On Empathy & Self-Awareness: Spotlight on Traci Ruble, MFT

The individuals that make up our SimplePractice community come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and experiences. Our Spotlight series is our chance to share their stories with you. Through these interviews, we learn about their specialties, struggles, and the epiphanies that come with experience.

I met Traci Ruble for the first time a few months ago when she paid the SimplePractice team a visit at our Santa Monica office. She travelled from SF to speak with us about Sidewalk Talk, a community listening project she started a couple of years back. During her short visit, she trained our team on how to actively listen, which actually requires more effort than I had thought. Our entire team learned an incredibly valuable skill that we try to incorporate in our day-to-day interactions, in addition to the times we volunteer during local Sidewalk Talk events.

This time around, we’re sitting on a lovely little patio a few blocks away from the SimplePractice office. While soaking in the sunshine and sipping on some tea, Traci and I talk about her inspiring whirlwind of a journey that has led her to this point in her career. She speaks with grace and wisdom, and has a lot to share about her strides in community mental health.

N: Hi Traci, great to see you again! Tell me about where it all began.

T: I made a bunch of money during the first Dot-Com Boom. I had a nickname at work—“The Machine.” That’s what people called me. I would go for a six mile run and then forget to drink water for three days afterwards… Not good.

I got to a point where I needed to just stop. I forced myself to take a year off of work and I took up surfing. I surfed every single day. I started the day with morning yoga, and then I would go surfing for four hours. I was in California. And that’s all I would do, every day, for a long time.

I traveled to Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand on a meditation journey. I was on this particular part of the retreat with senior citizens and it was perfect. I was surrounded by a bunch of 85-year old women. I remember we were sitting on the volcano tops one day, and the woman had us squeeze our hands and then let go. And it was the electricity after you squeeze your hands hard that made me realize, “Holy shit, I have a body.”

I had been going to a therapist but we never talked about the body or mindfulness. I realized that I didn’t want to be disembodied anymore.

When I came back from the travel, I did try to get another tech job, but it felt soulless. I literally got laid off even though I was thinking about quitting and was enrolled in graduate school six weeks later. I didn’t even hesitate.

N: So at that point you were 100% aware that you were ready.

T: I was ready. In six weeks time, I moved out of my expensive condo and sold my fancy car. I moved into shared housing, started driving a pickup truck. I changed. I was willing to sacrifice quite a lot to go back to grad school.

The fact that I discovered that I had a body and was living in it really contributed to my new perspective. I was finally self-aware.

N: What’s your specialty?

T: I mainly work with couples. I also work with a lot of ambitious people — CEO’s, CTO’s. People that remind me of what I used to be like when I was in the corporate world. I attract those types of clients because I’m pretty direct. So for people that have a big presence, I’m usually a good match for them.

I’m not afraid of conflict, and that’s why I love working with couples. I joke with my clients sometimes and say, “Look. If I screw up in here, which I’m going to do at some point, it’s imperative that you fight with me about it. I want you to fight with me because one thing I know about myself is that I know how to fight fair. And you don’t… that’s why you’re here.”

N: Fill me in on the key things that happened between you becoming a therapist and the now crazy successful Psyched Magazine.

T: Let’s see… I became an intern after I received my graduate degree and continued to work in tech which was an interesting balancing act. I was able to do contract work because I had been doing it for so long. I could kind of dictate my hours and had a flexible schedule which was nice.

All was well but I got really lonely because I was doing private practice interning and all of my peers were in community mental health agencies or at clinics and here I was, this lone wolf with just a single supervisor for six years.

I wish I could say Psyched Magazine came from some branding genius, but it really just came from loneliness. I really wanted to figure out a way to hang out with other therapists. To talk with them, to create with them. So I reached out to a couple of friends and we started writing on Blogspot together. I’d be at a mixer with other therapists and say, “Hey, I started writing this blog with Tom and Tyrese and you should write for it too.” And they’d said “Okay.” This was five and a half years ago!

N: Wow. The good ‘ol Blogspot days!

T: Exactly. At that point, out of nowhere, it grew! We’d get 300 reads on an article and think that was amazing.  Now we’re at a point where our most popular articles have reached 15k reads.

It has definitely evolved since then. I’ve been exposed to many things I don’t think I would’ve been exposed to if I hadn’t gotten into this business. Different mindsets, different personalities, different ideals. I finished grad school 12, 13 years ago now and we had younger therapists writing for us that were newly minted. These guys were steeped in social justice and activism and getting to read their writing was incredibly educational and informative for me as a middle-class, middle aged white woman. I think that stuff is really important.

N: So, Psyched Mag is the place where people can come together and learn a thing or two about inclusion and diversity in the therapy world.

T: Yes. It’s funny, we used to have writer salons. We definitely need to get back to that. It was easier to put those on when we were smaller… now we have writers from all over the nation. We used to get together once a quarter and drink margaritas and talk shop.

N: That sounds so fun!

T: We would write things like “How to Screw Your Life Up in a Day” — the anti-therapy article since sometimes our job is just so serious. It was really important for us to get together and loosen up our creativity. We’d play Bad Therapist Charades, where we’d have names on little pieces of paper in a bucket and you could maybe pick a celebrity that is a really obtuse, mean celebrity. Then whoever was acting would have to play a therapist that’s similar to this crazy celebrity.

It was super fun and a great way to relieve some stress and take care of ourselves since we were all doing some pretty heavy work. To come together with colleagues and not feel like you’re networking or talking about referrals is a really great thing.

I think therapists maintain a privileged position in the room with people. And I have found that what’s super important to being a good therapist is to never lose track of my humanity. I’ll always be a person that needs to play and be goofy and I’ll always be a person who needs to switch off. But at the same time, I like playing with other therapists because there is a level of understanding that we share together because we do the same work.

N: So what’s the deal with Sidewalk Talk? Our team has participated a few times and we love it — we’re connected to the community in a way we didn’t know was possible!

T: I think Sidewalk Talk gives you the best understanding of what therapists do day in and day out. You’re getting to feel what we hold, in a way. I love that SimplePractice has joined the movement.

I had a partner that launched it with me, but I initially was motivated by the huge uptick in gun violence at the time, 2014 I believe. That’s really what started it for me.

It was several months after Sandy Hook, and then there was the Boston Marathon bombing, the Aurora movie theater shooting, and Trayvon Martin. I just felt a speechless, shocked outrage. On the other hand, I also felt really turned off by all of the pontificating and theorizing about what was going on culture. I was like, “this is such bullshit.” I didn’t want to be lectured to, and I also didn’t want to be passive.  

I didn’t intend to help anyone. All I really wanted was to listen. I was basically putting a stake in the ground and saying, “Hey look, nobody has the answers, but I can sit here and listen.” That conviction still feels strong. It’s been two and a half years now and I’ve changed so much in that project.

N: How so?

T: I think early the program had a larger mental health component to it. I felt a real determination to help people and promote psychotherapy, but that’s definitely changed a little bit since then. I realized I actually want to help everybody, even people that I meet walking down the street, be better at listening.

N: Right. It’s an important trait to have in general, as a human being.

T: Well, it’s so crazy to me — personally, it’s about letting go of needing people to feel better or be better. There was a shift in me listening in a way where I really, truly trusted that people would get to a better place inside themselves on their own, without me having to impart any kind of wisdom to them.

I’m not dissing therapists. I’m not saying that there isn’t value in therapy, there are definitely issues in people’s lives where a real structured, therapeutic environment is necessary. But the other side is that some people really just need human connection. And this idea that the only place to get that in a deeper way is in a therapist’s office feels really sad to me.

There’s such a freedom in sitting down with an anonymous stranger — people tend to feel safer because they’re talking to someone who’s offering anonymous, judgement free listening. After all my Sidewalk Talk experiences, I honestly think the transformation happens inside the listener way more than the folks that sit down and talk.

N: I concur. I’ve participated 3 times now and have a new perspective on active listening and what it means to be truly present.

T: Yes! So, I really am committed to creating a movement of human connection. We’re building out Sidewalk Talk, and it’s been interesting because we’re going to use some of the methods that we teach, such as empathy circles and human-centered design, internally. We do it once a month for our city leaders and it’s been a really important for the organization. It’s impacted the level of motivation amongst our city leaders because now there’s a bond that we all share. Everybody’s voice is heard and, well, the impact is pretty rad.

When you have a vision and a bunch of people are willing to donate their time for your vision, it’s incredibly touching. It’s kinda hard to take in some days.

N: If you were to give three tips to someone who just learned about active listening, what would they be?

T: Number one — Pace. You absolutely have to change your pace. You cannot active listen while you’re running around. You gotta slow down. You have to slow your breath down, slow your blink rate down.

Number two — Let go of needing to have any part of you in the dialogue. You should only be interested in listening in a way that helps you discover everything about who this person is. If you need to say a “me too” in there to get them to open up more, great, but don’t ever steer the conversation back to yourself.

Number three — Don’t assume negative intentions when somebody shares something really hard. I try to have empathy. It’s just a richer, deeper way to live when you get to know what’s really going on below the surface for people. For me, that contributes to my wellbeing too.

Traci uses SimplePractice to help streamline her practice so that she can spend more time focusing on building out Sidewalk Talk and creating content for Psyched Magazine that she can share with therapists and the wider behavioral health community.

We would love to help you spend more time on the things that matter. If you’re interested in building a stronger practice and joining the SimplePractice community, just use Traci’s referral link to get started with a 30 day free trial.

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