The setting of our interview with psychologist Georgette Savvides perfectly sums her up: She welcomed us into her home with a cup of coffee and a warm smile as she spoke about various therapy approaches and theories while her three boys, one a baby, sat nearby occasionally making sassy comments here and there.
Savvides is not your typical therapist; she doesn’t speak too formally, neither does she meet you with a stern face and suit. She is as scientific as she is warm, approachable and casual and has evidently mastered the art of juggling various things at once.
“I am the kind of person who would share personal experiences with my clients if it could be empowering for them,” she explains. “When you share your experience you give them hope and a strategy that worked for you.”
With a new book, My Journey, that came out in April, therapy duties and a new television show to be launched in November, Savvides, who is also consulting for several dramas and movies, has quite a lot on her plate. The reason she’s doing it all? Removing the social stigma about seeking psychological help and opening the doors to discussing the most taboo of things.
Savvides has a degree in psychology from the American University in Cairo and two doctorates in counseling psychology, one from City University in London and another from the Southern California University in the U.S. Her life work is dedicated to bringing her international experience to the Egyptian society. Her various projects have one goal: to change the way the society perceive patients with psychological disorders and raise awareness about mental illness.
Sharing not only her 25 years of experience in counseling but also her own, personal experience, Savvides’ autobiography is as personal as it is professional, including details about the therapist such as her struggle with sexual harassment. Writing the book, she explains, has brought her and her family, clients and readers closer together through more transparency and honest communication.
“Life is a journey and the relationship you have with yourself is a journey. You continue to develop constantly; I don’t think like I used to think when I was 18 and when I hit my 50s I won’t be thinking like I am thinking now,” Savvides explains. Wanting to show her clients and the society that therapists are no more perfect than their own clients,
Savvides hopes her book will encourage others to not only share but see the light at the end of the tunnel and embrace experiences as life lessons. “You evolve and you develop and if you don’t keep in touch with what’s going on with you then you won’t be able to overcome it.”
Savvides explains that seeking psychological help is one of the major stigmas people have to overcome. “People don’t even want to say that they’re seeking psychological support,” she says. She wanted to share her own upbringing and background to show her readers that whatever she went through didn’t define her, but that through acknowledging her issues and getting appropriate help, she was able to overcome it and develop because of it.
“There’s also a lot of stigma about sexual abuse.” In her book, Savvides shares her experience with sexual harassment and the resulting scars. Learning about her sexual harassment for the first time through the book, her father was surprised to hear about what she went through in her youth. “It is easier now because I am not longer going through it,” Savvides reflects. “I think if I was still going through it, it would have been more difficult for my family and myself to mend or come to terms with it.”
Other stigmas she often comes across have to do with communicating with children and teenagers about various issues, including religion and sex. “We have a lot of girls coming to therapy because of a condition called vaginismus, which is the tightening of the vagina muscles, and it’s an anxiety condition . . . and the main treatment is through psychological support,” she explains. She adds that this is normally either due to a history of sexual abuse or an upbringing that stigmatized all sex into an act that is against religion and morals. “So you develop all these beliefs about sexuality and then when the moment comes all these conversations come to mind and you get a panic attack that goes straight to your vaginal muscles,” she explains.
Sharing her own experience and that of a client on the lack of sexual education, Savvides adds that parents often ignore sexual education altogether for fear of raising “a bad girl.” “But children are going to learn about these things anyway, so they would rather get the information from you [parents] and you form a bond where they are comfortable enough to talk to you about stuff like that rather than discuss it with friends.”
But lack of communication isn’t just on topics that are sensitive; it is, Savvides explains, becoming an epidemic in the fast-paced world of today. “Some parents are too busy, others think that as long as the kids are fed and well-provided for then this is all they need,” Savvides explains. “Others don’t have the patience or tolerance to do it…it’s become more about quantity than quality.”
She adds that one of her main messages is to encourage communication and open discussion about everything; from sexuality to questioning religion. “This is part of being a child; being curious and asking questions. If I am not allowing him to ask questions then I am not helping his brain develop.”
The Approachable Therapist
Coming back from her studies in London with a nose ring, Savvides never imagined her little hoop would get in the way of her landing a job. “I was told, ‘You’re not going to be working with that hoop, right?’” It was right then that Savvides decided on her therapy approach; she was going to stay true to who she was, nose ring and all.
“In my day-in-day-out clinical job I would wear jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops, because the person coming to me would be dressed like this so I don’t want to create this wall between us,” she explains.
Her approach emphasizes a familiar collaboration between the client and the therapist; “I always tell my clients that it is a process and it takes two to tango,” she adds. “I want the client to feel like they’re going to someone else’s home and it’s comfortable and we can talk. The way I will reply is scientific, of course, but the setting is casual and comfortable.”
Savvides follows the behavioral cognitive approach to therapy, which emphasizes analyzing and working on one’s thoughts and then remodeling and reshaping the behavior that is a result of these thoughts and emotions. She also follows the person-centered approach; providing unconditional positive regard to her clients and being non-judgmental, empathetic and accepting. “I believe this is the building block to develop a relationship with your client,” she explains.
“I am a very unconventional therapist because I can hug my client or kiss them hello and pat them on their backs, depending on the client, of course,” Savvides says. “If someone is working on self-confidence and did something they are proud of then of course I would jump up and down for them.”
A few years back Savvides started offering consultation services to improve how accurately therapy and psychological issues are portrayed on the small and silver screens. She has consulted on movies like Hepta and television dramas like Nasiby wi Esmetak (My Fate and Yours), 30 Days airing this Ramadan and the second season of Qaadet Regala (A Guys’ Gathering) show on DMC.
One of the main things she provides through this service is support for actors, directors and people in the media who may be going through burnout syndrome and method actors finding difficulty detaching from their roles.
Savvides also works with writers to provide research and depth in the process of building the characters, especially if the character has a psychological issue. “I also mentor the actors on their performance, it’s not acting classes, but it’s about discussions with actors who are playing roles where, for instance, they go through shifts of different emotions or a psychological disorder to make it as real and genuine as possible,” Savvides says. “Not all psychological disorders are about biting your nails and shuffling your feet. It is more about little tricks in your body language and facial expressions.”
Having already successfully worked with actress Reem Mostafa on the set of Nasiby wi Esmetak, Savvides believes many actors and directors are now open to advice from professionals to ensure accurate portrayal of the characters. “The director of 30 Days for instance was very open to implementing my comments exactly; including names of medications, where they would be placed, how someone would carry needles and so on.”
Also coming up later this year is a show Savvides had dreamed of for a long time. Wara Kol Bab (Behind Every Door) will discuss different psychological problems each episode through a dramatic portrayal of real-life cases, including information, statistics and tips for the audience on each particular issue. She will also host some of her former and existing clients to talk about their success stories and be an inspiration to others who might be going through similar things. The show, launching in November, aims to de-stigmatize psychological issues and raise awareness of various common issues, including depression, parenting issues, addiction and sexual difficulties.
“I think it’s about time to bring things into the light,” Savvides concludes.
Editor’s Note: Savvides will be contributing regular columns to Egypt Today discussing various psychological issues with hands-on, practical tips on how to spot and handle symptoms.