An Interview with Kalpana Asok; How she got started, and her approach to therapy

By: Kalpana Asok, M.A., M.F.T.

Published in Spring Newsletter, Santa Clara Valley Chapter, California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
May 1, 2022


Hi, Kalpana, it’s a pleasure to interview you for our next community focus. Let’s start! When did you start practicing?

I started practicing in 1995, so about 25 years ago, and it is my second or third career, actually. I had a brief career in R&D in a software company in India before I came here. I studied biology here and then moved to counseling psychology. (laughs) It’s a bit of a travel plan, yes!? Since graduation from Santa Clara University and licensure, I’ve been mostly working in independent practice because that’s what worked, you know, with raising my little children at that time. So, I used to work part time.

Tell me a little bit about your path; what brought you to therapy?Kalpana Asok, LMFT
I think a shift in moving from a highly privileged family to striking out independently; to kind of give up all that privilege was a scary transition and I had nobody to talk things over with. And the whole profession of therapists was unknown in India at the time. They had either psychiatrists or, you know, friends. They didn’t have psychologists who were doing this kind of work: you had to be much more ill, you didn’t have supportive psychotherapy. So I felt it quite acutely and went through a period of a lot of difficulty in that transition moving from India and being on my own in the United States. So when I found out about counseling psychology, I went like “wow”, this is exactly what I’d like to do. It was the wrong financial decision, absolutely wrong financial decision, for a recent immigrant to kind of go this path, but I had a lot of support from my partner, my husband, and so it took a long time, that’s how I got here.

So you become a therapist. What is your approach to therapy… I know that you have different interests, right?
Yes, so… I have a psychodynamic/systems/attachment and attachment aware and trauma aware approach. And I definitely use a very systems lens in terms of placing the person in their childhood, in their adolescence, to have the image of who they are in that family even in their adulthood. I like to have a good history. Now that I’m thinking about it, my father was a neurologist and his idea of getting a good history was something that I always carried in me.  And to me, even the act of the clients telling their history (is part of the therapeutic process). I’m quite active in the first few sessions, asking people more questions than they’re used to… I’m not a silent therapist, I’m a very active and engaged therapist… so, that’s a bit the kind of theories I use.

So, when you say you use a psychodynamic approach, is it more Freudian or more Jungian?
I guess definitely more Jungian… If I had to pick between the two, I would pick Jung. I like to be aware of people’s spiritual beliefs in the way they think of themselves in the world, the way they feel connected to people, in some ways what they consider sacred. And I find that speaking of what they hold sacred gets people into a very different plane… even if they don’t know the answer.

Do you use this approach also with couples or do you use for example Gottman or something similar?
I don’t use Gottman, but I use Internal Family Systems: I use some of that, which is the type of therapy I received and it’s a very quick way to get people to take responsibility for their own stuff. In IFS, you are working with your whole system of internal parts: which is the part that comes out in that neediness between you and your partner, which is the part that gets really agitated and definitely needs attention from you. So you can tell your partner: this is the part of me that’s needing this. That way you’re not only projecting on the other and wanting the other person to care of your needs: you become aware of the space between the two of you, you can be more available for it, while managing your own needs.

You said you’re very active in the first few sessions… and then what?
And then it depends on the couple or the individual client. I only work with adults. Once they feel like I got them, with some couples I don’t say anything and just wait for them to start. With others, I’d say, “what needs attention, today?”  I don’t think in that way I’m fully psychoanalytic and letting people feel their tension and what’s unconscious in the room. Yeah, that’s sort of my style. I’m very engaged.

Yes, I can relate: I am learning more about Kleinian psychoanalysis and I am not sure I can stay quiet in the room.
Well, it does depend on what your client is waiting for. There are people who want to use the space to be very introspective and see what comes up. 90% of my clients are not like that. They’re coming to me with very clear things they’re dealing with; they’re not there for the luxury of ten years of lying on the couch. It’s a more immediate thing, maybe between the couple, or something else for an individual, or many people, it’s a process of getting to know themselves better. They and I don’t have the luxury of unlimited time. … sometimes, plain talk is important too… people need to hear that what you’re dealing with your family of origin… you need to step out of it and see. It can be life changing to see the whole picture.

Another area of my specialties is working with gifted people. With them, therapy is going like that (gestures a fast movement and laughs). They make these connections much faster. A lot of the teaching to be a therapist seems to hold people like in a very much, very delicate… you don’t want to offend or upset. I agree that words coming from a therapist are very powerful and you need to be careful. But that plain speaking suits the kind of system thinking.

Do you think there’s something else about your work that you’d want people to know about?
Hmmm… I work with the nerdy girls. Women in tech: working at the intersection of misogyny and racism, especially. For all this talk in the tech world, I don’t think they’re really propping up their women and it’s still a very male-dominated, bro culture that’s hard to break into even if you’re one of the super achievers. And it’s keeping women out of that world where there is money and there is power. So, I really enjoy my work with the nerdy girls.

So how do these situations present in the therapy room?
Sometimes depression, just this sense that they’re really wondering what they don’t get. So, the men will get a pass for some kind of behaviors that the women don’t get a pass for. Especially if it’s already reflected in their family of origin where they’re not supported in the ways that, it gets unbearable when the work culture is putting them down, too. So, it presents as depression and hopelessness about the world.

I remember when we first met we talked about DEI, you were very interested in the chapter’s efforts to create more space for diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think it’s something that is close to your heart. Would you like to say a bit about how it shows up in your practice.
I think living in the Silicon Valley, we’re really privileged. We have, in spite of all the racism and misogyny that exists, still a lot of room for growth, and people are interested in new ideas and want to incorporate fair practices. I think young people are more awake and they are going to be less and less tolerant of the old ways. I do some consulting work with other clinicians about some of the family dynamics they are seeing in their South Asian clients. I make room in my work to have discussions on racism and its impact on my clients, including processing feelings of shame and internalized racism.

Should we talk about your book?
Yes! So, I wrote that book because of what some of my clients were telling me… so this is already a population that is naïve about therapy, like it’s not a culturally familiar way of getting help. So, they’re already stacked against therapy and if they go to a therapist who asks them something very obtuse about their relationship or about being in an arranged marriage, they feel a lot of shame having to explain this and they feel some judgment whether it exists or not. And if they meet a culturally not competent therapist, they just shut the door on therapy. They don’t know enough to think ‘I should try another therapist and another therapist’. So when I began to hear more about that, I thought I should just write about five, fifteen categories that often come up in therapy that would be easy to read (not a fat book of lots of research and theories). A lot of it comes from my own experiences, my friends’, some interviews, and I don’t think I went into enough depth in any one topic, but I try to give people an overview in a very quick way. It is actually a primer on working with South Asian culture.

It all got started when I wanted to publicize to the South Asian community ‘please, don’t send your children off to be raised by your parents for one year or two years’ because I was seeing firsthand how important that disruption of the attachment process was; they just viewed it as children, babies can easily be reared there by their own parents, not as a disruption. So that’s what I wanted to convey first to the South Asian community and I wrote that in a small little opinion piece in the San Jose Mercury News, then continued to write more about it until each of these topics became a chapter in my book.

So you started to write the book as individual pieces for the Mercury News?!
Just the first one, and then I wrote them as separate essays on different topics that I thought were important and significant to the South Asian community. Including about friendships, how friendships are the replacements for the family and people go through a lot of grief when friendships break apart: it feels as intense as a family relationship breaking up.

Yes, I learned quite a bit reading your book, though I haven’t finished it yet. It’s fascinating.
Good. It is a very different culture. There is a lot of, you know… thanks for reading it!

In my own work with South Asian patients and observing some of my friends, I have become well aware of the striking difference in the dynamics of the relationships within the family. And you really have to have an insider’s eye to start making sense of it, or as someone of a different culture, it’s essential to inquire how things are done in that culture.
Yes, I think you can’t say ‘why don’t you speak to your father and tell him how you feel?’ And yes, for example, the wedding is not about the couple: it’s about the parents’ families. They’re invited because you have obligations: you’ve gone to all of their kids’ weddings, so you have to have them at your kids’ wedding. It’s not a one-way street, it’s not like you take a gift, and you’re done, you know. It’s about cultivating these relationships and keeping it going for a long time. In any case, I have taken a hiatus from writing but I am working on various ideas for a future book. At the moment, I am thinking of getting the audio book ready for this one and I’ll go back to writing. I have a volume of poetry also ready to publish again. So it was interesting how you chose the poem about the warmth in the car about the kid saying I love you. Why did you pick that.

You know, it’s a good question. I don’t remember clearly but maybe because it was winter so this idea of warmth felt really important. In hindsight, it’s mostly the part ‘I love you mama’ that really got me. I think there’s this time of the year when it’s a lot about love, being in your home where it’s very cozy, and warm, it’s cold out and you’re with people you really love, that’s what I wanted people to read. (share).
It was a good surprise.

I really love your poems. When did you start writing poetry?
As soon as I finished writing that first book: I began to write poetry. I was in a rush to finish that book because I couldn’t wait to get started on poetry. That’s the first time I’ve ever written. I’m not a trained writer but I joined a writing group that has been amazing. I need to find a flow space to write poetry. It’s only when I can relax that I can write poetry, so…

You most probably need to create a very sacred space to write poetry and to write in general.
Yes, good catch (laughs).

How do you see all of these experiences intersecting with therapy? How do they all fit together.
I think they’re all meditative experiences that allow room for unconscious awareness, to pay attention to your unconscious. So if you’re meditating or you dream, and you dream of your clients, and you are aware of that dream, you’re carrying some kind of burden for them whether that’s right or not; that feeling of being in touch with that.. writing allows me to be more in touch with how intense those experiences must be for the couples I work with. Or if I write about someone mourning the loss of her mother or father and I’m just more in touch with how powerful it was. You’ve got to get into a zone to write, to write poetry you have to be more in touch with yourself, and to be really present with your clients or patients, you have to be really present. That’s for me the intersection: it feels like a flow space.

Yes, I really like the word you use of “presence”. I read somewhere that the greatest gift one can give is presence. Thank you, Kalpana, for sharing all of this with us.

Kalpana Asok has over 30 years of experience working in her independent practice in Silicon Valley, specializing in individual and couples therapy, parenting, and career growth for women in tech. She is a published author of Whose Baby Is It, Anyway? Inside the Indian Heart; and Everyday Flowers, a volume of poetry, both published by ipbooks.

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