Mentoring Myself: One Year Without Jeff Seinfeld

Welcome to Format Free Fridays at, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions.

Next Wednesday, January 25th, will mark the one-year passing of my friend and mentor Jeff Seinfeld.  Only 63 years old, Jeff suffered a sudden, massive heart attack, leaving in his wake devastated family members, patients, friends and a community of social workers.

Jeff was a world-renowned author, theorist and clinician. I met Jeff in 2001 and had the privilege of being supervised by him for a decade.  Aside from our formal supervision, Jeff was my lifeline; the person to whom I turned when I was at a loss with a client or when I was questioning whether I had pushed the clinical envelop too far in a session.  Jeff taught me to be me.  He encouraged me to facilitate therapy my way, to find my own voice, to question existing paradigms and to develop new ways of affecting change. Professionally speaking, he is responsible for everything good that I do.

Not surprisingly, this last year has been a process for me.  I am nowhere near where I was 12 months ago, thankfully.  Those first few months were often excruciating.  I recall waking up to sunlight similar to today’s light, eager to start my day, only to remember that Jeff was no longer alive, then fight the urge not to roll over, throw a pillow over my head, and hide in bed all day.

Over time, I’d have moments, even days when I would get caught up in the excitement of life, forgetting my mourning and feeling filled with peace.  Then, randomly, I’d find myself stumped clinically, and I’d reach for my phone to call Jeff only to remember that his number, which I still cannot bring myself to delete, no longer leads to him. Over time, the devastation would give way to sadness and more recently I smiled thinking Jeff would likely smack my head if he knew that I still hadn’t deleted his number from my phone.  “Have you learned nothing from me about Object Relations?”

I have, Jeff.  I’ve learned that I can stand on my own.  And although I can’t call you anymore, I have your books, your thoughts, and most importantly, the memory of our discussions.  And sometimes I can’t remember which were your thoughts and which were mine.  It’s like we’ve morphed into one voice, which is always with me, guiding me; mentoring me.

Lessons Learned

Welcome to Format Free Fridays at, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions.

This past week was filled with enormous highs and lows for me.  For months I’ve waited in great anticipation of January 26, the date of the debut of a television show for which I provided expert commentary.  What I could not have imagined was that my excitement would be overshadowed by the sudden loss of my mentor Jeff Seinfeld who died on January 25th.

The emotional roller coaster ride of this week provoked me to ponder life: What’s the point in making plans? How could I have gotten so carried away over a stupid television show?  How could I have been a better friend to Jeff?  Was I a good enough friend to Jeff?  How will I practice without him?

I indulged myself for several days in these bottomless questions, some of which were rhetorical and some of which were pointless.  Eventually after I exhausted myself, I came up for air and I asked myself a familiar question:  What did you learn?

I have a fundamental need to learn lessons from pain and struggle.  The alternative is to walk away from situations feeling robbed, victimized, disempowered.   I believe that much of our experience in life boils down to the meaning that we attach to events.  Thus began my search for lessons learned this week.

Jeff was an expert in a psychodynamic theory called Object Relations, which is essentially the study of how humans relate to one-another.  A fundamental principal in Object Relations Theory is a concept called Object Constancy, a fancy term to describe our ability to internalize our relationship with another and hold it in memory, so that we’re able to recall the relationship and experience the feelings from that relationship without being dependant on the other person to provide us with those feelings.  In short, we achieve independence.

So what was my lesson?

Life is all about relationships and our lessons learned during those relationships, and the essence of object constancy is the ability to carry those lessons beyond those relationships.  It’s the crux of what therapy is intended to achieve.  Like a skilled therapist, a good mentor teaches his student in a way that fosters independence so that eventually, the student no longer needs the mentor.  I wouldn’t say that I no longer need Jeff, but I’m betting he would.

In Memory of Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld

To honor the passing of my dear friend and mentor Dr. Jeffrey Seinfeld, I will not be posting my usual Q&A today.

Dr. Seinfeld passed away on Tuesday afternoon, unexpectedly, of a heart attack.  I would like to speak about this man who has meant so much to the field of social work, and so much to me personally.

I met Jeff during the first year of my PhD program at New York University.  Completely unaware of who he was or of the magnitude of his professional reputation, I naively approached him one day after class and asked if he’d provide me with weekly supervision; a service that usually commands a significant fee but one which Jeff insisted on providing to me pro bono.

Over the next year I met with Jeff weekly for supervision.  He listened with a patient ear as I nervously updated him on each of my clients, regaling him with unnecessary details, leaving him just a few minutes at the end of each one-hour session in which to give me feedback.  In years to come, Jeff would laugh, pointing out my unconscious desire to limit the time he had to critique me.  Significant critique or not, Jeff helped me to decide who I wanted to be as a professional and he guided me to use my talent to serve people.

Our relationship continued through the years, well beyond the one year that Jeff had initially committed to providing me with supervision.  He was my ‘lifeline’ of sorts.  The person who I turned to when I was at a loss with a client.  The person I vented to.  The person I shared my fears with.  Jeff was my clinical guru, someone who always had the answer, even if just to reassure me that what I was doing was ok.

Since he came into my life, I’ve capitalized on opportunities to honor him and to underscore the dear place he held in my heart.  When I defended my dissertation, he was the first to call me Dr. Smith.  When I was awarded my PhD, I asked Jeff to perform my hooding ceremony.  When I was married last year, Jeff was among the first guests to participate in our candle lighting ceremony (pictured).

I last saw Jeff on New Years Eve.  He came to my office in Soho to update me on his work at NYU, which he was so deeply proud of.  He spoke of struggles that he had overcome, both personally and professionally.  That was the thing about Jeff: He never pretended to be perfect.  His own life was a great example of resilience, of lessons learned and of the courage to push on.

It is difficult to comprehend that I must now continue my journey without him.  Though I will miss him in more ways then I can bear to contemplate today, I am so grateful for the years I had with my mentor, my friend, Dr. Jeff Seinfeld.

You can read more about Dr. Seinfeld by clicking the link below: Tribute to Dr. Seinfeld