Humans of MHT: An Interview with Dr. Michelle Harwell

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Dr. Michelle Harwell

The latest installment of our Humans of MHT series is with none other than the woman who started it all here at Michelle Harwell Therapy! 

Vanessa: Alright, we’re here for another Michelle Harwell Therapy Humans of MHT interview. I’m Dr. Vanessa Spooner, one of the supervisors and clinicians here at Michelle Harwell Therapy and I have the pleasure today of interviewing Dr. Michelle Harwell, who as you may have guessed it, founded Michelle Harwell Therapy and is our lady boss! Hi Michelle.

Michelle: Hi Vanessa, how are you?

V: I’m good! Are you ready to talk about your humanness?

M: You know, I was thinking about this. I was up last night and I was trying to fall asleep and I realized I was like slightly terrified [laughs]. I was like what is this feeling?

V: Terrified is being human! [laughs]

M: Yeah, right? So…I guess.

V: What does humanness mean to you?

M: Yeah…seems like a big question, doesn’t it?

V: It’s one of the biggest questions I think.

M: You know I was writing about this a while ago and we’ve been talking about this a lot in the practice. And I think just in a matter of fact way how humans as species...what separates us from other species on this planet. And it’s really our capacity to harness vulnerability. That we have done this amazing thing evolutionary-wise. In which we’ve found a way to harness social connection to have this elongated infancy and childhood that allows a child to grow, play, and experience their self in relation to others that cultivates mind and a self. As I think about what it means to be human, I think it is this two-fold dialogue between the capacity to have a mind and an awareness of the world and how that is really connected to vulnerability. And this tension I think, that as we walk through the world this dialogue is always happening. We have to be in relation to others to meet our needs, but we also have this tremendous capacity to create, to problem solve, but we also have tremendous amount of need. I think somewhere in that dialogue is what it means to be human.

V: Well and it sounds like you were even feeling kind of vulnerable last night!

M: [laughs] Yeah! Right?

V: It’s very human. Well, and the more we put ourselves out there and want to connect with others, the more potentially vulnerable we are. Even if it’s just doing something like doing an interview that you know is going on the Internet.

M: Yes.

V: So, you chose play to represent your humanness and you even mentioned that a little bit in your definition of humanness just now. What is particularly meaningful about play to you?

M: I think that’s a great question. I started out my career working with kids…well, and I still do. Let me start here by saying that there’s a famous analyst that I love and he has this small quote that says: “There’s a poverty of play.” And I think what he means by that as we grow in development, we often leave behind this space that we create in childhood, where there’s an in-between space between reality and pretend. This space where we can discover and explore – there’s an openness. As we get older we begin to move through the world using our generalizations or judgments and what that can mean is that we foreclose on the ability of becoming or being curious. Play…I think, I dived into the more conceptual meaning of it, but I think in general play is a passion of mine, it’s a posture in life and I think kids have taught me that – to not take for granted and continue cultivating a space in which exploration and trying on things and continuing to discover, not foreclosing on possibility is important and crucial throughout the lifespan.

V: So what you’re saying is play is one of the things that might bring someone into your office? That they have lost the ability to play and might not realize that?

M: Yeah, I mean I think…it’s funny I was going just through this process of putting together my website and Adam Phillips has this quote about the importance of not losing the madness of our childhood. The ability to roam in our imaginations and our creativity and that when we lose the capacity to stay in touch with play life becomes futile. It becomes one-dimensional. I would say on some level, certainly clients who come in and can’t reach for hope, can’t connect to vitality or aliveness, on some level maybe given up on the capacity to play in their interior and exterior life, to see new possibility.

V: Well, and that ties in great with the next question I was going to ask you, which is how does humanness show up in your work as a therapist? Because you are defining humanness as involving play in some way.

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M: It’s funny, so I think in a couple of ways. I have my doctorate in psychoanalysis and I really attribute…I think being a play therapist has taught me a lot about play, but psychoanalysis, having had sat with someone who was curious about my mind and really just opened up the space that we go really go anywhere, we could go anywhere in terms of my experience in life and be curious and understand it. And I think that process of going through my own analytic treatment really shaped how I am with my clients and in terms of what I offer them. And how that is connected to play is that I really want to give my clients a sense of space. Winnicott calls it “potential space.” Potential space to play. To play with all aspects of our selves, that there really is no bounds. One of my central goals is to infuse a sense of curiosity and wonder into the space that I share with my clients. That’s probably a central tenet of how I connect.

V: How would you introduce the concept of play to a new client?

M: That’s a great question. Well, you know I think there’s all kinds of ways. I think you can directly talk about it. But I like more indirect ways. I think that the connection between humor, I would say, humanness and play – is that in a lot of ways I will embody that. I’ll raise an eyebrow or I’ll say “Wait a minute!” or I might laugh. And all of that is to show that I’m interested, I’m connecting with them and maybe I’m trying to implicitly communicate…kind of losing my thread here…but I think humor is an interesting way of introducing play and curiosity. Because what humor does is that it has dual meaning, right, it has multiple levels of emotional experience and that’s why often we laugh. Implicit in a joke or when we find something humorous is we are tracking an irony or a contrast. And I think often in therapy the capacity to connect on those levels can open up an exploration with our clients to take a deeper look without being self-critical.

V: The humor lightens it up, but there’s no like right answer and that something can have multiple meanings to someone. So when you’re showing them that you want to be playful and you want to be humorous with them, it allows them to not take themselves so seriously, in a good way. Everything that you talk about in therapy is very important, but I want you to loosen up a little bit. And see what happens if you’re a little bit looser and you’re playing around with the possibility of different ideas or different meanings for different things.

M: In another light, we’re taking about the use of humor in play, but I think play is so dimensional. I think about the kids in the playroom that I relate to. A lot of play is not fun, it’s not light. Kids can play in really dark areas. And I think in that same capacity, there’s a way in which, I know certainly when I am roaming about in my interior, thinking about my feelings and I am wanting to relate and I am trying to relate to myself, there can be a rigor. I was recently in Australia and there were these kangaroos and they had to have been siblings because they just started boxing with each other and you could see them working out this kind of aggression. I think sometimes we do that too with our clients, it’s like the ability to get in and wrestle with something together. And to sit in a space of not-knowing and trying to figure it out. Bringing my mind to my clients and being willing to kind of sit in a space that’s unknown, but that’s also real. I think that’s a form of play too.

V: I think that’s great that you brought that up because I think most people wouldn’t automatically associate that with play. Well, Michelle, thank you for your time today, we certainly got to learn a little more about play and psychoanalysis and see a little bit of your humanness as well.

M: Thanks so much, it was fun talking to you – always a pleasure Vanessa.

V: Thank you Michelle.


Dr. Michelle Harwell, PsyD, LMFT is an expert trainer, respected speaker, and licensed therapist in trauma and attachment. She is noted for her specialization in areas of development, attachment, trauma, and neuroscience, and her ability to communicate complex topics with clarity and humor. Michelle completed her PhD in Psychoanalysis from The Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She received her BA in English Literature from University of Oklahoma, MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology.


Vanessa Spooner, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping adults work through anxiety, depression, grief, and eating disorders. Dr. Spooner also has extensive training and experience in group therapy and is currently president of the Group Psychotherapy Association of Los Angeles (GPALA)

You Are Here

You Are Here

I became a lot happier when I stopped caring so much if I was happy.

There's something about emotions that makes them very easy to sort into two piles: good and bad. We have emotions which we prefer, and as adults with influence over our circumstances, we can become quite consumed with the pursuit of those “good” emotions. But there is something deceiving about such a pursuit, and if we only ever feel happy, we're bound to miss out.

Wouldn't it be alarming if we were so happy we couldn't feel sad – not even in the face of something truly heartbreaking? And wouldn't it be stifling to live a life so happy that we could never feel angry in the face of injustice or affront? Such a happiness is not happiness at all. In fact, happiness in the absence of the other emotions soon disappears, no matter how closely we guard it. Happiness means more when contrasted with an experience of anger or sadness or one of those other “bad” feelings.

Interestingly, happiness and other seemingly “bad” emotions are not mutually exclusive. I think we often try to root out those emotions we think are getting in the way of our happy. Sometimes, it's that effort that is getting in the way – not the feelings themselves!

It takes practice, and sometimes a little help, but noticing and accepting the mixed set of emotions that exist inside of us frees us up. It allows us to experience the world complexly. Happy and anxious and many other emotions can coexist.

Diagram by author.

Diagram by author.

It also creates space inside of us to recognize what is important. Emotions give us information. They are beckoning us to say “no” to something, or to stand up for someone, or to ask for help, or to grieve. And however unpleasant these “bad” emotional signals may be, if they help me to do such important tasks, then I'd say, they are good.


Allison (Allie) Ramsey is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, IMF #94391, working under the professional supervision of Michelle Harwell, PsyD, MFT 50732. Allie works with individuals on a broad range of issues, including anxiety, depression, relational challenges, faith integration, divorce, and aging. 

From Contradiction to Paradox

From Contradiction to Paradox

To survive, we must make instantaneous sense of our world. As such, it is an essential skill to be able to discern one’s surroundings and act in accordance with the demands of our environment. Our brain does an unparalleled job of this – it automatically makes critical decisions in milliseconds – what way to pull the steering wheel if another car is careening towards us on the highway; quickly making sense of that brown coiled shape seen out the corner of our eye. Is it a poisonous snake, or simply a discarded loop of rope or a garden hose? While decisiveness is paramount to our survival, this very ability also begets a tendency to seek certainty and understanding in situations which may call for much more nuanced circumstance. 

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In addition to our inclination to seek a practical mastery of our surroundings, as humans (particularly in the fact-based, scientifically-validated culture of modern times), we are also conditioned to seek out singular definitive answers to many of life’s questions. Such reductionism can (and often does) curtail experience into a false binary; a straightforward yes or no, right or wrong, bad or good. This simplistic view makes for a sterile exactness that leaves no room for the messy alchemy we call human experience

When we become fixed within this black or white view, any deviation from this false self-imposed logic becomes a source of discomfort and we can spend much of our mental energy denying the contradictions that exists within ourselves and our relationships. For example: How can one simultaneously feel the need to seek comfort and connectedness among friends and loved ones whilst still needing to assert autonomy and separateness from others?

Seeking an answer or resolution to the existence of contradictions is like trying to swim upstream against a steady and powerful current – you will not get far before succumbing to exhaustion. Instead of fighting against two incompatible conditions by demanding yourself to choose one over the other, surrendering into a state of ambiguity and accepting not-knowing can open our hearts and minds to the all the possibilities of the human experience.

Acceptance of contradictions is the conduit for viewing the human condition as a paradox: a more fully alive, well-rounded, non-dualistic stance. Where contradiction is an unsolvable problem of logic, paradox is an enigmatic and awe-inspiring riddle. Tolerating, and then honoring contradictions allow them to shift from irascible nuisances of life into deeply intoxicating existential curiosities. These paradoxes are deeply mysterious and beg for thoughtful exploration. They open space for reconnection to ourselves and others and invite us to grow our capacity to discern more than bad or good, threat or friend…but rather the whole spectrum of possibility gifted to us in this existence.


Lauren Ziel, MSW is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker, ASW #76483, working under the supervision of Vanessa Spooner, PsyD. Through the use of movement and mindfulness, Lauren develops specialized treatment for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, challenges in life-stage transitions, relational difficulties, and identity/intrapersonal development.

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Dr. Vanessa Spooner

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Dr. Vanessa Spooner

In this installment of our series "Humans of MHT," Laura talks with Vanessa about holding contradictions within ourselves, growing up in Maine, and the power of group psychotherapy. 

Laura: Hello, my name is Laura MacRae-Serpa and I am a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at Michelle Harwell Therapy. I am here with Dr. Vanessa Spooner, who is a Clinician and Clinical Supervisor at MHT, and we are going to have the pleasure of doing the fourth interview in the Humans of MHT series. So, I also wanted to mention that Dr. Spooner is the President of GPALA, which is the Group Psychotherapy Association of Los Angeles - Hello Vanessa!

Vanessa: Hi Laura - How are you?

L: I'm good, thank you. Are you ready to talk about feelings and thoughts about humanness?

V: Let's get started.

L: Okay, I'm interested in knowing what humanness means to you?

V: So, I was thinking about this this morning, as I was getting ready to head into work and for me, I think being human is being a contradiction - that we are so many polarities and opposites and we are constantly experiencing the tension between different thoughts or different feelings. And I think that as humans sometimes we get into trouble when we try to condense ourselves into just one thing - just one way of being - just one way of thinking - just one way of relating to people.

I think sometimes people think that they shouldn't have conflicting feelings or they shouldn't have different ways of relating to people but I really think that the richness that comes from being human is really found in that - in that contradiction. And I think the more we are open to that and the more that we embrace it - the more alive we feel and the happier we are. I think it's a part of our experience. I think some people really enjoy it and other people might feel stressed or trapped by that feeling - that nothing is simple - our thoughts and feelings can change about things -but we also enjoy it and seek it out.

For example, if a movie didn't have some tension in it and you didn't know what was going to happen then you wouldn't feel really riveted by it or if you're reading a book and a character seems pretty one-dimensional then you're not that interested. And people usually enjoy things when there's some ambiguity and there's many different meanings that could come from it - like a painting or poem - things that are so rich because they can have a lot of contradictions in them or they have a lot of different narratives in them. I think for me thinking about humanness that essence really speaks to me - the contradiction - the dialectics of it in that way - that you can have two opposing things happening at the same time and they don't cancel each other out and they can co-exist - like they don't completely contradict each other in that way.

L: Nicely said. True. During our photo shoot, you held up a cutting board of Maine, and I'm curious to know what that object means to you when you're thinking about your humanness?

V: So, I chose the cutting board because it's probably the easiest way to represent that I'm from Maine, otherwise I would have had to show a a state map or something. I chose Maine to represent my humanness because it kind of embodies exactly what I'm talking about- this dialectical opposition that we all embody. For me, a lot of times I have people who are surprised that I'm from Maine living out in California. It’s like - how opposite can you be? - you're coming from the other side of the country. I'm also from a very small town in Maine and there's a part of me that loves being from Maine and there’s part of me that hates being from Maine.

I think I chose that to represent my humanness because we all have mixed feelings about our homes. Mixed feelings about where we come from. We can have a sense of pride of where we're from. We can have a sense of shame, depending on our backgrounds. If I could have it my way then I would live in Maine and work in California. There are so many parts of Maine that feel more like me. It's slower and quieter. You're in nature more, the pace of life is slower and it just seems simple but not in a bad way. like People aren't rushing around trying to do different things. They're a little bit more interested in being. But LA also has a lot of things too. LA has a very vibrant community. LA has way more diversity than you find in Maine - diversity of thought, diversity of ethnicity, socioeconomic backgrounds, diversity of food and restaurants and things like that.

I find that I find myself kind of wondering where I might be in ten years and I honestly don't know. I don't know if I’ll be back in Maine or not but it reminds me of drawing than I did when I was a little kid. I think I was about six or seven and I drew this house that was in the woods on top of like a hill or mountain and I vividly remember making this drawing. I don’t know if I said anything to any of my family members but I know the story I told myself about the drawing was that I want to live in the country in this house in the middle of the woods and then I want to drive to the city and go to work. So, that was the ideal picture that I had in my head when I was a kid and I think I think I'm starting to ramble a little bit but that that's why I chose Maine to represent my humanness. I think there's a there's a tension in me from wanting to be kind of a rural country type girl from a small town and also wanting to be in LA - wanting to be in the intellectual community in Los Angeles as a therapist - so there's definitely the duality there. I think that represents my humanness well.

L: I will be interested to see where you are at in ten years as well after sharing that. See if you're here - maybe living out further and commuting or if you are actually back in Maine.

V: Well, we will see what happens.

L: How does your humanness come into the room with you as a therapist?

V: So, talking about duality - kind of oppositional forces - it almost sounds like I'm campaigning for a DBT therapy - dialectical behavioral therapy. I will say I'm not a DBT therapist but I think one of the reasons why DBT has helped so many people is because of exactly what I've been talking about- that we can have these conflicting ideas or different thoughts at the same time. They can coexist and we can start to understand from a outside perspective - our thoughts - how we feel about two contradictory things. I really like that viewpoint from DBT and I feel like that shows up a lot in my work with my clients - that it's okay to have opposing feelings. It's okay if feelings change. It's okay if your logic and your emotions don't agree with each other but how are you going to have a different dialogue with yourself? How are you going to come to terms with these contradictions and slowly over time make decisions that intuitively start to feel right? And to know that that's part of the process.

I think being human is being a contradiction - that we are so many polarities and opposites and we are constantly experiencing the tension between different thoughts or different feelings. And I think that as humans sometimes we get into trouble when we try to condense ourselves into just one thing - just one way of being - just one way of thinking - just one way of relating to people.

I think people feel like they're doing something wrong or they're stuck or something else isn't right if they're experiencing this tension. And like I was saying before about a movie, if you don't have tension, then the plot doesn't move along. So, if you don't have tension inside of you, then you don't have something to push against. I want clients to kind of embrace that tension and to know that it's not something they're going to overcome and then it's done. Like, if I go to therapy then I'll never have mixed feelings again. I'll always know what I want and it's done. It's not that you're overcoming once - each day you're overcoming this resistance to whatever it is that you might want to be doing. It's the conversation that you're having with yourself to kind of get yourself through to what you want.

It reminds me of this book called The War on Art. The author Steven Pressfield talks about resistance against creativity and he gives it a capital R and I like that because he's naming it. He's talking about how when you're trying to be a creative person, you need to have discipline and understand that resistance is always going to be there. You're not going to create just because you feel like creating-that happens sometimes but not most of the time. So, with my clients in therapy, I want them to kind of have the same feeling - that this resistance, this tension isn't going anywhere but if they are making peace with it inside of themselves then things don't have to be so stressful. There is going to be tension, there is still going to be friction but they're having an experience of themselves. They're not too critical of themselves. They're not shutting down differing points of view or different feelings inside of themselves. They're not limiting themselves to just relating to either other people, or the world, or themselves and just one standard or constricted way. So, I guess that's in a nutshell that’s how I see humanness in the room.

L: What are your thoughts on humanness in the group process or in group therapy? Do you see some similar tension - dynamics?

V: I think group therapy is humanness times a thousand. What I mean by that is that group therapy is inherently full of contradictions and opposition. Every time somebody talks in group, somebody else can't talk and there's always this tension…How much space do I take up in the group? What things are okay and not okay to say? What different types of relationships am I having in the group? I might be relating to someone as a sibling. I might be regulating someone else as a parent. I might want to relate to someone else in the group like a lover but I might be scared of showing that side of myself.

So, group, I think, is wonderful because you get all of these different points of view and there's no one truth to put in quotes- there isn't.  I could say something in a therapy group whether I'm a client in the group or the therapist and everybody in the group could have a different reaction, and all of those reactions are valid in their own way, and all of those reactions could also be reflected upon and shifted in a certain way. So, I love group for that reason. I think being a group therapist you show your humanness a little bit more because just like a parent, you're not going to relate to everyone in the group in the same way. Whereas, if you're in individual therapy, your individual clients don't know - they don't know how you were in the room with the person before them or the person after them. They just know the dyad - the relationship that the two of you have.  But when you're in a therapy group, you're kind of in the hot seat in a good way because everything that you say you have an audience. You have six or seven or eight people who are watching you and then they're also watching you interact with the other group members so, you're going to be you're going to be full of contradictions in that way.

It’s okay if feelings change. It’s okay if your logic and your emotions don’t agree with each other but how are you going to have a different dialogue with yourself? How are you going to come to terms with these contradictions and slowly over time make decisions that intuitively start to feel right?

I think the more I receive training in group therapy, the more I realize how comfortable I have to be with my humaneness in that way. I'm not going to be the same every week. The group is not going to be the same every week and that doesn't mean that anyone's doing anything wrong. It just means that it's a tension that we need to be aware of. I think another tension that comes up a lot in group, that doesn't quite come up in the same way individual therapy is the tension between wanting to be separate and the tension between wanting to be a part of. If you have a group, some group members are going to be very eager in the beginning to be like yes, we're a group and this is how we relate to each other. I understand you. Your story is similar to mine and we're forming into something that's a collective. Throughout the group, there will be periods of time when people don't want that and they want to separate. They're experiencing the tension of what if I don't want to be a part of this group? What if I lose a part of myself if I'm in this group? So maybe I don't talk, maybe I get mad at someone, maybe I don't show up one week… and I think that tension is very much present in our everyday lives and our communities and our relationships. How much we want to be connected? How much we want to be separate? You can definitely go there in individual therapy but I think it just comes up in a richer way in group therapy. You're really seeing it happened in the room whereas in individual therapy, it's the dyad and the client might be worried about getting too close to you. But I think it's a slightly different interpersonal experience when you're talking about the collective - when you're talking about a group instead of the dyad.

L: Thank you for your thoughts and sharing your humaneness and your experience. It's been wonderful listening to you and chatting with you.

V: Great, thank you so much for coming on today.

L: Bye Vanessa.

V: Bye.


Vanessa Spooner, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping adults work through anxiety, depression, grief, and eating disorders. Dr. Spooner also has extensive training and experience in group therapy and is currently president of the Group Psychotherapy Association of Los Angeles (GPALA)


Laura MacRae-Serpa, MFTI, CCLS has special interests in supporting children and families navigating adoption and the challenges of chronic illness.

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Lauren Ziel, Registered Associate CSW

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Lauren Ziel, Registered Associate CSW

This is the second interview in our series "The Humans of MHT." I was delighted to spend time with Lauren Ziel, Associate Social Worker Intern. Lauren's curiosity about her own internal process lead us through an invigorating journey at the intersections of vulnerability, mindfulness, and the wisdom of the body. She is equal parts scientist, fitness guru, and empath - and she's unafraid to be silly and to speak truthfully about not-knowing.

To view (or read) the first interview in this series, go here

- Taz Morgan, MFT Intern

Taz: I’m here with with Lauren Ziel. I’m excited about getting to know you better, Lauren. I guess to start with…what does humanness mean to you?

Lauren: You know, when I think of humanness, I think of this idea of this eternal hope mixed with a lot of fallibility. A lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of this capacity to self-preserve. And there’s a lot of ways that we self-preserve. Sometimes they benefit us at one point in our lives and then they no longer benefit us later on. The human condition is the depths and dark and deeply troubling things we can experience combined with this ability to overcome...maybe with a little help sometimes to overcome. 

There’s this joke, and I don’t know if you’ve heard it. But when you’re in school, maybe undergraduate or in your master’s level work or so on, where the joke is that therapists are all crazy, and they’re taking these classes to figure out themselves and to figure out their experiences. And I think there is some truth to that. I think that our inherent curiosity about ourselves and how our brain ticks, how our heart beats, all of that definitely plays into…at least, I’ve used it as a way to connect to other people. 

T: Your point about…this…well, I think of it as this Wounded Healer. Because of my background that I have…we talk about archetypes. This archetype of the Wounded Healer. And how we use our deepest wounds to be compassionate; to feel into what maybe the people we’re working with are feeling. 

L: Absolutely. What I think is so great about this project is, you know, we are not this all-knowing entity sitting across the room from you. There’s a lot that I don’t about you - the person sitting across from me - and there’s a lot I’m still learning about myself, this world and my place in it, your place in it, and how we’re coming together in this room in this weird situation where it seems kinda contrived, but it’s really, potentially a vehicle and a space for tremendous vulnerability, but also safeness in that vulnerability. 

There’s a strange way in working with my clients that make me feel accountable; that make me remember how much work it takes to figure out yourself. And it’s a motivation for me, honestly. Yeah, I think that’s the really cool part about doing what we do, or being in profession where you’re helping people on such a visceral level, on an emotional level…is it changes you. You learn so much. 

T: Yeah, you’re speaking to how it can be transformative for you as the therapist…that you’re being impacted in some way by sitting with this person or working with them. Yeah, that it feeds something in you, not in a way that is impeding the work…but it’s…I’m forgetting the quote…something that Carl Jung says that it’s alchemical. That the two people are in are this space and they’re both gonna be transformed somehow. It’s not just about the client changing. I really like that, and that seems to be what you’re speaking about.

L: Yeah. Absolutely. I feel like I need to find the quote now, but yeah (laughs), absolutely. I think that the more I can bring myself to the table - my humanness, my fallibility, in a mindful and constructive manner - but the more that I can show up being a human...being…like I don’t know sometimes. I’ll tell you when I don’t know. I might feel a little silly and wish I that actually did know the answer. I want, in way to model, to model the vulnerability, and model it so that it’s okay.

T: You’ve talked a lot, I think, about how humanness shows up in your work as a therapist. I want to talk more about what you chose as your passion that represents your humanness. Even the phrase that you chose “movement is medicine” — I thought that it would be “fitness.” Say more about this idea of movement is medicine, and how it’s meaningful to you. 

L: I think I have to start that with my own experience...in that, when I physically move, when I exert myself, when my heart rate is up, my respiration is up. Again this is how I do it. Some people would hate doing that, and I get it. When I’m sweating and exerting, and I’m fully engaged in what my body is doing in that moment….and I can feel the strike of my foot against the concrete… when I can feel how I roll my fingers over a dumbbell or a barbell as I move it - it’s really, honestly, a practice of mindfulness for me. It’s a practice of being in the present moment. There’s a degree of like a flow state where it almost just happening and there’s not a lot of thinking about. It parallels with this incredible attunement with your physical being. And it’s very grounding for me. It allows me to take my energy…because I can tend to be very heady and all up in my head and very light — pretty anxious. And using my body to ground me is very effective for me. It calms me down. It provides my brain with a little bit of clarity and being in that moment. 

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L: I have just found in particular, running, weight-lighting, yoga - those are the things that tend to do it for me. I have discovered dancing, which I don’t know that I’m very good at, but I actually really like it. Not yet, at least, I’m not putting it off the table (laughs). You know when you’re a kid and you go climb a tree because there’s a tree there and that’s what you do? Or when your favorite song comes on and you scream at the top of your lungs in your room or in the shower?  I feel like your body, moving your body in a way that expresses feeling, and you not having to understand exactly why that is…is so freeing. 

T: Yeah, honoring the wisdom of your body.

L: Yeah, exactly, yes, beautiful way of putting. That’s perfect. It’s my me time. It really is. It’s my me time. If I can help someone find a little bit of that - it’s great. When I start to see someone really come into their body, really come into what their body is capable of, and listening to that intuition…your physical being holds so much and it can also let go of so much. 

And at the same time, I think that the body can also….just like what we talked about at the beginning…there are ways that we have learned to protect ourselves, right? The body does that, too. The body holds onto to certain things. 

T: My shoulders will just be up here sometimes (shrugging and laughing).

L: Me too. I’m a constant shoulder-shrugging. It’s like someone just scared me all the time. I totally get that (laughing). There’s a lot of really awesome research about where tension is held in the body and where certain physical maladies are coming up or somatic presentations of psychological issues. There’s so much research out there now.

T:  To incorporate the somatic piece or the body — it’s widening the scope of how we look at what it means to be human.

L:  What works for me one day won’t necessarily work for me the next. And that’s okay. It comes back to learning more about one’s self and the motivations we have, the needs and the drives that are bringing us to these behaviors is what is so interesting. And the work is never really finished at the end of the day. 

This is something that went over in my yoga teaching training - the more that we try to keep things from changing, the less satisfied we are with the situations or ourselves because change is natural. And learning to be okay with the ambiguity, the scariness, and the discomfort is probably the biggest skill that one can develop for themselves. And it’s hard. It’s work that keeps going.

T: It’s such a challenge, I think, to accept one’s own rhythm, right? The opposite of being human, in my view, is being a robot where you would have the same sensations everyday. You’re talking about having a lot of acceptance or compassion for each day being different or one day something works…there’s this nuance and complexity. And being in the not-knowing.

L: And then taking that…and having a frame of mind where…one could look at that and find it terrifying. I get that, yeah it’s terrifying but it’s also…if you put your science cap on and have this curiosity about yourself about how you function in the world and why you function in the world, then it’s almost like this cool on-going experiment you have with yourself. Figuring out all the variables.

Thank you, Taz. This was great.

T: Thank you, Lauren. It was so nice to get to know you, and hear your thoughts a little bit.

L: Samesies.


Lauren Ziel, MSW is a Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker, ASW #76483, working under the supervision of Vanessa Spooner, PsyD. Through the use of movement and mindfulness, Lauren develops specialized treatment for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, challenges in life-stage transitions, relational difficulties, and identity/intrapersonal development.


Taz Morgan, MA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, IMF #99714, working under the supervision of Vanessa Spooner, PsyD. She has trained in Depth-oriented psychotherapy and works with adolescents, adults, and couples. 

What Does It Mean?

What Does It Mean?

What does it mean to be human?

There are so many ways to answer. Perhaps it has something to do with the ability humans have to create, to be relational, or to have a longing for significance, even eternity.

I think these answers have their merits and limits, but something I deeply believe is that to be human means to have incredible value -- and beyond that -- to be worth having that value recognized by another.

To acknowledge someone’s humanness is a weighty thing. It means I must act when that person is in need. It means I can no longer settle for simplistic, pat answers about their motivations. And it means I must respect their point of view and open myself up to being influenced by it. As soon as we recognize the humanity of another, we must recognize all that their humanity demands of us.

Extending this, when we recognize our own humanity, we must change the way we relate to ourselves. We often focus on the role we should fulfill or the impact we ought to have on the world around us. But this can lead to a valuing of self only to the extent that we are meeting those purposes. Our humanity means we have a value that goes beyond the function we serve. It’s a reason why listening to a piece of music, experiencing nature, or taking time for rest or joy is worthwhile.

Image credit: Trina Spiller Design

Image credit: Trina Spiller Design


Allison (Allie) Ramsey is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, IMF #94391, working under the professional supervision of Michelle Harwell, PsyD, MFT 50732. Allie works with individuals on a broad range of issues, including anxiety, depression, relational challenges, faith integration, divorce, and aging.

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Allison (Allie) Ramsey, MFT Intern

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Allison (Allie) Ramsey, MFT Intern

We are launching a new series at our practice called “The Humans of MHT.” The idea being...healing happens in the context of real relationships, real people. Not perfect, unknown others, but people engaged in life and meaning-making just like you. 

We'll be releasing one interview a month, so you can get a glimpse of the humans that sit in the chair across from you. Check out our first interview with Allie Ramsey, our Clinical Care Coordinator and Marriage Family Intern. She's got some great thoughts on what it means to be human.

- Michelle Harwell, LMFT  

Meet Allie Ramsey, Marriage and Family Therapist Intern and Clinical Care Coordinator at MHT.

M: Well, hello Allie!

A: Hi!

M: You are our first human therapist of Michelle Harwell Therapy! So how does your humanness show up in the therapy session?

A: One of the biggest ways I notice my humanness showing up is the fact that I feel very impacted by my clients stories. They really influence me and help me to think about life more complexly. Life is so packed with meaning and intensity. Getting to step into that with my clients as a fellow human means I get to live very richly with them. It is very fulfilling.

M: You are saying something about a contemporary view about how we think about change in therapy. Old models would see the therapist as an observer or objective voice that is separate from the client. But you are talking about about a very different view.  That there is something two person going on in that, your clients, even though you are there and focusing on their story, you are also a part of it. And you are impacted by them. Alot of times clients don't know that they impact us. That we carry them. That we are inspired by them. That we are touched and moved by them and changed. That our clinical work can enhance our own lives. And I think because of that, we can make change. It is the very fact that we care and can be impacted means it is a real connection.

M: The other thing I was thinking about was some of the aspects of your humanness that is impactful to me. That draws me to you...One aspect that comes to mind when I think of you is kindness. That is an attribute of your humanness that is impactful to me. There is an author named Adam Phillips and he defines kindness as the ability to ones own vulnerability in ourselves and that of an another. To be connect and to stay soft, open and tender. I think about that, when I think about you.

A: So for those who will be watching and don't know. Being from Washingtion and moving to LA, something I have bumped up a lot against is a pressure to be more sophisticated then I am or a little more in the know then I tend to be. I've come to value a lot of this as there is so much artistic vitality in LA culture. But sophistication is something I keep running up against because I don't feel like I am a very sophisticated person. Its just not part of my soul. ButI feel some freedom in trusting in being kind as enough.

M: I think you are talking about how you come across in groups. I experience this with you. When you don't know something or when you are not sure about something, you are apt to say it and be in your authenticity with a kind of grace, curiosity and silliness that invites people to be along for the ride. I think you have a real inviting presence.

M: Is there anything people would be surprised to know about you?

A: Most things probably...One thing people would be surprised to know is that for most of my life ant through college I was a collegiate level sprinter. Although I don't think I look or present that way anymore. I don't look nearly as fierce as I used to. But there is a part of me that pretty competitive and enjoys the intense part of life. I have a need for speed.

M: Laughs.

A: You wouldn't catch me going fast in my Prius though.

M: Its funny. I knew you were an athlete but what is new to me, but it makes more sense, that there is an internal competitor.

A: Oh, yes. There certainly is.

M: Laughs

A: I'm not sure how it shows up these days. It shows up in little ways. I'm looking for more outlets. I'm joining a kickboxing community because, you know, you got to get a little competitive somewhere.

M: I think we need an MHT games night. A team game night so we can really see the personality come out on our team. We need to do our developmental assessment with all the therapists.

A: My frustration might be kind of low. There is this one game my husband really likes. He goes deep. There is this game we play together that cold war, very long, narrative based game. And we had been playing for about an hour and it was demanding all of my mental capacities and I lost. I said, "I can't talk to you. I have to take a shower." That's the level I can get to.

M: I love it. It's a little Brombergian self-state. A little island that gets activated around competitiveness. I need to know this side of you more. It makes me happy to know that there is this intense person in there.

M: So finally, what does humanness mean to you?

A: One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of humanness is worth or value. I think being human mean having an immense amount of worth and value. Being worthy of a lot  of honor. That is one of my central organizing thoughts as a therapist, that my main job is to honor the person I am with. Somehow for me that captures what it means to really care and give my very best to each client that I sit with. To try and step into their shoes and try and understand what it means to be them, what they experience. Humanness means be worthy of that. Being worthy of being understood.

M: Beautifully said.


Allison (Allie) Ramsey is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, IMF #94391, working under the professional supervision of Michelle Harwell, PsyD, MFT 50732. Allie works with individuals on a broad range of issues, including anxiety, depression, relational challenges, faith integration, divorce, and aging. 


 Dr. Michelle Harwell, PsyD, LMFT is an expert trainer, respected speaker, and licensed therapist in trauma and attachment. She is noted for her specialization in areas of development, attachment, trauma, and neuroscience, and her ability to communicate complex topics with clarity and humor. Michelle completed her PhD in Psychoanalysis from The Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She received her BA in English Literature from University of Oklahoma, MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology.

Fear No Dragons

Fear No Dragons

Envy is one of those complicated emotions; it can sneak up and slap you in the face, stalk you stealthily, or slowly simmer for years. Often it demands to be hidden, and brings along its friends doubt, shame and worthlessness. Something about envy has the impulsive feeling of a small child’s cry, “I WANT!”, while the adult in us may look on asking why, and wonder what will soothe this want. Envy has regular haunts – social media, for example, is a favorite hang-out – and often seems to want to emphasize our separateness or distance from others. It compares, contrasts, measures.

When greeted openly and without judgement, envy will likely be able to tell us things we didn’t realize before, help us to identify parts of ourselves that need attention and nurturing.

I often find it useful to consider where an emotion is felt in my body; perhaps in the pit of my stomach, in the tightness or droop of my shoulders, in my clenched fists or shaking knees, or hovering in my chest breathlessly. These somatic responses provide helpful clues for understanding more about my emotions. If envy lies coiled in my stomach, is there fear and hunger connected with it? If in my clenched fists, is it connected somehow with anger? If envy makes my shoulders droop, is there a feeling of hopelessness along with it?

Envy alone does not inspire, but it can motivate. While envy’s language is the primal “I want”, “I lack”, “I need”, it isn’t simply those states alone. Another clue! Envy itself demonstrates that emotionally we’ve grown up enough to add the aspect of self-inhibition. We no longer simply move from ‘want’ directly into grasping, with little thought between. The want exists, but we hold back. Clearly this in many ways is a positive social development, however if it also means inhibiting awareness of our want it may be self-harming. Hidden in the dark, envy is able to coerce and dominate us without our knowledge. Envy is not a pleasant feeling, and we therefore often shun it, run it out of town before asking where it came from. When greeted openly and without judgement, envy will likely be able to tell us things we didn’t realize before, help us to identify parts of ourselves that need attention and nurturing.

Envy, when partnered with more sophisticated friends such as acceptance, gentleness, and compassion, becomes transformed. In this transformed state, envy may even spur us into positive action. Through such compassionate reflection we strengthen our own agency, our ability to act in the world and to understand and meet our own needs, balanced with those of others.

I’m reminded here of quote from Rainer Maria Rilke which seems to perfectly capture the paradox of envy: 

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”  ― Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Perhaps, indeed, we can learn to greet envy as a helpful acquaintance able to point us towards unrealized paths in our lives.


Natalie Cargill, MA, MFT and Art Therapy Intern, has two decades of professional experience with children, adolescents, and families, and is passionate about helping them thrive. As a therapist, Natalie works with clients of all ages, approaching therapy with both individuals and families through relational models, seeking to understand attachment patterns, and the systems that impact them. 

Perspective Altered

Perspective Altered

Ah envy, of all the emotions, you are certainly not my favorite. You seem to suck out all of my energy. You sweep away my perspective until I am left with only bitter tunnel vision. Sometimes, I’ll admit, you allow me to see more clearly what I want, and maybe even the steps I might take to get there. You can be an uncomfortable but helpful kick in the pants. But other times, you only allow me to see the inherent unfairness of life: that other people get what I want, and I don’t and that’s that. 

In our world, some are given extraordinary opportunities, and some are not. Some will be able to have their own children, some will not. Some have a natural talent for learning and performing, some do not. The uneven distribution of desirable things is everywhere, and many people — despite deep desire and persistent effort — have still not obtained what came easily or freely to another.

It’s painful. Perhaps it calls for gratitude for what one does have, for grieving, or even lamenting the injustices that are folded into this life. Probably all of these things. But along with these responses, I think envy calls for a change in perspective. 

While envy can lead us to bitter tunnel vision focused on what we do not have, it can also open our eyes — if we’re willing — to an opportunity.

While envy can lead us to bitter tunnel vision focused on what we do not have, it can also open our eyes — if we’re willing — to an opportunity. Our unfulfilled longing invites us into perseverance and the development of a certain kind of character. That kind of character has always been, and will continue to be, something that shapes the world. It’s powerful. It allows the doer to do more intentionally, more wisely, and maybe more gently. It allows the artist to illuminate life from a different angle. It allows the thinker to put words to those things that would otherwise never have been realized. The point is, wrestling with an unfulfilled longing creates something. If we’re willing, it can create something good. 


Allison (Allie) Ramsey is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, IMF #94391, working under the professional supervision of Michelle Harwell, MFT 50732. Allie works with individuals on a broad range of issues, including anxiety, depression, relational challenges, faith integration, divorce, and aging. 

Want Not, Waste Not: An Interview on Envy and Desire with Dr. Marcia Reynolds

Want Not, Waste Not: An Interview on Envy and Desire with Dr. Marcia Reynolds

You get what you get and you don't get upset. I actually said this to my daughter once in a state of frustration. Few things make me feel like a sellout more then serving up well worn cliches to kids that don’t reflect the emotional rhythms of the real world. Truth is, in life you often get what you get, but you also often get upset. A simple dash-cam in any of our cars would prove this reality. LA traffic is the ultimate equalizer of expectation and reality.

So how do we negotiate the frustration that emerges between our expectations and reality, how do we contend with our perceived wants and what stands in the way? Specifically, when it feels like someone else possesses the thing we desire?

If you want to be a little more conversant with both potential and frustration, how to translate envy into an understanding of longing and action, check out our interview with Marcia Reynolds, author of Out Smart Your Brain and Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
— JK Rowling

Michelle Harwell, MS, LMFT is an expert trainer, respected speaker, and licensed therapist in trauma and attachment. She is noted for her specialization in areas of development, attachment, trauma, and neuroscience, and her ability to communicate complex topics with clarity and humor. Michelle is currently completing her PhD in Psychoanalysis from The Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis. She received her BA in English Literature from University of Oklahoma, MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, and MS in Marriage and Family Therapy from the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology.