Faculty Highlight: Dr. Dorothy Firman

Dr. Dorothy Firman takes the value of social responsibility seriously—and she lives out the definition of that value in her work, her teaching, her life in the surrounding communities and in their outreach.

Dr. Dorothy Firman has been a member of Union’s faculty since 2006. She is a prolific author, speaker, life coach and counselor. She was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show, and her book Chicken Soup for the Mother & Daughter Soul (2012) was a New York Times best-seller. Fox News, New Morning, Wisdom Television, Nightbeat, Eldervision, Time for Spirit, and the CBS special Family 2 Family have all been media venues that have featured Dr. Firman and her work.

Her most recent book is titled Engaging Life: Living Well with Chronic Illness (2013). In this collection of stories, self-help exercises, and meditations on the importance of friendship and family, Dr. Firman tackles the difficult subject of how to successfully navigate the path of pain and suffering and how to support those who are bearing the burden of a long-term illness.

Part of the inspiration for the book came from one of Dr. Firman’s former patients—a woman struggling with terminal cancer, with less than a year to live. This woman’s journey became a remarkable story of survival, recovery, and of finding meaning in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances. Drawn from similar experiences, Dr. Firman unpacks the emotional methods and interpersonal tools that will allow an individual to seek the help they need and to cultivate the relational support to walk through sickness and loss.

Self-reflection and self-examination are among the tools that Dr. Firman recommends for her patients. She provides exercises that help individuals become more aware of their own life narrative—the trajectory of their own story—and to begin to see and shape that narrative as a story of resilience, relationship, and purpose.

Dr. Firman teaches in Union’s Master of Arts with a Concentration in Counseling Psychology program, and she is the co-founder of the Synthesis Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she acts as director of training in Psychosynthesis—an integrated, medical-spiritual approach to psychology and counseling. She is often both a national and international guest speaker and workshop leader. Her focus and expertise prioritizes coaching people around the topic of meaning, purpose, and empowerment in their lives. She is especially equipped for counseling people as they walk through times of transition, including grief counseling, spiritual and existential therapy, and coaching on dealing with age, illness, and disease. She has also worked within the corporate world to provide consultation regarding staff and personnel dynamics.

When asked how she understood the value of social responsibility, Dr. Firman said “For me, personally, having been in the field for over thirty years, social responsibility requires two things of me. The first is that I see clients and all humans in their social context. In their social context means that a client who is struggling, is struggling within their system (school, culture, family, job, country). No one can be diagnosed, treated, cured, or transformed outside of their community context and often a fair share of what creates a problem for an individual is located squarely in the culture and is not simply a psychological issue. Practitioners in the field now recognize that the most effective treatments occur within a person’s social context and even have come so far as to understand the very different essential impact of treatment on people of various cultures. The meaning of counseling or psychotherapy is different within one culture and another. Even the impact of a particular medication is now understood to have different effects on people of different ethnicities. So that’s the first important take home for me. Who is this person sitting in front of me and who is this person within the social system that he or she lives in?

The second value for me that arises from this knowledge is that I, as a professional, have a responsibility within society to work towards its improvement. Having been an activist for most of my life, this responsibility comes naturally to me, but I have had to carve out the ways that a socially responsible activism works within the field of psychology. In part it means being involved in professional organizations, presenting at conferences on issues related to social responsibility, and continuing to be trained on issues of diversity, social justice, oppression, and human rights. It also means helping clients and students see themselves within a system and take steps (however big or small they can) towards being empowered within the system.

To watch an individual find voice, stand up for what they believe, confront injustice and hold strong to their values, is a wonderful thing and one of the great gifts, for me, of being in this field.”

Visit Dr. Firman’s blog at Psychology Today for more information on her work.