Most therapists meet with no more than 10 clients per day, but last month New York-based social worker Sherry Amatenstein met with over 200. The catch? Each “Speed Shrinking” session lasted for only three minutes.
The unconventional, rapid-fire therapy event was the brainchild of professor and author Susan Shapiro, who hoped to promote her recent comic novel. Entitled “Speed Shrinking,” the novel focuses on the protagonist’s frenzied experiences with eight therapists in as many days as she attempts to fill the void left by her previous therapist.
To generate publicity for her new book, Shapiro and her team designed a real-life Speed Shrinking event. Shapiro hand-selected a panel of experts, ranging from licensed therapists to self-help authors to New York Times editors, who offered quick words of wisdom and advice to the event’s eager attendees amidst cupcakes and wine.
“Having the Speed Shrinking event was an innovative way to promote my book in a fun social environment,” Shapiro explained. “Nobody else has done anything like it. It went beyond my expectations — I had this image in my head, but the real thing turned out even better.”
Since the concept of Speed Shrinking is new, Frank Flaherty, a New York Times editor and an expert at the event, was unsure of what to expect.
“I guess if I’d had to have bet beforehand, I would have bet it would work, but I wouldn’t have bet a lot of money on it,” Flaherty said. “But it did work. It’s a new concept, loosely based on the idea of speed dating, but in fact, it’s speed advice given from experts in various areas … The whole thing worked very well.”
Flaherty acknowledged that the event was “kind of a gimmick,” but said that he enjoyed the challenge it presented.
“The three-minute limit was enforced very strictly, so you’re forced to think fast and to come up with an answer very quickly. You’re focused.”
He wondered, however, how poignant and complete an off-the-top-of-the-head response could really be.
“We’ve all thought of the right thing to say hours or days afterwards … I imagine that there’s a risk that I gave someone an incomplete answer, or even a wrong answer, because I didn’t have the time to really think it through.”
Shapiro, an award-winning journalism professor at the New School, said that she hoped the event would demystify therapy for both her writing students and curious New Yorkers who came to the event.
Shapiro, who has herself struggled with various addictions, credited therapy with helping her to triumph over her problems. “Nothing unlocked my own success blocks like having brilliant shrinks and gurus,” she said. “I want other people to have those same benefits … I invited people who helped me, so they could share their wisdom.”
But both Shapiro and her appointed experts were adamant that a speed-shrinking session in a social environment is not a substitute for prolonged, traditional therapy. In fact, “it’s almost exactly the opposite!” Shapiro said.
“You can’t consider a Speed Shrinking session a real therapy session,” social worker Amatenstein said. “It’s really just opening a door. What you’re looking for and what you can find in three minutes is the chemistry element. Is there something there? I think that’s what people really want from a therapist: to be understood, to feel ‘gotten.'”
In spite of its shortcomings as a method for therapy, Amatenstein said that she appreciated the opportunity to participate in the event.
“It was definitely an intense experience,” Amatenstein, who is also an author, said. “It’s a bit overwhelming to speak to so many people, to hear about so many problems. I felt walloped afterwards … but I also felt incredibly grateful that so many people were willing to trust me and to open up to me.”
And Shapiro said that while there are still skeptics, she thinks her idea is a great one. “Some major shrinks are making fun of [Speed Shrinking],” she said, “but that’s stupid because it’s a brilliant opportunity for them to connect with potential clients … I’ve been getting hundreds of e-mails from shrinks all around the world who want in on it, but I only want people I know and admire. I’ve been really careful about choosing.”
The event was also intended to provide networking opportunities for her writing students.
“I went hoping to not only get advice about personal issues, but to get introductions to people,” said Erasmo Guerra, a former student of Shapiro’s. “I ended up getting some incredible advice.”
Student Michael Blattman agreed that the event offered invaluable opportunities to interact with established writers.
“The event actually exceeded my expectations. I met people I’d never have met under normal circumstances … I learned how to approach literary agents, how to get their attention.”
Shapiro said that she’s glad she can be of assistance to her students.
“I care about my students and I’m kind of famous for helping them get published … I love that I’m getting students saying that the event helped them out because they’re really the ones I want to reach.”
Student Dorri Olds, who recently won a New York Press writing competition, credited Shapiro with her success.
“I always say that there was life before Sue and life after Sue … I’m just so in awe of her,” Olds said.
Shapiro said that Speed Shrinking has been garnering a great deal of press attention: She has upcoming interviews scheduled with major news networks, including CBS and CNN. More Speed Shrinking events are also in the works, including a public event sponsored by The New School on Nov. 6.