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Laura MacRae Serpa

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Laura MacRae-Serpa

Humans of MHT: An Interview with Laura MacRae-Serpa

Our Humans of MHT series continues this month by spotlighting Laura MacRae-Serpa as she shares her love of learning and play with fellow intern Allie. 

Allie: Okay, so hi Laura, I'm so excited that I get to interview you. It was all random, who interviewed who. And it feels very special to me to get to talk with you about humanness and about your work as a therapist, I think, because you're someone who –  as a therapist and a human – I admire a lot.

Laura: Thank you, Allie.

A: I feel like you do such a amazing job of making the heart connection with people, but also just being extremely skilled and knowledgeable. Sometimes people have one of those [capacities] more than the other and I feel like you have both in abundance so it's um -

L: Thank you, I feel the same way about you.

A: Thank you. So, I'm curious, I want to hear about your picture in our humans of MHT photo series. I'm especially curious about your goggles picture. What's going on with your goggles?

L: Soap making. So that's one thing I like to do as a hobby is make soap. And you have to use lye at one point, so you have to protect your eyes, wear gloves, and you get to look like a scientist for a moment (laughter).

A: That's so fun! So you enjoy the lye process in particular then? Is that why you picked the goggles?

L: (laughter) Yes I do. I like taking anything and mixing it. So, soap making, baking, you know, a lot of things that children play with – I just enjoy that process.

A: You like having different ingredients, that you're putting into the pot –

L: Anything I can mix together in a pot, and see what it comes out as, I like.

A: Yeah, I love that. Um, well, lye is a really fascinating one to think about too, because it's poisonous, right?

L: Yes (laughs).

A: So, but there you are, creating something very nice and healthful.

L: Yes I am.

A: Do you feel like there any, like how do you make sense of that maybe even metaphorically: The mixing of the lye into your pot to make soap, and you like mixing all different kinds of things together in play or in therapy?

L: Yeah, I think symbolically, when we think about pieces of ourselves, you know, we mix the good in with the not-so-great. Or what we perceive as not so great. But you know I think it's the sum of the parts that create the whole, which obviously, you know, the end result can be a beautiful thing.

A: Mmm.

L: A valuable, worthy thing.

A: Mmm, yeah, I like that. That's kind of an interesting comment, you slipped in there – just the parts that we maybe think are less valuable

L: Right.

A: What what do you mean by that?

L: I think sometimes our vulnerabilities, sometimes the pieces of ourselves that we hide, or feel we have to hide or protect from from other people are actually the parts of ourselves that are the most human. You know, our flawed self, or like I said, what we perceive as flawed

A: Hmm.

L: When we have a relational experience where we can actually share some of the parts maybe that we're less proud of, when those are received and accepted, it can be a very powerful experience.

A: Hmm.

L: There's risk in that, of course.

A: Yeah, kind of beauty from ashes sort of experience to have something like that turn into something beautiful in a relationship. Yeah, like that. I like thinking about lye as the – I'll think of that for myself next time I'm not sure. “Well maybe this'll turn into something like soap. (Laughter).

Laura_Humans Photo.jpg
...I really believe in change. That we can all change. I consider myself a lifelong learner, so I feel like if I’m always sitting in that space and place with my clients, that I mean, I am learning as well. I’m growing as well.

A: Well, tell me a little bit about your humanness as a therapist. How do you feel like your humanness shows up in your sessions and and who you are as a therapist?

L: I think most importantly I really believe in change. That we can all change. I consider myself a lifelong learner, so I feel like if I'm always sitting in that space and place with my clients, that I mean, I am learning as well. I'm growing as well. And I think since I have such a powerful belief in just humans ability to be resilient, I carry that hope and that kind of strength-based energy with me into the room.

And play as well. Creativity and just making a little bit of space for play.

A: Yeah I think those – maybe your learning posture, which shows up perhaps more consistently with you than anyone else I've met, which is amazing because you already know a lot – but also your love of play, feel like two pretty special things about you. So that makes sense. Those are things that kind of mark your humaness as a therapist.

I actually wanted to ask you a little bit about about play, because you are such a skilled play therapist, and I know that you really love play. I think you've said to me that you just, you like play.

L: I do. (laughter)

A: It's a good job for you! But I'm kind of curious, what you what sort of thoughts you have, if you can condense them down into a minute or two, of how how play can be leveraged for healing. I don't think we always are used to thinking about it that way. But my goodness, you do that so effectively so what are your thoughts about how that works?

L: I think play is children's work. It's how they process their world. It's how they you know try on their different parts, different selves. And often how they share. I think it creates safety. You know when I think about a play in a relationship, it creates safety. It's a mask almost. Not always, but sometimes it's a mask where the person feels a little safer to share or test or explore. So I think the potential for growth with play is unlike any other type of therapy, actually.

And I think that's why it's important to include play in our lives as adults. You know, however that's manifesting in your life. Whether it be team sports, or hobbies, or just giving yourself that freedom of creative process, it can be a powerful change agent and growth.

A: Yeah, the idea of a mask makes me think of play as providing a little bit of a buffer between the most like vulnerable parts of us and whatever it is that we're trying to learn to interact with.

L: Yeah.

A: And then that brings about safety that allows maybe for more growth than could happen if it was made maybe quite so explicit what we were doing. That would make it scarier, yeah.

L: Yeah, it feels a little safer, I think. I agree, just to kind of have it – it's almost like walking beside the experience and then processing it with someone else kind of beside to you, before you have to take that and integrate it.

A: Hmm, you're kind of trying things on, but it's not yet. Doesn't have to be you. Until you find out if it fits, maybe.

L: Yeah.

A: Interesting, I like that.

Um, well what about this huge question: What does humanness mean to you? How do you think about that?

L: Resiliency is the big one that comes to mind. I tend to think of the positive definition of humanness. I think of empathy, relationship building, our ability to be connected and to really feel each other's experiences. But within the resiliency, you know, it includes those darker experiences. Or the, the lye, shall we go back to that. (laughs) The parts of ourselves that maybe are harder to share. I think humanness is also very much about those parts and really allowing our relationship with those parts to ourself, so that we can kind of share relationally with other people in a very authentic way.

A: Mm-hmm. Yeah, do you feel like that those two things interact? Resiliency and being able to share the lye, the less desirable, or what we perceive as less desirable, inside of us?

L: I do. I think when we walk through or move through an experience that's difficult, yeah it's it's being a little more gritty. It's being able to maybe risk, because we're sitting comfortable in our sense of self, and we've had that relationship with all of our parts, so to speak. You know, and whether that includes acceptance, forgiveness, understanding; I think it then allows us to grow, be a little bit braver. I think it allows us to accept those parts in others too.

A: Mm-hmm.

L: You know, instead of just stepping into something with maybe an ideal that isn't attainable. I think sometimes it's the real pieces of people that we connect the most to.

A: Mmm, yeah, something that is maybe less ideal but actually ends up being better, or more special to us.

L: Yeah, I think it's relatable. And I always feel, with all of my clients, just a sense of respect for the courage it takes to step into therapy and look at those experiences. And you know the willingness to kind of explore just who they are, and maybe where they want to be, it's a very courageous process.

A: Well those are profound thoughts Laura, thank you for sharing.

L: Thank you, Allie.

A: Yeah, it's been so fun to interview you in our mini interview series. So, we'll sign off now. But thank you, and I'll get to talk to you soon (laughter).

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

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 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.

The Rhythm of Candor

The Rhythm of Candor

Candor is synonymous with truthfulness, honesty, frankness and bluntness. I tend to surf candor as oppose to always deep diving. Why is that? I value candor in specific contexts such as, health care and academics. When the stakes are high then candor feels caring. When the conversation turns to my friend’s new haircut, candor feels narcissistic. I am willing to soften my opinion in order to spare another’s feelings so, I guess that makes me an advocate of the little white lie. Some might argue that I am narcissistic for thinking my opinion holds that much weight. Others may argue that anything but radical candor does not allow for growth or authentic relationship. I think it is a balance – a relational dance that we all engage in. If we are attuned then we may discover our rhythm is different from our partners, friends and co-workers. is a balance – a relational dance that we all engage in. If we are attuned then we may discover our rhythm is different from our partners, friends and co-workers.

Consider candor versus the little white lie and children’s sports teams. For preschool age children, most team activities are not competitive. No one keeps score and “everyone’s a winner.” This team philosophy carries on until the early school age years where children begin to compare themselves to their peers. The preschool bubble bursts as, children figure out they may not be, for example, the fastest. As children age, coaches and parents provide more feedback about the game. The most developmentally appropriate coaches will speak to where the team worked hard and where they could have worked harder. Children need to experience a sense of mastery before being able to process where they might improve.

As a mother, I carefully choose my words. This does not mean that my children do not hear my truth. I simply aim to deliver my truth in a manner they can developmentally digest. Words hold power. What I say as a mother can propel my children forward or cripple their sense of self. In order to be an agent of change, candor needs to be delivered with preparation and caring. Telling a child “the truth” will only help them grow if they are prepared to receive it. I am also careful to consider their truth might be different from my own. Helping my children connect to their own voice is often more powerful then looping and repeating my own truth.

So, when do we utilize a white lie and when do we speak with candor? Words become weapons when fueled by distressing emotions. Candor, even radical candor has a time and place but it is important to remember that, delivery, relationship and self-regulation all matter. If those are not in play then maybe a little white lie is developmentally appropriate.

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