Dr Amar Behbehani: Leveraging the challenges of ADHD
Dr Amar Behbehani is an extraordinary Kuwaiti woman. One may call her a super-achiever many times over. But then, Kuwaiti women of quality do extraordinary things; they push boundaries, achieve milestones seemingly easily while the world glosses it over or merely overlooks them. To use a cliché, Dr Behbehani wears many hats, and she wears all of them well.
As one of the first certified art psychotherapists in Kuwait, Dr Behbehani’s work has touched many lives. She’s also a professor of design and innovation at the College of Architecture at Kuwait University. A senior clinical psychologist, she has established her own Consultancy called Shore Consultancy. As a female leader, Dr Behbehani is passionate about improving the quality of human life through education, creativity and compassion. Her work as an activist led her to cofound Soroptimist Kuwait, a worldwide sisterhood that works to empower, enable and educate women.
How does Dr Behbehani balance so many identities? I wonder. “I define myself as a life scientist,” smiles Dr Behbehani as she arranges a tea tray in the bright adjoining open kitchen where she and her husband worked in quiet companionship. “When people ask me about the meaning of life sciences, I say it’s the art of living,” she says. “In my process of growing and learning, I discovered many talents and many skill sets that eventually led me to my innovative self.” While in high school, Amar and her contemporaries did not have many options for choosing a specialisation in university. Kuwait University was still in a stage of transition. “I’ve defined my own path,” she affirms. “I wanted to study the arts; I want to help people. And I wanted to help people through pragmatism and science. I also thought, what if I can build my own program and ensure my own knowledge enhancement?” And that’s what she did. She did her bachelor’s degree in mass communication specialising in photojournalism and visual marketing, with a minor in fine arts, cinematography and theatre. Later she did her Master of Fine Arts in Graphic Designing and visual anthropology.
It was while doing her Masters thesis, Amar first encountered art therapy, a career path she later chose for herself. “My thesis for my post-graduation was to enhance the readability of books for girls and boys with dyslexia. For my literature review, I had to study the effect of design and art on visual communication. It was then that I came across art therapy. “Amar was fascinated. It was as if she couldn’t resist the lure of the subject. “My dream became to empower people mentally through art.” Her dream led her to do a doctoral degree in Art Therapy at Florida State University.
With her Masters and PhD in 2009, Dr Behbehani became a pioneer in her field in Kuwait. “I was amongst the first people in Kuwait to earn a Masters in Fine Arts and design.” She is also the first female art psychotherapist in the Arab world. One doesn’t need a doctorate to practise art therapy, but Amar Behbehani did not believe in half measures. The researcher and academic in her pushed her to go for a PhD. She did a double major in design, art education and art psychotherapy. “I wanted to teach at Kuwait University and to do that, had to earn these degrees. It was very challenging,” she says, looking back. “I don’t think I slept one whole day for six years. I did my classes in the morning, and in the evening, I would teach as a PhD student. It wasn’t an easy journey, but I loved every bit of it.”
Amar Behbehani belongs to an interesting family. In her own words, she belongs to a family of ‘overachievers’. Her father, Dr Behbehani, a renowned name in medicine in Kuwait, is a pioneer in his own right. A general surgeon, a leader in his field, he cofounded the Medical Sciences Centre, or the College of Medicine in Kuwait, which has developed into a premier institution in the Arabian Gulf. Amar herself was born in Egypt. As a child, she lived in Kuwait for a while before shifting to the United States. The family finally relocated to Kuwait after her father finished his studies. “Despite having to move so much, I loved it. I learned different languages, improved my accent, learned to be flexible,” she smiles. “We were always supportive of my father’s career. My parents raised a family that is supportive of one another,” she says. She calls her father a humanitarian who built his own legacy for his country and humanity. “He is a person who devoted his life and every moment in his career to finding a cure for cancer. We were all a part of his journey. He’s a part of our success, and we are a part of his. And it’s amazing.”
Amar’s mother used to be a volleyball player in the 1960s and 70s. “It wasn’t very common for women to play competitive sports in those days,” says Dr Amar. “Until now, my mother is in love with sports. She cannot stop watching tennis, volleyball or basketball. She’s the one who tells us the names of the players. Sports is her passion.” Amar’s mother also had an artistic streak to her that she passed on to her daughter. “I think one of the things I would have loved her to do is to carry on with her career and us at the same time,” she reflects. “But I think she managed to build her own empire within us. She loves seeing us succeed because she’s a giver and a humanitarian by nature.” To Dr Amar her mother is her best friend. “She is the person to go to, you know if I have a problem. She’s my first phone call.” Not many people know that Dr Amar Behbehani suffers from ADHD, but she has found her way of working around that condition. In fact, in many ways, she has embraced her ADHD and used it to her benefit. It has fueled her passion and allowed her to pursue many different paths simultaneously; it has allowed her to have many careers. “I never had a problem growing up with ADHD. In fact, in a way, I only started to appreciate my problem when I became a therapist. At the time, I was told that while people with ADHD are gifted and can do 1 million things simultaneously, they are also the ones who cannot concentrate and don’t like things they have to memorise. Fortunately enough, I was a person who was totally focused when it came to what I wanted in life. So yes, I had a problem concentrating, but I was also determined to get better grades. ADHD is the reason I have multilayered skills. And it is because of that that I cannot do one thing at a time. I have to do several things to make me happy, and I am okay with that.” It is perhaps her journey with ADHD that influenced her work as an art therapist. As a person and as a therapist.
Dr Amar is very holistic. “I care about the well being of a person. For me, it’s not about what you are labelled with. To me, you are a person, and I care about you. So it was very interesting for me to know that I had ADHD. I had all the symptoms, and I’m proud of myself that members of my family and I are overachievers, perhaps because of this.” Dr Amar Behbehani’s professional journey has been varied, multilayered and dynamic. When asked about her professional highlights, Dr Amar laughs. “I have too many of them. Let’s split them according to my persona.” I agree. “A lot of people ask me, how do I manage so many careers? Well, Shakespeare said that when a person is on stage, he is actually that person. I am not saying that I have different masks, but I genuinely have identifiers. It is part of my ADHD, which means I need to do a million things at the same time. It’s part of me.”
One of the roles that Dr Amar Behbehani truly enjoys is that of a teacher and mentor. “I would say the highlight of my career as a professor is when a student of mine sends me a message informing me she has got a job. My students are my children, and when they get jobs, to me, this is an achievement.” Dr Behbehani believes that as a professor, she has to prepare her students for life, and when that happens, she considers it her greatest achievement. “Helping students find careers and jobs is what matters. Our learning outcome is beyond our curriculum. Our learning outcome is supposed to be a part of a career development process. So one of the highlights of my professional life is that every summer, I have students who graduate and join the workforce or enter the studio.” Teaching, engaging with what she calls ‘beautiful minds’ and being able to mould them gives her satisfaction. “People who teach know what I mean exactly. Sometimes it is challenging, but at the end of the path, you see beautiful things.” In her career as a designer, seeing an actual object, an output that can be assessed gives her instant gratification. She also speaks about her career as an art therapist. “As a clinical psychotherapist, when a person thanks me and says, ‘you have changed my life,’ that’s a big thing. When you make an imprint on somebody, they change. As therapists, we cannot change your life. We help you to help yourself. I love the fact that we are an invisible source of light. All I can do is guide. All I can do is suggest .”
Dr Amar is an eternal optimist. She believes in the power of change. It is this belief which made her a female leader and an activist. Cofounding The Soroptimists was part of her journey as an activist. Dr Behbehani took over the mantle of President of The Soroptomists at a challenging time, and she carried out her duties seamlessly despite the limitations. “The Soroptimist is an amazing organisation made up of so many great women. We try as much as we can to achieve our goal, which is to empower women from different circumstances.” Proud of the organisation she helped cofound, Dr Behbehani explains the four reasons she feels the Soroptimists are successful. “Firstly, we are all women. Many people say that it is hard for women to work together, but I tell them it is beautiful and rewarding. Number two, Soroptimist Kuwait is part of an international organisation, which is an achievement. Our membership is made up of different nationalities. It is inclusive, and that’s what Kuwait is really about. It is not just about Kuwaiti women, but it’s about women in Kuwait. That makes me proud. Number three, we have achieved over 38 projects since 2015, and that’s a sizeable number. These projects are full-fledged projects with a beginning, middle and end. And the fourth and most important point is that I have learned new skills from the Soroptimists. If a woman joins a women’s organisation and learns new skills, that means the society is successful.”
Dr Behbehani, who had always lived and operated in the space of creative visionary, learned to navigate the practicalities of project management. “I learned leadership skills along with management skills. I learned to show empathy. I have always been empathetic, but I learned to express it, and I learned to work with other women.” The Soroptomists have different activities, and Dr Amar is the leader of Eliminating Violence Against Women program. She carries the burden of these women who are subjected to violence in her heart. She does not believe it when people say you should not take work personally. “I take it personally, especially when it comes to women, children, boys and girls who are subjected to violence in their homes. I believe if we cannot save all of them, at least we can give them hope and strength and tools to empower themselves.” As a therapist, what Dr Amar Behbehami brings to the table is a combination of Art and Psychotherapy. Art therapy is a therapeutic approach that uses art as a means of communication, assessments, expression, and, most importantly, a journey of discovery. “For a person who is suffering from a mental challenge, and I say challenge because it is not necessarily a disease, art therapy is a pragmatic approach,” says Dr Behbehani.
When Dr Behbehani started practising, she was the first art therapist in Kuwait to have undergone months of rigorous training in using media and psychotherapy modalities. “Now we have more art therapists in Kuwait along with music therapists, drama therapists, and I am so proud of them all.” Despite a hectic and varied career, Dr Amar found the time to open a consultancy that offers a wellness program. Shore consultancy is Dr Amar’s first Consultancy. After having worked for years as an educator and therapist, she decided that it was time to develop her own programmes to help men and women from a leadership perspective, an innovation perspective, and an employment perspective. “There are some HR companies in Kuwait that do assessments, but to actually combine the art of the sciences and the science of psychology in understanding human nature and how they can function in their own societies is something different,” she says. Dr Amar Behbehani launched Shore Consultancy with her partner, her husband. What makes Shore Consultancy different is its program and the fact that one cannot find lots of co-owned consultancies in Kuwait. And that is what Dr Amar tries to to bring to the table. “Shore consultancy offers a home away from home experience. We specialised in psychological Consultancy, psychoeducational Consultancy really defining the academic and educational capabilities of people, and trying to help them to move forward.” A medical challenge doesn’t have to be a reason for not living a happy and fulfilling life. ADHD or any neurodevelopmental condition carries a stigma that can crush children and adults. But Dr Amar Behbehani has taken the bull by the horns, leveraged its traits, and taken advantage of it. She has channelised her strengths and has not allowed ADHD to get her down. Her story and life journey is a means of hope and inspiration for both aspiring women leaders and people struggling with ADHD. She is a positive role model who shows what is possible. Her energy, passion for success through perverence, hard work, and focus shows that nothing is impossible if a person has something great to offer the world.
By Chaitali B. Roy
Special to the Arab Times