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.
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.
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.
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.
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).