Author Spotlight: Ken Howard, LCSW
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ken Howard since our days together at UCLA, many moons ago. Since then, he has gone on to become a renowned therapist in Los Angeles, and has written a book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want, which I’ve been hearing terrific things about. Ken was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his book and work. Welcome, Ken!
Q & A: Ken Howard, LCSW
Thank you for taking the time to chat! First of all, congratulations on your new book, which is getting great buzz. What prompted you to write it?
I get great inspiration from self-help books written by others, and have done this both before and after I became a therapist. I recommend books to my clients, depending on their situation, as an adjunct resource between sessions. But most self-help books aren’t written by actual licensed psychotherapists who are currently in full-time private practice, as I am. So I decided to write a self-help book for a general adult audience based on my 18 years of experience in practice at the time of the writing (now 20 years). I wanted to bring my message of inspiration, hope, and support to more people than I can possibly see in my office in a week. It’s also, I believe, the first self-help book for a general audience written by an openly gay, openly HIV-positive author, so I’m proud of that.
I know that much of your psychotherapy work has been within the gay community, but I understand this book has a larger reach. What can people hope to gain by reading it?
This is a book for people who are struggling what I call the gap between how life is, and how you would like it to be, in important areas of life such as mental health, health, career, relationships, finances, family, community, and spirituality. The main benefit is that it helps people feel empowered – self-empowered, hence the name – to confront their challenges, and take their quality of life to the next level.
Each chapter of the book – which corresponds to those different life areas – includes ways to empower yourself, a list of common challenges that get in the way (and what to do about them), and a “case study” vignette of how someone from my practice actually put these ideas into practice (altered to protect their confidentiality). This way, you look at things from all sides.
I was moved to become a therapist when I was younger and just coming out as a gay man, and many of the people I knew, or at least knew of, were affected by AIDS, or even dying from it. I couldn’t just sit around and watch; I had to do something. I developed a niche in working in HIV, but also with gay men who don’t have HIV, along with others with psychiatric disorders, since I have specialized training in those (Depression, OCD, ADD, PTSD, etc.). Today, my practice is still largely made up of gay men. Being in West Hollywood, I also see a lot of creative professionals from the entertainment industry, who are straight, gay, male, female, older and younger. With this book, I wanted to share some of the lessons on self-empowerment developed in my practice with a broader audience beyond the gay community.
I’ve often felt that, for many in the LGBT community, the act of coming out can be so difficult and traumatic, that once they do, they assume that they’ve completed their emotional journey. But, to me, coming out is but one of the first steps towards emotional growth. What is your take on that, given what you’ve experienced in the community?
One of my best friends (entertainment attorney Bill Lockard) has a theory that gay men and lesbians are particularly innovative because in order to go through the coming-out process you need to apply critical thinking to societal norms (such as the demand to live life as a heterosexual) when you’re young. So having learned to question — and reject — society’s expectations in one sphere, your ability to think for yourself and make your own choices in other parts of your life is off the charts from then on. But setting your own course in the world is both liberating and scary. Of course, the process of emotional growth is a lifelong endeavor, but maybe particularly for members of the LGBT community. So is learning. One of my favorite teachers of all time, my high-school drama director, encouraged us just before graduation to “never stop growing” I tell that story toward the end of the book, and I think it’s my favorite part of the book, because it’s one of the defining moments in my life and is a mantra that I have adopted. I try to honor her memory by sharing that story.
What do you see as the major psychological issues facing the LGBT community today?
I was born and raised in and around Washington, DC, so that has made me very political most of my life, inspired by wise words carved in all the white marble monuments there. As a social worker, we are trained to think of people’s psyche not just as a person, but also to consider the cultural and historical environment that person functions in. I think all the coarse, shrill anti-gay rhetoric from Republican politicians and their “pseudo-Christian” hate activists is really taking its toll on the collective mood of the LGBT community, although we have enormous resilience. Fortunately, increasingly, anti-gay bigots are starting to “enjoy” the same stigma that anti-Semitic and anti-African-American bigots do today. The difference is that over time, other groups have gained full equal civil rights under the Law in every state and in the federal government, even in states where the bigoted ideas are especially rampant. America will never reach its full potential until all Americans are treated equally under the Law, everywhere. Part of my work is helping clients feel empowered as a member of a minority group (sometimes two or three minority groups, such as gay men of color, or gay men who have a disability), to toss off shame and advocate for themselves assertively.
I also work with a lot of guys dealing with either substance or process addictions (substance ones include alcohol, cocaine, and especially meth; process ones include sex, shopping, or gambling). I see a lot of couples, who are working to improve their commitment to each other, resolve jealousy, cope with an HIV status difference, develop new communication patterns, refine domestic life, or boost their sex life.
Certainly, in the past few years, I’ve been helping gay men cope with the effects of the Recession, as many guys I work with (and some women) run their own businesses as professionals of all kinds. Even as a specialist for gay men, we often work on issues that are not gay-focused and are common to everyone – work, finances, health, relationship dynamics, social interactions, anger management, and symptoms of various disorders – most frequently, Depression and Social Anxiety.
Aside from your writing and your therapy work, you’re also a life coach and motivational speaker. How can someone benefit from a life coach, and how does that differ from the role a therapist plays?
Some people have this notion, and amateur “life coaches” sometimes promote it, that therapy is just “like an archaeologist, rehashing the rubble of the past”, while life coaching is “like an architect, building for a brighter future.” That’s misleading and devaluates education. Both therapy and coaching focus on the present-day situation and its challenges, and how the person can live a higher quality of life for the future. I think that’s best handled by master’s or doctoral-level professionals. We don’t have “legal coaches”, we have licensed attorneys. We don’t have “hair coaches”, we have licensed cosmetologists. You get the idea. No shortcuts. Do the work.
I combine elements of both therapy and coaching by using goal-oriented techniques such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Positive Psychology, among others. Clinical social workers (which is my discipline) are usually great at helping clients on a super-practical level, which is what my book emphasizes.
We have to remember, amateur “life coaches” who don’t hold also graduate degrees and clinical licenses are not really helping professionals in the way that we know graduate-school professionals to be. Life coaches trained in some very brief “certification program” don’t have a fraction of the training, oversight, and strong foundation in evidence-based practice that therapists do. My experience, for example, was a college degree from UCLA, another 2 years of extra college courses after that, then two years of graduate school at USC, plus another two years of work experience (3,200 hours) supervised by a licensed therapist before I could take the state exams to be licensed myself. Some of these life coaches just take a two-day seminar provided by some other life coach; there are no admission standards, no real academic standards, and no government oversight to protect consumers from malpractice. I think the public deserves better.
Doing “talk” services effectively is harder than it looks. In working with any client, there are many layers and considerations that require knowledge applied from various disciplines (psychology, sociology, biology, anthropology, history, and I would add English and Fine Arts) to help them achieve lasting behavior change. Even then, therapists are required to take Continuing Education courses for their whole careers in order to renew their license to practice. When I do life coaching, I’m using parts of the less formal coaching model, but I’m doing it with the background and education of a licensed therapist.
The difference can also be administrative. Therapy is a clinical service that is reimbursable by most health insurance; coaching is not. For insurance to reimburse part of the fee for therapy, a person has to carry a standardized clinical diagnosis, and some clients just don’t have one that fits. Some clients also feel more comfortable with the word “coaching”, because they have had positive experiences in the past with inspirational athletic coaches.
I primarily do therapy/coaching sessions in my office or over the phone, but I also do workshops, motivational speaking, writing, and podcasting. It keeps all the work fresh to have multiple professional roles, and each one of these activities reaches a different group of people for a somewhat different purpose.
Lastly, Ken, what are your hopes for those that pick up “Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want”?
It’s intended to be your “portable therapist” for the problems you face today. It’s small enough to carry around and refer to as needed, whenever you’re facing a challenge in one of the major life areas and you need support. I tried to make it timeless, and appeal to people from different backgrounds, because it speaks to issues that are part of the human experience worldwide.
I hope the book helps people go from hopeless to hopeful, fearful to confident, burdened to liberated, and frustrated to fulfilled. That’s a lot to ask of 160 pages, but it’s a start. The key is to never stop growing.
His book can be found at: