In which counselor-psychologist Vassia Sarantopoulou and I dive into balancing career and mental well-being, entrepreneurship and the highs and lows that come with running your own practice as an expat.
I recently had the lovely opportunity to sit down with Vassia Sarantopoulou, a counselor-psychologist working with clients in one-to-one sessions, running workshops and support groups and the creator of the Anti-Loneliness Project . With Master’s degrees in Counselling and Career Guidance and Child & Adolescent Psychology, Vassia specializes in career counselling, stress management, parenting and self-awareness, amongst many things. In addition, she provides online counselling services for those struggling with distance or cost and continuously travels and partakes in courses and workshops to expand her expertise and skill-set.
Vassia welcomed me with a smile into a colorful and cozy office with a bookcase, art prints, plants and warm lighting. Considering this was a new experience for me, despite the little bit of nerves, I was made at ease quite quickly. We started chatting and I was thrilled to find out she saw value in the work I was trying to do and sitting with me that Sunday morning (which also happened to be a holiday).
One of the many reasons I sought this conversation with Vassia was her role within this community as an expat Psychologist and businesswoman. Specifically, the myriad of endeavors she has taken in her mission of building not just a practice, but a business. One that caters to those interested or in need of support, self-development, a professional’s insight, or oftentimes, just transparent communication and the right tools. I drew similarities in her doing her Bachelor’s and first Master’s degrees in Athens, while I am cooking up my degree in the Netherlands after having grown up in an International community in the Middle East. That personal and professional trajectory piqued my interest and I wanted to do my part in making my learning experience accessible to those seeking it.
Vassia’s venture is titled ‘The Anti-Loneliness Project’ and is centered around understanding and overcoming the disconnection we often face in our lives. When asked, “Why ‘loneliness’ in particular?”, Vassia referred to ‘loneliness’ as the “umbrella” that encompasses all the many feelings, moments and challenges that come with social and emotional disconnection. I was a fan of this approach to accepting and almost, owning up to, our loneliness by finding a safe space and developing a mindset that encouraged and allowed such conversations and strategies to be put on the table.
Something university students get asked a lot is “why are you doing said degree or specialization”, so I find myself being interested in why people would choose a certain “path” for their foreseeable future. Vassia shared that she had always been an observer, especially when she was younger and shyer, and she enjoyed that role, which of course often came with analyzing.
“I was always looking for the “why”s. I’m a question-er so I didn’t take anything for granted. Even if something sounded like some authority said it, I thought “Yeah, but why?” It needs to make sense to me.”
This powerful, inquisitive and vocal attitude struck a chord with me and I wanted to delve into whether her path had any meanders. I look at my own experience and think about how dead certain I was of this degree in September of 2016 yet by September of 2017 I was attempting to build a solid foundation elsewhere alongside a degree I thought was going to waste. And today, in May of 2018, I feel as though I have taken a different, more constructive outlook on my life and goals. At least for right now. So if I’m reflecting and adjusting every few months, other people must have had some diversions?
I came to discover that she had, for a short while, tried her hand at web design a few years back but the field did not keep her interested for long enough. She told me in her free time, she liked to dabble in art and while I like to scribble and call it (cath)art, she says:
“I like drawing and painting so I try different things like watercolors, acrylics, oils and of course photography. I’m not an artist or something, and I don’t claim to be. But this is the way I empty my mind and recharge my batteries…It’s a way of expressing your inner world without intellectualizing it and going too deep into your head. Once I even tried support groups during knitting sessions.” (Love it!)
She also organized the ‘Anti-Loneliness Photography Project’ in which she collaborated with photographers to see what loneliness meant to each of them. I found it quite cool to make the variation of perception more tangible in the form of photos.
Career vs. Personal Life
I was curious as to how she balanced her quite emotionally taxing career and her personal life. I’m technically on the academic path to becoming a therapist or counsellor, yet I feel I have a lot of issues I haven’t learned how to decipher and navigate appropriately. One of her workshop titles stood out to me: ‘Explain Your Anger, Don’t Express It’ and it was powerful enough to stir up these doubts. Vassia’s word of advice is “Therapy and Supervision”:
In summary, you need a place to unload the things you discuss or hear about but you also need the discipline and boundaries in place. You don’t need to fully self-disclose and you are under no obligation to have experienced everything your potential clients have experienced as that does not affect how good you are at providing the tools necessary to overcome their hardships. However, it is important to do the research and put yourself in your client’s shoes in order to guide and assist effectively.
How about your personal life? Can you “therapize” in your personal relationships and connections?
“I’m not teaching them and I’m not doing therapy with them because that can be dangerous sometimes as it changes the balance. I’m as vulnerable as they are. But what I bring are the reflections I have about my behavior and I try to speak for myself and lead by example. If you start being open, the other person is more likely to be open too, without needing to learn about these tools and techniques.”
This was incredibly insightful for me because I never really knew how to go about bringing all this seemingly effective theory into my personal life and relationships. However, seeing it through this lens was empowering because as long as I was learning and bettering myself, everything around me will be a little bit simpler to navigate because I know I’m on the track that is right for me.
Life As A (Female) Entrepreneur
Vassia is a member of the Women’s Business Initiative International – an international association of female entrepreneurs with the main purpose of empowering the entrepreneurs to achieve their business goals through learning and development, peer support and events and activities.
As a member of a female-oriented entrepreneurial initiative, I was curious as to whether she had any advice for female entrepreneurs and her main input was to eliminate the boxes people want to put you in. Recognize that you are an independent individual and for you to chase everything you wish to accomplish for yourself, you need to be rid of the stereotypes and the limitations people may put in your way.
This was interesting because getting rid of the boxes is something that is not always in the hands of the person being put in a box, however I do recognize and support the notion that if you don’t aid your environment in the process of alienating or simplifying your multifaceted existence – whether you’re a man or woman – you’re allowing yourself to move forward in your own way.
The Enigma of Social Media
I’ve been trying to think about social media as a tool rather than a pastime and I was not very surprised to find that Vassia found LinkedIn and Facebook to be the most appropriate platforms for promoting the type of work she has been doing. It seems as though Instagram is the primary hub but not everybody’s work aligns with its image-based format whereas Facebook and LinkedIn are more professional, network-oriented and quite text-heavy platforms. It’s very easy to slip into a mindset where your worth or the worth of your content is measured by the amount of followers or likes. However, upon hearing about Vassia’s experience and trajectory, I discovered the multitude of ways you can expand your network offline, which was reassuring because my worth and contributions in the real world go beyond the screen. And once you’re aware of that, your energy is less depleted by the fact that you don’t have enough “exposure”.
Vassia is currently working on networking within the public sector in order to further expand her clientele and appreciates that despite some of the minor difficulties of starting a practice as an expat, not only was nothing enough stop her, she finds that the Dutch community is not only open but sees the treasure of the expat community. This is often a gap many struggle to bridge, but with the right determination and the will to engage openly, a lot is achievable. In the foreseeable future, she hopes to collaborate with other professionals in the field, expand her resource selection and arrange for more support groups and online tools for those who cannot access her resources in person.
To wrap it up – What would you say is your favorite and least favorite part of the job?
“I like all the marketing things but I figured out that if I want to do my own marketing, I need at least one day per week to do just that. Sometimes, I get lost in all these organizational tasks instead of spending my time elsewhere. So, perhaps balancing my different roles is the bit I struggle with sometimes. This is why I would like to expand and outsource.”
“My most favorite…I don’t know, I like everything I do, I can’t choose!”
If you’re interested in more of what Vassia Sarantopoulou offers, check out her website. Here you will find information on her counselling sessions, workshops, support groups, book club and more! She is also conducting a survey for long-term expats, through which she is building her research on the adjustments and difficulties faced by the expat community.
This was a brilliant experience for me and I’d like to thank Ms. Vassia Sarantopoulou for her time, hospitality and insight. If you’re interested in these kinds of discussions or have other topics or questions you’d like to see a “specialist” answer, let me know in the comments below or on twitter or instagram.
Thank you for reading