Mary K. Armstrong

Recipient: March 2012 

For Mary K. Armstrong, making the world a better place has always been a driving force. Mary was the Founder and Director of the Centre for Focusing in Toronto and currently operates a private psychotherapy practice. She is also the author of the 2010 book: Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation.She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 5-12, 2012, under the theme: "Social Workers Help People Get Back on Track".  

Mary believes that social work gave her the tools to carry out her need to make a difference.  As she nears the end of her social work career, she advises those entering the field: "Follow your bliss, find the area that stirs your passion. Once you find your corner of the world, dig in with all your heart and soul. Learn whatever you need to know in order to do this work effectively. Joy comes from being totally involved in your work and your life." 

When she graduated from the School of Social Work at the University of Toronto in 1980, Mary had no idea that her path would lead to specializing in childhood trauma. She recounts: "At the beginning of my social work practice, I specialized in couple therapy. While the School had given me good training in working with individuals, couples and families in a counselling practice, I did not know how to work with the unconscious. As a yoga teacher, I knew there were other ways of using myself that would allow clients to discover deeper truths.  I turned to Dr. Eugene Gendlin and his Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy, a client-centred psychotherapy in which the helping person listens empathically and provides a safe place for the client to access their unconscious workings by learning to pay attention to the body's physically-felt responses to life. As a yoga practitioner, I knew that nothing changes unless change happens in the body. Focusing is a sort of inner yoga and gave me the tools I needed to help people experience a deeper level of awareness than was usually available to them."  In time, Mary opened The Centre for Focusing and trained professionals and lay people in the art of Focusing (the Centre closed in the year 2000). 

Mary describes in her memoir Confessions of a Trauma Therapist how she realized in the early days of her practice that she was missing something with a number of clients: "I was beginning to realize that the key I was overlooking was child sexual abuse. My husband, Dr. Harvey Armstrong, was doing work that I really valued and appreciated in this field. As a psychiatric resident at The Hincks, under the supervision of Dr. Angus Hood, he had been a pioneer in believing and treating young people who disclosed child sexual abuse. Despite the negative perceptions of his peers who questioned his motives, Harvey believed these young patients and held true to what his gut told him was real. I set about learning all I could about this shocking, emerging field that was compelling my husband to risk his reputation by telling a resistant world about crimes against children." 

And so Mary focused her energies on childhood trauma. She also sought out professionals experienced in working with childhood trauma at a time when very few practitioners recognized abuse and neglect - and even fewer knew how to successfully treat it. She reports: "In those early days, I had no idea that my own depression and irrational fears stemmed from incest. It would be years later - in my late 40's - that I understood the cause of my stress. After many years of helping others get back on track with their lives by healing the damage done by the physical, emotional and sexual abuse and by neglect they had suffered as children, I realized that I owed it to the world to tell my own story. Remember - I was compelled to do good in this world, to make a positive difference - and this is how I could do it. So I published my story." 

The publication and launch of Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation was an immense success. Mary remembers: "I knew I'd done the right thing as survivor after survivor - with tears in their eyes - told me how my disclosure helped them in their own struggle with childhood trauma. My book continues to help both victims and their helpers understand the devastation left by this betrayal of adults in a position to have power over the child." 

When asked about the essential attributes of professional/inspirational leaders, Mary responds: "A leader must have an ability to really listen without an agenda and with a desire to understand the client as much as one person is able to understand another's life experience." Another key aspect of leadership is the vision to identify when clients' needs are not being met and finding the answers in uncharted territory. 

Mary K. Armstrong is an inspirational leader in the social work community - optimistic, courageous, influential.  During Social Work Week, March 5-11, 2012, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.