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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.