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 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.

Talking Sex with Ginna Clark, LPCC

Talking Sex with Ginna Clark, LPCC

Sometimes it's best to just get down to business.

-Michelle Harwell

Interview with Ginna Clark, LPCC, ATR-BC. Ginna is a licensed professional counselor and art therapist who practices in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

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.

Imperfect Parenting Group - New Members Welcome

Imperfect Parenting Group - New Members Welcome

When my son was two years old I joined a playgroup through a community outreach organization. The goal of this organization was to bring mothers and children of the same age, living in the same community, together for a weekly play date. Although the mothers and toddlers had community in common, we were diverse in many ways. Reflecting back, our ability to embrace and honor each others' differences created a safe space to parent with authenticity.  Feelings of overwhelm, confusion and frustration as a parent were met with understanding - there was no pressure to be “perfect.” As our children played, we shared parenting tips and explored how are own emotional process challenged or supported our parenting. We utilized each other’s knowledge and strengths and leaned on each other for support.

...our ability to embrace and honor each others’ differences created a safe space to parent with authenticity. Feelings of overwhelm, confusion and frustration as a parent were met with understanding - there was no pressure to be ‘perfect.’

Through the preschool years, we build memories together at local parks, children’s museums and backyard visits. We delivered meals when siblings were born and celebrated our children’s milestones together. We had successfully created a village.

Several years later, members have moved, children have gone to different schools and a couple of friendships remain a valuable part of my present life. Looking back, that special group of women reinforced that we are all imperfect parents seeking community, connection and acceptance.

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

Clothed in Authenticity

Clothed in Authenticity

Authenticity. For some reason, this word made me think of clothing. Maybe it's because I'm from Washington state, and I find myself breathe a little deeper when I land back in the Seattle airport and see all of my frumpy-looking kin. Clothes are a big deal, here in Los Angeles. And while I at first poo-pooed this, it's actually caused me to reflect on the value that clothing choices can have.

Clothing can be used as a mask, something we hide behind. It can be used as a dream, something we use to believe in ourselves a little more (“Dress for the job you want!”). It can be used to communicate something to others or ourselves.

I think this is especially clear in adolescence. In adolescence, we sometimes use clothing to “try on” different parts of ourselves in different seasons. Perhaps this year, I'm going to try on my ability to take social causes seriously. Or perhaps, I'm going to try on the dark feelings I have – reveal my ability to feel the sorrow and heaviness of being on this earth. Or maybe clothing isn't much of a conscious decision for me at all this year, and that's a way I can try on a part of me as well.

I asked Ron Ben, Art Director, about this, and he comments, “I have always believed that clothes reflect your emotions or where you're at in life. Some people don't care what they wear, some people care greatly, but if you take a look at both you can see where they are in their life.”

So, thanks, LA. You've taught me that clothes go a little more than skin deep.  

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. 

Authentic Encounters: An Interview with Dr. Gil Spielberg

Authentic Encounters: An Interview with Dr. Gil Spielberg

Vanessa Spooner: Alright, good morning Gil Spielberg!

Gil Spielberg: Good morning Vanessa.

VS: So, my name is Vanessa Spooner and I am interviewing Gil for this month’s Michelle Harwell Therapy Newsletter. So to warm us up a little bit Gil can you just give us a quick two-minute background on yourself, your practice, your approach to your work as a therapist?

GS: That’s in two minutes?

VS: Maybe three minutes?

GS: How about two hours? In two hours I could do that.

VS: [laughs]

GS: Let's see. I have a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, then I have my analytic training from the Institute for the Study of Subjectivity in New York. That was my individual analytic training. My group analytic training was from the Center for Group Studies, also in New York. And I have taught group therapy in a variety of places over the past 30 years. Currently my practice is group-oriented, but not exclusively, I see individuals, some individuals both in group and individually, some patients just in psychoanalysis, either once a week or more often, and couples. And then I also do supervision at a place called Beit T’Shuvah, which is a Jewish rehab center and in terms of authenticity that is a wonderful example of a place to be.

VS: And so Gil, you touched on what we are going to be talking about today, which is authenticity. What comes to mind for you when you are thinking about Beit T’Shuvah and authenticity?

GS: Well, the thing about Beit T’Shuvah that I really like is that it is the goal of the staff and for those patients who are really willing to engage is to live more authentic lives. Because for addicts in particular, there was a lot of hiding – from themselves and from others – a great deal of deception. So for those people who come in and are allowing themselves to fully engage in the program, they are learning to figure out how to present themselves honestly to themselves and to the world. But the part of this that is particularly meaningful to me is that the staff mirrors that. So the staff also tries to communicate authentically with one another and with the patients. You don’t have much of a sense of hierarchy; you have more of a sense of people trying to find ways of creatively and constructively relating to one another. Which means it becomes a more complicated institution at times, but much more fulfilling for all who sort of enjoy that kind of environment and can tolerate it.

VS: And is that where you come in, when things get more complicated, when you are providing supervision?

GS: I provide supervision in a couple of ways. In sort of the basic aspect of teaching people the craft of psychotherapy, helping them locate where they want to be in terms of their theory and who they are. And then for the organization itself, as well as the individuals, I help them sort of navigate trying to find themselves therapeutically and cooperating in a very complex emotional environment.

VS: And does that guidance you provide them kind of mirror how you are as a leader in your therapy groups?

GS: Not entirely. Partly. It does to the extent that I am always trying to use myself and my experience to help me understand what’s going on. And to figure out what other people want and need from the situation. But in my therapy groups I am much more aware of how to make use of something like transference than I am in a consulting situation, where that is not sort of a guiding task. I have a different task, so I use myself differently.

VS: I could imagine that with transference it can feel a little tricky, because on the one hand it is a very authentic experience between you and someone else, but at the same time there are pieces of it that are repetitive from someone’s past, and so it might be a little less authentic in the present. What do you think about that?

GS: Well, some of this goes back to Freud who would say that within transference the relationship is never fully authentic, because the patient is not really seeing you fully, they are seeing someone else. They may be presenting themselves as honestly as they can, but the relationship is not fully authentic, because they are not totally in the present. And for me, since I’m not fully presenting all of my thoughts and feelings and trying to be transparent as possible, I’m not fully authentic. I’m using my authentic experience, but I may not be presenting it.

VS: So the way that you present it is more filtered, depending on the person.

Gil Spielberg 1

GS: More…filtered is probably correct, but it is more…um…what is a better word?

VS: Like selective?

GS: Yeah, maybe selective is a better word, if I can think of a better word I’ll tell you better. But we can go with that for now.

VS: So what’s the big deal with authenticity? Why is it so important?

GS: That’s a great question. It actually didn’t start out being important. You know, originally when the field was much more medicalized, which was in the beginning of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, authenticity was nowhere on the map. What was on the map were symptoms and neuroses. I don’t think it was until the Humanists like Carl Rogers came on the scene where they began to change the point of view of psychotherapy to not just relieve symptoms, but to live a different kind of life. And at that point, what was emphasized was the patient becoming more of themselves, sort of getting rid of the shackles of what they were supposed to be. And the therapists presenting more of him or herself. Carl Rogers I think one of his first papers was The Necessary Sufficient Conditions for Psychotherapy (or for Change), I can’t get the exact title of it. One of the things that he talked about was that the therapist needs to present, be genuine, have positive regard and be respectful. But that was new to the field to begin to understand what the therapist had to do as well. So that way the therapist was modeling for the patient to live and talk and relate authentically. And I think within psychoanalysis Heinz Kohut took that over when he talked about having relationships that work true to the self. When he put the sense of self, a vigorous and vital self, in the center of what needs to happen in psychoanalysis. When he did that and moved that into the center, what he did was also to say to privilege living authentically with one’s self and with one’s important relationships. And that had been picked up by the Relationalists and some of the other Intersubjectivists within Self Psychology, who now stress relating more authentically with the patient and with the patient relating more authentically with them. Now in order to relate authentically, a person has to be congruent with their speech, body and mind. And then from there, as a platform, he or she can engage in an authentic relationship.

VS: Can you say a little more about what being congruent looks like?

GS: It’s not just what it looks like, it’s what is feels like.

VS: What it feels like.

GS: The person is…what they are feeling and thinking inside is available fully to them and eventually they can present that transparently to another and that is sort of their contribution to an authentic relationship.  So their feelings can be sensed by themselves or another, their thoughts reflect their feelings, and their body reflects their thoughts and feelings. They’re all sort of working together, they’re in congruence with one another. I think that they are people you may have noticed who, who may have a feeling, even a strong feeling, but you can’t tell what they are feeling, they can hardly tell what they’re feeling. And their body may be in some kind state of tension, but it doesn’t come through easily in what they’re saying. So they are confusing to talk to, and it is not clear what really they are experiencing. So that would be a state of incongruence.

VS: I have definitely experienced that where someone is either confusing, or they wind up, at least to me, like feeling very flat. And I am not sure where the flatness is coming from and what is underneath the flatness.

GS: How do you tend to handle it?

VS: If it’s someone that I’ve been working with for a while, I will definitely try to pay attention to their body and see if there are any signs there that kind of help. If it’s someone that I haven’t been working with for a while, I might try to change the subject or notice when there are any little periods where I notice like a little bit of spark, a little bit of feeling that comes through and I might try to center in on that a little more. But definitely in the beginning it is more of a mystery and I’m noticing it and I’m trying to figure out what to make of it.

GS: Well I tell you, to the extent you can treat it as a mystery and have sort of interest and curiosity, that’s terrific. I think some people get involved in breaking through that defense and it’s too overwhelming for the patient and you lose the experience of being just curious about who that person is and how they got to be that way. And curiosity is such a main part of what we do, maybe one of the most important traits. You can probably get away with a lot of mistakes if you are truly curious and the patient senses it. But that’s another topic.

VS: Well I do feel like that relates back to authenticity in terms of we’re kind of curious about others and if we don’t feel a sense of authenticity from them, then we don’t feel like we can actually get to know them.

GS: Well you get to know the part of them that is defending against it, defending against some other parts of them. You’re still getting to know them, you’re just getting to know more about how they have protect themselves than what they could experience if they weren’t as emotionally protected. But if they can sense your authentic curiosity, that goes a long way.

VS: Does that go a long way in terms of why you think we need authenticity or why we crave it?

GS: I think authenticity has the potential to be extraordinarily nourishing in relationships. It is a way of the self being nourished by the interactions with another. Even if your circumstances don’t change, the fact that you’re having an interaction with someone who you are feeling nourished and they are feeling nourished by you, that is going to change your present experience and your mood and some aspect of the self over time. So it is REALLY important. The sense of curiosity is sort of the foundational attitude that one really needs to have to do this work well. And if you really embody that, people will sense it from you and it is really beckoning for them to be more open with you and themselves. I’m not even sure I’m answering these questions correctly.

VS: You’re not sure if you’re authentically answering them? [laughs]

GS: No, no, I’m sure I’m authentically answering them, I just have no idea if this is really what you are asking for.

VS: You’re doing great. How do you notice the difference between how this authenticity feeds the self in individual versus your groups?

GS: Well in group my goal is to set a culture where people can have as many authentic relationships as they can tolerate and even take risks to do something a little bit uncomfortable. Now sometimes I’ll model an authentic relationship with someone in that I will be fully transparent. Sometimes my interventions are more towards the culture of the group to help the group to step into more authentic and transparent relationships with themselves and others. Sometimes I will point out what is getting in the way. So, it all depends on how I use myself. But basically it is to set the culture of the group, that will help people find themselves and find more authentic relationships with others in the group. Because that is where the growth is, or what is termed in psychoanalysis these days as the leading edge of risk and growth.

I think authenticity has the potential to be extraordinarily nourishing in relationships. It is a way of the self being nourished by the interactions with another.

VS: And maybe in group there is more opportunity for risk and growth since there are more people involved versus individual.

GS: I can’t say there is more opportunity; it sort of depends on what people need. Some people really need the individual experience for various reasons and that is where at different points in their life they will find the maximum benefit. Although my other sense is that most everybody at some point can make great use of a good group experience. The other thing about group though that is most interesting is that you have a lot of personalities and characters in group who are not primarily there to listen well to you and respond to what you as a patient developmentally need. They are there to over time find themselves and so that is very different. As a patient in group you are going to rub up against people that are very similar that you fit with really well and those you don’t fit with really well. And you can learn from both. And that is the magic of group. No one is there primarily there to meet your needs. So right away that is a harsh reality. One that becomes ultimately very very growth-full. Most people pick their therapist because they feel in some way akin or comfortable and the therapist will go out of his or her way to make sure the patient feel comfortable, which is fine, but that means the kind of relationships that they can have is somewhat limited because they have this basic comfort between them. And aspects of each other that might be very problematic let’s say in the patient’s life might not be triggered. It is very hard to have a sibling kind of transference with the therapist. And sibling experiences are very, very important to people’s lives. They’re more important than we tend to give them credit for. And those are much more easily accessible in group.

VS: Can you say a little bit more about why sibling relationships or transferences are so important?

GS: They are underemphasized. We emphasize in the literature the relationship to the parents. And that’s fine. And especially in the early years that’s important. But if you ask people about their lives, invariably what comes up are people’s relationships to their siblings. And if they got along, if they were good mentors and friends to each other, where they fit in the family. Siblings are important and they determine a lot about how we relate to our peers. So the group is a much more natural place to have those kinds of relationships. And in addition, you will find aspects of a parent that you really liked or disliked that may not have been available to you in the individual relationship. And people have all kinds of experiences that come not only from their family, but being in school with friends that are very impactful in their lives and they are likely to find that in group much more easily than individual. Individual they can remember them and in group of course they get to re-experience them.

VS: And it sounds like that re-experiencing can be filled with a lot of growth, but it can also be filled with a lot of discomfort at times.

GS: It is filled with a lot of discomfort, so a good deal of what you do in individual therapy, and especially group, is find ways to help the group tolerate the discomfort. That is very, very important. Because when groups or patients cannot tolerate much discomfort, there’s not going to be a great deal of growth. And one of the larger sources of discomfort is how they feels towards one another when they are in the midst of aspects of their prior experiences that have been difficult. It’s one thing to talk about one’s relationships to a sibling or parent and sort of talk about it in absentia and it’s quite another thing to talk about that as it’s being played out here and now in the room and understanding what you as the patient bring to that experience, how you help to train someone else to be a part of your early drama.

VS: Your job as the leader then is to find a balance between making it tolerable enough for the group to hold those feelings, while at the same time trying to increase the authenticity in the room so that these things can be talked about and felt more.

GS: I think that’s a very good way of putting it. I’m going to help the group figure out how to make that tolerable. I don’t make it tolerable for them, I help the group engage in the process where we can over time find a way to make it tolerable or not.

VS: What happens if it is not tolerable?

GS: Well if it’s not tolerable and it’s not being talked about, people will either begin to shut down and you will have a group that has come to a halt, sometimes called a status quo resistance, or you will find that people will begin to act out a lot of aggression behaviorally: lateness, absences, people wanting to leave the group. Sometimes the leader picks this up because they are uncomfortable in the group – they begin to dislike coming to the group, they are not enjoying themselves, they are finding desires to get rid of the group or get rid of people in the group. And that is one pathway, that through the leader’s willingness to be authentically attached to themselves, they begin to realize that there’s something happening in the group that really needs to be attended to.

VS: And in those types of situations…

GS: By the way, I’m glad you’re following me because I’m just sort of free associating. So I’m glad you’re following.

VS: Oh yeah, I am right here with you. So in those instances in group where you might be feeling some of those feelings, is that something that you are sharing with the group or is that something that you are just using as a way to make a “group as a whole” interpretation?

GS: It sort of depends on the group, where they are at developmentally, what I think their relationships are like, what they can tolerate. Let's see if I can think of a good example that would be great. Let’s see if I have an example [pauses]. I don’t have one at the moment, but maybe I will think of one.

VS: That’s fine. But yeah it sounds like depending on what the group can tolerate developmentally you may be sharing more of your authenticity in terms of how you’re feeling or you might limit it a little bit more so that they can tolerate it and process it.

GS: Something like that. So I had a group where there were a number of people who were quite disruptive in the group, so I remember one time coming in and saying: “I found myself coming in to this group with a lot of tension today. Who’s tension am I picking up?” So I remember using it once that way. I can remember some other time thinking about how much competition there was in the room so I sort of primed myself based upon my own sort of fantasies that were coming to me, I was thinking a lot about being a kid and playing baseball and how competitive that was. I came into the room and someone in the group who I thought was most triggered by the degree of competition and I asked him if they thought there was any competition in the group that we weren’t talking about. So sometimes that will happen.

VS: So it sounds like you use your feelings as a way to try to hone in on someone in the group or to have the group kind of wonder about where these feelings might lie in the group, whether it is in the group-as-a-whole, or particularly resonating with one of the members.

GS: Exactly. Beautifully said. I think I will interview you. Good job!

VS: We can swap roles next time. [laughs]. One final question: How has your definition of authenticity changed over the years? Whether it is through various trainings or just through your own view of the world, how have you noticed it changing?

GS: Well, I will put it in two ways, in terms of my sense of authenticity and what I am looking for with patients. In terms of my sense, my original training was more classically analytic so there was absolutely no emphasis on the therapist/analyst being authentic to the patient at all. That radically shifted, I actually trained at times with Carl Rogers and in Gestalt therapy. So that really changed things around for me and I began to appreciate how important the therapist’s authenticity was. Then by the time I got back into analytic training the field had changed and it was now being valued to a very different degree. So that has allowed me to have a lot more presence and enjoyment in my work. It really wasn’t enjoyable keeping so much of me apart, it was sort of deadening for me. At the same time, I find it more enlivening and not scary in the way that it would have been 20 or 25 years ago to have those authentic moments and spontaneous moments with people. Both in group and individually. But those moments in group are sort of a life blood of what happens in group. It’s inherently a less predictable place. And it needs to be. Once it gets predictable, it’s sort of game over.

VS: Is that what you were mentioning before when you were talking about the status quo?

GS: Yeah. That’s one of the things. Yes. When the group becomes predictable and routinized, it is a level of communication, you have a system that no longer has any perturbations in it. It is never shaken up and therefore everyone is not shaking themselves up and not shaking others up. So it is a shark dying, not moving in the water. The authentic encounters in group are what keeps it going and the ability of the therapist to tolerate all the intense feeling that occur within the authentic encounter is what is more anxiety provoking in people, but what is ultimately the most fun and the most enlivening. Over time I have been able to tolerate more of that, so my groups have more of that. And that part is terrific.

VS: And it sounds like then the patients are able to experience, if they are able to, a wider range of authenticity if you are able to tolerate a wider range.

GS: Exactly. So there’s often as much laughter as there are tears in my group. Because that’s the range of human experience.

VS: I think that is a wonderful note to end on, people in group being able to share as many laughs as good cries. I think sometimes people think that therapy is always supposed to be this painful daunting emotionally wrenching thing and that’s not as authentic.

GS: No, it’s not.

VS: There’s a wider range of experiences and you really encourage your group members to delve into that if they are ready.

GS: Absolutely.

VS: Wonderful. Well thank you Gil for being available this morning for the interview. We’re very excited to kind of mull over these thoughts that you have provided us about authenticity, especially as we are thinking about the new year and how we all at Michelle Harwell Therapy want to help our clients to become more authentic as they are beginning a new year and maybe a new chapter for themselves.

GS: Well you know, it gave me the opportunity to do more thinking more about it. I myself am in a consultation group with people around the country. So I ran this past my group, and that was a great experience and we all had an interesting time talking about it. So actually I have enjoyed the process.

VS: Wonderful. That’s wonderful to hear. 

Gil Spielberg, PhD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who maintains a private practice in Los Angeles, California. His specialty is group therapy, a form of therapy in which a small number of people meet together under the guidance of a therapist to help themselves and one another by developing, exploring, and examining interpersonal relationships within the group.

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)