A Wall Street psychologist who's consulted on Showtime's 'Billions' outlines 5 truths of human behavior all her clients must face


denise shull

Courtesy of Denise Shull.

ReThink Group founder Denise Shull.


Wall Street is full of investors and traders with big egos, and Denise Shull sees them at their most vulnerable.

She's the founder of the ReThink Group, a performance coaching group that specializes in clients on Wall Street. She's also one of the inspirations for Maggie Rhoades, the in-house psychiatrist at the fictional hedge fund starring in Showtime's hit show "Billions."

Shull isn't a psychiatrist, but established her coaching method on the neuropsychology of unconscious thought, tailored to the needs of investors and traders. It's a combination drawn from her own life: She studied the neuropsychology of unconscious thought at the University of Chicago and spent 15 years as an equities trader.

She started ReThink in 2003 to put her own spin on the niche market of Wall Street performance coaching, a path paved by the late psychiatrist Ari Kiev, who was employed by Steve Cohen's hedge fund SAC Capital.


Over the past 13 years, Shull says she has worked with hundreds of clients who include traders, portfolio managers, risk managers, and private equity investors.

She explained to Business Insider how her approach is based on what she considers to be the widely misunderstood dynamic between thoughts and emotions, and the role that her clients' past plays into their current problems.

Below are five truths about human behavior Shull uses to stop her Wall Street clients from being their own worst enemies, when they could be losing tremendous amounts of other people's money and risk losing their jobs.

1. Pure resolve won't get results.

Shull thinks many people have assumptions based on an outdated theory of the "triune brain," which basically says emotions, thoughts, and basic functions are handled separately within the brain; the reality, she says, is that all three of these roles are related in brain mechanics. Too many people, she said, think that "if we have a plan and that we're disciplined then we'll be able to do the things that we want. ... It doesn't work like that."

It's why Shull has clients in the first place, she explained. The clients know that they are underperforming and they see their mistakes. But no pep talk from a manager or colleague and no Stoic denial of feelings can get them back to their peak.


2. You're going to make the same mistake over and over.

"Everyone has a fingerprint of what they do right and what they do wrong in the market and it's kind of like personality," Shull said. It's why she considers the market to be a sort of Rorshach test, on which investors and traders can project all of their beliefs and insecurities.

She's found that everyone has mistakes they regularly repeat, and for her clients, these mistakes have become overwhelming. These could be tendencies such as:

  • "I get too big when things aren't going well."
  • "I don't get big enough when things are going right."
  • "I over-trade when I'm bored."
  • "I take too long to analyze and then miss opportunities."

"I first help them realize all of their feelings around that weak point," Shull said. It's important to attach a label to these feelings, rather than leaving them an ambiguous jumble. She won't accept explanations for what they're feeling - each feeling has to be identified as concern, worry, anxiety, or whatever it is.

"The more they can put the right label on it, for whatever level of intensity the feeling is, the less chance they act it out," Shull said.



Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) coaches hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) in the show "Billions."

3. Your personal and professional life aren't as separate as you think.

Shull asks her clients about their personal lives in their first session. She's found that every recurring mistake tied to an insecurity has roots in a person's biography outside of their professional lives. "Someone's actual background matters more than anything," she said.


This is due to what she calls fractal emotions, where patterns develop throughout someone's life in different manifestations, the same way a fractal is a whole composed of pieces that have the same characteristics as the whole.

Examples: She had a client who had a crisis of confidence in his abilities that mirrored the one he had when he realized he had to give up his sporting career at some point in college; a client who was over-trading would seek out experiences that gave him a feeling of power, the same reason he played rugby; another client who had developed a fight or flight reaction to unexpected movements in the market displayed this in other aspects of his life, built on a childhood where his missionary parents uprooted the family repeatedly.

4. And ignoring your emotions won't get you anywhere.

Once these feelings are identified, Shull has her clients dive as deeply as possible into them, since she's found that ignoring or trying to negate these feelings are what cause her clients to continue repeating mistakes.

"These emotions always exist in an iceberg, so you have the stuff you know you feel on the top, about the here and now," she said. "If you've just had a disaster, we're just going to have the feelings about the disaster. We're going to be upset and I'm going to help you be upset, which means you're going to be mad at yourself, you're going to be mad at the markets, you're going to be mad with your risk manager, you're going to feel stupid. I'm going to help you feel all those sh---y things, frankly, that you don't want to feel. Why? Because you basically have to go through a grieving process."

The idea is to get her clients feeling these debilitating emotions in the room with her so that they confront them when they're at their office. When clients can stop hiding from the emotions tied to their weaknesses, they can embrace them and pull the power from them.


5. In fact, choosing the emotions you want will make all the difference.

Then it's time to replace bad behavior.

"Everyone else tries to fight behavior with thoughts," Shull said, referring to traditional ways of working through a down period. "What works better is to create behavior through expected feelings."

She has her clients decide how they want to feel in a given week. She said that actions follow, and stick when the negative emotions clients worked through have been stripped of their control.

"If you consciously exchange future feelings for each other, your chances of doing what you want to do, and having discipline, go wildly up," she said.

"If you work on the level of feelings, the thoughts take care of themselves."


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