you done to create kind of your own public persona as a professional?

Michael: Mostly I’ve done it through my writing. I have a very particular perspective, and I guess that’s something different than an agenda, hopefully. And that perspective is the intersection of psychology and spirituality. So what I’ve done is come to a very consistent way of talking about different things, and creating a context. We hear a lot about finding a niche and creating a specialty, and things of that nature. I believe what’s more important than that is to create a context for ourselves, because our context is driven by our vision. And once we figure out what our vision is, we can start to weave a fabric, and create a point of reference for ourselves. 

When I first started to write for Psychology Today on the intersection of psychology and spirituality because that’s exactly what they approached me to write about, what I did is I took the opportunity to institutionalize a lot of the ideas that I’d been working with in the consulting room for years. So if you look at my blog on Psychology Today and more recently the Huffington post, what you’ll is those hundreds of articles that are out there are a collection of  threads. And they do in fact weave themselves into this kind of fabric that I’m talking about, that’s context. And so what happens is my context, the context I’ve created for myself– and everyone’s context is different – it constitutes a proportion of my world view, and then it includes talking points that I come back to again and again.

You’ve already heard bits and pieces of it here. Courage and perfection, compassion, digging deep, peeling back layers, the authentic self, egocentricity, and that’s a very specific thing that has to do with the integral model of psychology. Egocentricity, ethnocentricity, geocentricity, super centric perspectives. And that’s all tied up with social, emotional, and spiritual intelligence. As a matter of fact my fiancé’s kids call me the Buddha. That their nickname for me.

Melvin: Michael I can just tell just hearing your voice how much the essence of who you are and what you believe, how that informs everything that you do.

Michael: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Melvin: One of the things I was also wondering is your writing has been such a big part of your life now. I wanted to ask because this whole are of blogging, we’re talking about this right before we started the actual interview. This whole area of blogging; its emerging, the first the question is what advice or what tips would you give to somebody that’s wanting to start blogging about mental health, and especially in the context of if it’s like a private practitioner that also wants to have a practice, but also blog as well.

Michael: I think that a blog can be treated in a number of different ways. Some people see it as a journalistic tool, and others see it as a marketing tool. And I’m sure there are other perspectives that one can take. Personally I see it as a container for developing ideas. And this  goes back to what we were just talking about, about creating that context, and developing a point of  reference and a perspective based on what we believe, and how that influences the way that we relate to the world, to our significant social connections, to our clients whatever and whomever it happens to be. And treated that way, a blog can be a path towards finding your organic voice. And finding that voice is crucial to defining who you are both as a person and a professional, so I would say, think about what you want to say and how you want to say it, and then don’t be afraid.

Melvin: To be you I think.

Michael: Exactly, because I mean make no mistake, expressing your ideas in a public forum is a pretty scary proposition, but it goes back to that notion of courage that we were talking about. It's sort of a willingness to be vulnerable to say, “Okay this is what I think about this thing, and this is how I see it, and I want to deliver it to you and it's a gift, here you go.”

Melvin: Yeah it's almost coming from a place of honor and sort of reverence to the reader.

Michael: Yeah, I don’t know that I've ever thought about it that way, but I think that that is a beautiful description of how we can present our ideas and ourselves, in the context of our ideas to our readers. 

Melvin: With the writing idea as well I know that you started your writing journey early on. What are some of those kind of first steps that you took obviously Huffington Post, Psychology Today, those are invitation only forums, so how did you get started even on your own writing journey?

Michael: I have always approached even in graduate school, I've always approached writing as something of a craft, and I had the magnificent good fortune to have teachers in graduate school who cultivated us as writers. As a matter of fact when I got my first masters degree which is in Experimental Psychology, I had a teacher who would, you'd hand him a research paper and he'd hold it in his hand, he'd count to five and he'd hand it back to you. It sounds mean spirited, but what he was doing was forcing you to self edit, and to think about what you were writing about, and it created such a container of precision. And then when you carry that forward same thing in different graduate programs as I moved forward. 

When I was at Colombia and I had the same thing, I had a teacher who was very-very– she came out of I think Art History I believe, or maybe humanities and she was very-very keen on– even though we were writing about these heavy subjects, and all this theory and everything else, she's very-very keen on making the prose, and I'm going to call it prose, even though we're talking about graduate school papers accessible and pleasant to read.  

Melvin: Yeah, but even the languaging that you're using around that, right. Like graduate school papers, or term papers I feel like it can also a certain meaning right, versus prose, right?

Michael: Right, right exactly, and then what happened honestly is this was– I think this was in the early 2000s, I heard somebody on public radio the other day call the early [inaudible] [00:21:48], which I thought was really kind of sweet. I was asked to be the therapist in residence for a website that provided information about mental health, different things around mental health, and things of that nature.

Melvin:  Was that through just like a professor that you knew or were you just…

Michael: It was– I don’t even remember how it happened, I have to be completely honest. I think it was– I may have been actually on the site and noticed that they hadn’t filled that space for a while, and maybe I made an inquiry, it was a long time ago so I don’t actually remember the particulars. But I ended up in that position for probably four or five years, and I answered thousands of emails, and wrote articles, and things of that nature. Now the site is now defunct, so all that stuff is gone regrettably, but in doing that I had a consistent feed to work on that craft of writing, and writing, and writing, and I suspect that, that’s where the Psychology Today invitation came from I think. Maybe somebody came across that stuff, or maybe came across some of my other articles for newspapers, or things of that nature that I had written.

Melvin: Yes so I think you're bringing up a great point right, which is that at some point if blogging is something that you want to do, you have to start somewhere and even though your vision or dream might be to write for something big like Psychology Today or Huffington Post, the key is that you get started and that you start to work on the craft.

Michael: Yeah that’s definitely part of it and then the other pieces around the ‘don’t be afraid' part, around the having the courage to put yourself out there part, submit. Every single site including Huffington Post and Psychology Today has a submission portal. And you look at the submission guidelines and you think about something important that you want to write about, and you just put stuff out there. I spent a lot of time getting denied by a lot of magazines and a lot of– and you just have to do it. Eventually what's going to happen is– this actually one of my colleagues out in Colorado, she made a submission to the Goodman Project which was accepted. And managing editor called her up and said, “You want to write for us regularly?” Boom, national blog.

Melvin: I had no idea that you could even submit to the Huffington Post, Psychology Today like that.

Michael: Oh yeah, and even your favorite magazines, I mean whether– anything that interests you.

Melvin: Right.

Michael: Because the thing is again we go back to that– the piece around authenticity. If you're invested in a topic, the reader is going to know it. And if in this particular case that reader is an acquisitions editor, they're going to get it, and they're going to say, “Oh write.”

Melvin: Right, is there like a central website where a lot of the places where you can submit for, is there kind of like a central location or is it kind of Psychology Today has their own, Huffington Post has their own, New York Times has their own?

Michael: I really don’t have an answer for that question.

Melvin: Okay.

Michael: I suspect maybe somebody has aggregated those things somewhere, but I'm unaware of it, and to the best of my knowledge if you wish to submit something to a website or magazine, the best thing to do is just Google it, and say submissions wherever. It comes up pretty much right away; you'll be able to find the place to go to submit your work. But one thing that’s very important is to read the submission guidelines, and to have an understanding of the publication, and what they want in terms of content.

Melvin: Yeah, that’s a really good point because I imagine they get especially these bigger ones they get thousands and thousands of submissions, and the last thing you want is you put so much work into this and it doesn’t meet what those basic parameters that the publication requires.

Michael: The other thing is that sometimes they're open, they really are. I heard an interview with the managing editor of The Atlantic– I listened to The Atlantic or New York magazine, I think it was the New Yorker on public radio over the weekend and he said, “Everybody knows who I am, I can't hide any place, and people are constantly approaching me about submitting to the magazine,” and he said, my first response every time is I say, “Stop.” I hand them my business card and I say, “Email me your work,” and he said, “The reason I do that, is because I get a monumental number of submissions every day, and I have a whole staff that has to go through everything else.” And he said, “But every once in a while you come across someone who is absolutely brilliant.” 

So being open to whatever is out there and coming to me, provides me with an opportunity to discover a really great writer, and someone who's going to become potentially a regular contributor to the magazine. So keeping that in mind, know that in making submissions they want to see your work, it's not like, “Oh well, you know,” they really want to see you succeed. And they want to receive that from you because, it could well be that you're the next great whomever columnist for The Times, or Huffington Post, or The Atlantic, or The New Yorker, or The Economist, or whatever it happens to be.

Melvin: Yeah I am glad you said that because I think so many times and trying to submit to any of these we often think of just from our perspective, and I like that you provided it from the other perspective of the people that are actually going to be reading the work and seeing if it's a good fit.

Michael: Yeah.

Melvin: Absolutely, Mike I had one more question

Michael: Sure.

Melvin: And why don't we make that transition to The Hot Couch round. You've had so much experience with writing, if there's like one book, or one blog, or one website, that someone that's just getting started and wanting to be a writer, what would that be?

Michael: The Writer's Digest, you can subscribe online, they offer a free newsletter, they offer tons and tons of seminars, and webinars, and all kinds of things. They provide updates on new agents, agents who are looking for particular work. You and I are talking about professional writing, but there're a lot of my colleagues that in addition to being professional writers also write literature, and that’s some of your listeners maybe interested in as well. So the Writer's Digest is probably the most comprehensive and valuable source of information, perspective, how tos, education, everything.

Melvin: Wow that’s a wonderful resource; I'll definitely link to that in the show notes. Michael are you ready for The Hot Couch Round?

Michael: Yeah sure.

Melvin: The first question is, what's the daily habit that you believe contributes to your success?

Michael: That would be what we were talking about before that, that mindfulness practice and Michel Angeloing combination that I do.

Melvin: What's say an online resource that’s been valuable to either your private practice or for you, your journey as a writer?

Michael: There's a piece of software called Dragon Naturally Speaking, which some people may be familiar with, it actually transcribes the spoken word. I use it to dictate my blogs.

Melvin: What's your favorite business related book?

Michael: The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success which is Deepak Chopra.

Melvin: What's one tip that you would give to someone who is thinking about starting their private practice journey?

Michael: Research your market, which means two things; deciding if you add value to a market that is potentially saturated, and then the second one is to find a niche within a niche. It's all well and good to be a child therapist, or someone that specializes in PTSD, or whatever it happens to be, but you have to ask yourself what sets me apart from all the other folks in my market that are doing the exact same thing. 

Melvin: The last question is imagine that you were starting either your private practice or your writing journey all over again, you have $500 and a laptop. What is the first step that you would take towards building either your practice or your role as a writer?

Michael: Two steps; First one is bank the $500, and the second one is establish a digital presence both in your local market and nationally, and if you don’t have the savvy or the desire to design your own presence, okay. Then take some of the $500 and hire someone to help you out.

Melvin: Yeah these are such great answers and…

Michael: Thank you.

Melvin: You are officially off The Hot Couch.

Michael: Oh goody.

Melvin: Michael what are the best ways that our audience can reach you, if they want to both read about your work, as well as know more about your private practice?

Michael: My website is michaeljformica.com, my email is Michael@michaeljformica.com, the blog at Psychology Today is called ‘Enlightened Living', and then Huffington Post best way to do that is just my last name Formica and Huffington Post in a search box and Google.

Melvin: What I'll do is I'll find all of those and then actually just put it in the show notes, it's easier for listeners.

Michael: Oh great-great.

Melvin: Michael thank you so much for joining us for this episode, I really enjoyed our conversation, I feel like just a lot of the wisdom and I loved your stories there, it was just– there so much wisdom and knowledge. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Michael: Well, thank you for having me and I'm actually quite honored to be connected to the work that you're doing which I think is fantastic.

Melvin: Thank you Michael. Until next time everyone thank you again.

Melvin:  Hey everyone hope you enjoyed that conversation with Michael. The biggest thing that I'm taking way from today's episode is, I did not realize that you could submit guest articles to any of these major publications or blogs. I just assumed that these folks had to find you and it was really nice for Michael to tell us that the opposite is actually true, that you can submit them, and that in fact many of these blogs are looking for guest bloggers. Here is kind of how this works out practically for you and for your private practice website, right. The typical private practice website is not going to get a lot of traffic just because there might be a lot of private practice websites.

But suppose that you have an article on a major publication like the Psychology Today blog right, and you write this article and usually at the end of that article there's a space where you can put your name, and a link to a website where people can learn more about you if they want more information. Anyone that’s on Psychology Today that reads your article and clicks that link to go to your website you're getting a lot of extra traffic, because now you're getting folks from Psychology Today coming to your blog. It's just a great way to; one to get your name out there, two it's a great way to kind of build your reputation and credibility, and I think it's a great way to stand out at the end of the day. I will put all of the resources that Michael mentioned in the show notes, which you can find at sellingthecouch.com/session6. Thank you so much everyone and have a great week.

Outro: Thanks for listening to the Selling the Couch podcast, for more great content and to stay up to date visit www.sellingthecouch.com.

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