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?’s a posture in not take for granted and continue cultivating a space in which exploration and trying on things and continuing to discover, not foreclosing on possibilities...

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)