I began writing this asking myself, “What would I want to know about a prospective therapist or guide?” And that has informed what I’m making foreground here and what might get less play..
I'd want you to know my personal history and how it brought me to my purpose—on the planet, on this website, and possibly for awhile, in your life. My formal credentials and training are no longer particularly aligned with my current thinking on how one develops a Relational Self—and that thinking is pretty well covered on the home page. Read what I’ve written and see if it resonates with what has actually led you to my doorstep….
I grew up in a chaotic, appearance-oriented household where I worried so early about my relational deficits, that by 3rd grade, I refused to play the card game Old Maid. By 5th grade, I was concocting my face-saving lifeplan: “If someday I can manage to write for The New York Times, maybe no one will notice I'm unmarried or whatever else is wrong with me." This mindset got me into The Columbia School of Journalism and turned me into a prize-winning journalist managing her own sense of invisibility crusading for the disadvantaged. I had turned this into an artform by the time I won a major citation in print, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards for Reporting on the Problems of the Disadvantaged, the year an idealistic Geraldo Rivera won in broadcast.
I had been an American Civ major in college where my own issues around disempowerment had me taking any available Southern history course. I was fascinated learning that many of the first slave owners in Virginia were the younger brothers deprived of land in England because of primogeniture. I remember the professor emphasizing their obvious lust for land of their own. But what I was thinking was: C’mon…growing up one-down with those arrogant older brothers? Wouldn’t they also be psychologically primed to unconsciously seek and relish the one-up position of a slaveowner? I was stunned that others didn't seem stirred by this awareness. This tendency of mine to be far more interested in psychodynamics than the tragic and often twisted external goings-on that typically fill a newspaper, had my editors exasperated and me wondering how long I could keep doing work that was supposedly significant but to me often seemed to be missing the point.
Meanwhile, in my personal life, a volatile relationship with a much older film critic--unequivocal #MeToo material--catapulted me into my own intensive psychotherapy. When the abuse of power dawned on me, and I was on the warpath towards confronting and reporting the man I had allowed to mesmerize me, my therapist Roger had a different idea. I had let it slip that I had a secret stash of elevator music—that’s right, the canned background music that has people rolling their eyes. "You can and should confront 'Mr. X' eventually,” said Roger, "but first you need a Self. I want you to tell 3 people who you see as having defined musical tastes that you just love elevator music.” I went into a total panic and questioned his sanity, but eventually confessed my quasi-addiction to a respected rock critic, a cellist in a jazz quartet and a hippy-ish acquaintance who saw herself as a Joni Mitchell look-alike. Not one of them gave me high marks for transparency or were even particularly kind, but the sky didn't fall either. Roger said, "If you had accepted yourself more--including what you believed to be embarrassing or weird about you--you wouldn't have been so vulnerable to an authoritarian critic in the first place."
What an unexpected intervention. I learned that being visible didn’t necessarily feel good, but could be worth it, just because it was the truth. I saw the place where self-acceptance could be more empowering than "standing up for oneself." And when I did later confront the man who I had allowed to take advantage of me, there was no need to “stand up for myself.” It was just me being me. This is the world I want to help others create for themselves.
It turned out that I was, in fact, offered an enviable reporting job at The Times. Only The Universe quickly moved in with a competing option: an assignment to go undercover to write an exposé of Transcendental Meditation had me meditating daily. Within weeks, what was started with skepticism and some disdain led to a wholly unexpected, unprecedented glimpse of feeling truly good about myself, independent of any gold star or anyone’s particular affection. When an admired editor told me I had written something “incredibly mediocre,” and astonishingly, I felt no flash of diminishment, I promptly left journalism and decided to spend the rest of my life exploring ways to access and sustain the internal sense of myself that made such a thing even possible. (All my consciousness-raising up until this point was obviously in preparation for the Be-True-To-Yourself Olympic event: telling my universe I was turning down a job offer at The New York Times to become a meditation teacher ;- )
Ashram life was not for me and going back to graduate school in clinical psychology felt more in synch. I’ve been a psychotherapist and couples therapist now for over 35 years and see myself as a kind of transpersonal scout, helping people let go of, modify or reinvent external structures that no longer fit: a relationship... a career path...a spiritual paradigm.... one’s family belief system…an incorrectly assigned sexual orientation. I do not recommend living without any structure—I don’t think that’s either possible or welcome. But I do recommend replacing your reliance on the obvious externals with getting extremely curious about an alternative structure that has always been there, the deeply intelligent structure arising organically from your own insides. Your insides will take you where you need to go. But you do have to start paying attention to them.
My formal training was psychoanalytic, the best part being the emphasis on child development. I was later mentored by a wonderful gestalt therapist who encouraged me to work more from my gut. But my most profound understanding of the actual healing process came from times I left my comfort zone—risking some loss of external approval or security now at cross purposes with an internal prompting—and then noticing what The Universe had up its sleeve. For example: All but dateless for several years, I met my ex-husband within days of the first time ever honestly relating to my father rather than managing him. This entailed telling him I often ended phone calls with him abruptly because—and I said it gently, but I said it--talking to him was, well… kind of boring. And let me be clear here: I am NOT saying the Universe “rewarded” me with a husband for a courageous authenticity move. Rather, I healed my own lifelong fear that being with a man meant I’d be trapped in boredom. I just hadn’t known how not boring and freeing it could be to transcend my programming in male fragility and just, non-aggressively say what was true for me.
At a time when I was working at a clinic for a pittance and had only 3 private clients elsewhere, the clinic director falsely accused me of taking money under the table when he heard me talking in an office one evening with no client on the books. This spurred me wanting to leave such an environment with frankly, no idea how I'd pay my rent without that pittance. Within a week of starting my exit plan I serendipitously helped orient a young woman lost in my apartment building who was also lost in her first year in Wharton's MBA program. Within a month I was filling my private practice with many unhappy--but not poor--women who entered Wharton in the '80's as a feminist gesture with no real aptitude for or often interest in business.
And for those of you who are not familiar with the genesis of Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love, my guidebook for relationship repair, this too arose when an uncomfortable situation drove me into The Unknown. I was literally thrown into a trauma trance and all but mute conducting a couples session with a hostile wife and an emotionally battered husband who could have been stand-ins for my parents. I scribbled on a torn envelope: Talk to me like I’m someone you love! and stage-whispered to my “dad”: Hold it up to her. And when “mom” suddenly turned softer, I was still voiceless but grasped the alchemy in front of me. Though it started as a simulation, I observed that when one person was in loving connection with himself, Relationality started emerging on its own.
Becoming Relational is discovering the place between “asserting oneself” and “managing audience reaction.” that allows you to be in the kind of natural, unforced connection with yourself that places you automatically into friendlier relationship with whomever is in front of you.
Personal growth, to me, examines the interplay between one’s childhood conditioning and one’s understanding of how The Universe operates. Many of us, with good reason, learned to operate as if we are living in an Unfriendly Universe. My hope in writing Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love was to show people how, right in the messiness and apparent roughness of life, Something Friendlier is more accessible—if you go for it. Everything I’m offering through this website is meant to help make this perspective realer for you.
I live in Philadelphia where I work, think and continue to practice walking my talk, particularly with my partner Michael who offers me opportunities to see where I still behave sub-relationally and am invited to grow with him in love.
"Nancy Dreyfus is the mother you wish had raised you, the sister you wish was your bestie, and the teacher you wish had inspired you to reach your full human potential. As a therapist, she checks all the boxes…compassionate but direct, brilliant but accessible, kind but truthful. She has helped me see myself anew, and once and for all tweak those unsettling parts of me that have been on a replay loop for decades. My only regret in working with Nancy is that while she serves as my therapist, she cannot ethically be my lunch date."
– Karin Kasdin, author and founder of Girls Unlimited, Newtown, Pennsylvania
"Nancy is masterful in her awareness of how your early childhood experiences are unwittingly impacting your current relationship woes. Her powerful intellect is joined with her enormous heart in bringing to you--with surgical precision--how you are likely keeping yourself from what you really really want. With Nancy as my guide, I have connected to my authentic self and am finally in the process of nurturing a secure attachment. This is revolutionary! She is an extremely practical clinician and a gifted healer. I’m deeply grateful to count myself among the lucky ones to have found her."
– Ashley McEntire, corporate Environmental, Social and Governance director, Columbia, South Carolina