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The Alchemy of Group Therapy


Alchemy, an art and science practiced around the world for a millenia, engaged the intelligence and the efforts of scientists, philosophers and mathematicians with the most skilled of craftsmen and artists in an effort to capture the mysteries of meaning through the power of transformation. This investigation emphasized the ability to transform one material to another. The science of distillation was discovered through the efforts of alchemists. The transformation of sand into glass with the administration of great heat is another well-known application. A more common application is the combining of disparate elements in the kitchen, which are transformed into yummy delicacies. Depending on the application, the mixing together of butter, chocolate, eggs and flour can be transformed into a collective celebration or much needed personal comfort like a slice of cake or a brownie.

I believe a therapist is a kind of modern day alchemist. Taking the disparate elements of one’s traumatic experiences, one’s sense of despair and hurt, then forging it with the soulful elements of hope and purpose transforming trauma into treasure. Therapeutic change is an enormously complex process that occurs through an intricate interplay of human experiences. I believe one of the most powerful alchemical elements utilized for change lies in the power of group psychotherapy. Like the alchemists of ancient times, we too are attempting to penetrate the mysteries of existence. In the elixir of group psychotherapy perhaps our purpose is to penetrate the mystery of our own hearts.

Most of the emotional difficulties people endure occur in the context of relationships, and as such, we carry with us a kind of injury to our sense of self and well-being. The paradox of healing is acknowledging that though we are injured in the context of relationships, we are also healed in the context of relationships. Like the many disciplines that came together to create the ancient practice of alchemy, different perspectives work together to reveal certain truths about ourselves and our experiences. Whether it is the kind words of someone “who has been there”, recognizing the courage it takes to expose one’s real feelings and desires, marveling in the ability to articulate one’s real feelings and desires, or the thoughtful direction of a counselor who has engaged with individuals attempting to navigate the same deluge of fear, grief, and rage. Group psychotherapy may be an opportunity to transform the emotional refuse of shame, fear and rage into the living gold of inspiration, compassion and joy.

Many individuals entering therapy hold the disquieting thought that they alone have certain frightening or unacceptable problems, thoughts, impulses and habits. And because of this they maintain a kind of social and emotional isolation. They can be surrounded by family at home, friends at school or colleagues at work and still experience a deep sense of aloneness because they maintain an experience of “if you only knew the real me”.

The rallying point of group psychotherapy is to peel away the armor of shame and defensiveness in order to discover the tender and intelligent bits of our humanity. It provides the surrogate family where one can rediscover the life-affirming qualities, which, in childhood, may have taken a back seat to survival. With the administration of the group dynamic, a skillful group leader and the power of will, one has the opportunity to explore and celebrate their beauty and humor, their outrageous individuality and life force.

This alchemical mix opens new doors to the deepest transformation of all- a felt and lived reality that our lives belong to us!

A photo of a group therapy session.

Introducing HIDE AND SEEK: On-going Therapy Groups and Workshops for Survivors of Childhood Abuse

HIDE AND SEEK: On-going Therapy Groups and Workshops for Survivors of Childhood Abuse beginning May 8th. To make an appointment or to enroll for the Hide and Seek Group Therapy Sessions call Kathryn @ 775-232-4554

To endure the trauma of abuse a child learns a variety of important survival skills, one of which is hiding. Over time they unknowingly focus their intuitive radar toward one end: not getting caught. Thus seeking to preserve an elemental sense of integrity in an impossible situation, she demonstrates a remarkable-and crucial-resourcefulness.

But there’s a downside. Succeeding at not getting “caught” invariably involves concealing their wanting, their desiring, their eagerness to give and receive love and caring. The hyper-vigilance through which they survived childhood becomes a barrier to connecting in satisfying ways with their adult selves, and with others. The hiding place becomes their adult body, where they “form around” and live out their humiliation, rage and grief. Eventually their life appears as a repetitive and seemingly futile search for joy, spontaneity, trust and real contact with themselves and others: life-affirming qualities, which, in childhood, necessarily took a back seat to survival.

My aim as a leader is to create a focused environment that allows us to work through these dynamics in a safe and supportive social context: participants will have the opportunity to observe and enact how we feel, think, and move ourselves through life, Reclaiming the body as a home for passion and soul opens new doors to the deepest realization of all-that our lives belong to us.

Workshops & Groups
Calling upon a variety of proven therapeutic methods and disciplines, these workshops and groups invite you:
To reintegrate your physical, emotional and intellectual selves
To experience your power and creativity
To increase your attention concentration and intuition
To express your emotions and let go of your suffering

Introductory Workshop:

Early registration: $55.00 if paid by May 1
Late registration: $65.00 after May 1

Women Only: Sunday May 7 9:30-12:30
Sunday June 4 1:30-4:30
Co-ed: Sunday May 7 1:30-4:30
Sunday June 4 9:30-12:30

On-Going Therapy Groups:

The focus of these experiential groups is to give participants the opportunity to work though similar concerns in a social context that encourages mutual hope and individual growth.

Six week session beginning May 8 (no session on Memorial Day). To promote group continuity and cohesiveness, registrants commit to the full six weeks and participate in the same group time each week.

Women Only: Mondays @ 5:30-6:45
Co-ed: Mondays @ 7:00-8:15

Early registration: $180 if paid by May 1
Late registration: $200 if paid after May 1

To make an appointment or to enroll for the Hide and Seek Group Therapy Sessions call Kathryn @ 775-232-4554

Compare and Contrast Does Not Mean Assume and Disregard

One of the skills many are taught and develop while in grade school is the practice of contrasting and comparing. Many of us remember prompts like “Compare and contrast Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Homer’s The Odyssey,”

What we were not taught is that this skill, intended as a tool of critical thinking, may become a crutch or a disability without the added insight of reflection. “I don’t like: Thai food, large cities, small towns, the desert, rap music, classical music, liberals, conservatives, Christmas” more accurately reveals a person’s experience, or lack of, to any particular event, place or thing.

I may not like Christmas because my family is religious while I’m not; or I hate shopping for things people in my life don’t need with money I don’t have; or half of my family are drinkers and I’m uncomfortable with that; or my father died on Christmas and it is a time of grieving, not of celebrating. What happens is that I am comparing this Christmas with all of the others from my previous experience. I am convinced it’s not to be enjoyed. Once I am convinced, then I have prevented the opportunity to grow. I could be more creative about extending love in other forms besides buying gifts from the mall or attending large family dinners. With reflection and courage, there is an opportunity to consider more satisfying ways to address our collective expectations and needs. Perhaps that comes in the form of having a Christmas breakfast instead of a dinner or choosing to spend the day on my own.

I lived in Santa Cruz for many years. I love the salty moist air, the rich earth of the redwood forest, the red bougainvillea that grows on the side of the government buildings. I now live in Reno and many of my Santa Cruz friends don’t understand my affection for the high desert. It’s dry. It’s hot. No trees. I realized they don’t see Reno for what it is, they see it for what its not. As long as the desert is compared to the ocean and then dismissed because it does not possess those familiar qualities then one is incapable of appreciating the sparse yet resonate beauty of the desert landscape.

Rap music. Hate it. Assumed it was an inferior art form because it requires a very different ear when listening than what I am familiar and therefore comfortable with. Compared to almost all other forms of music which posses melody and foundations of music theory. This assumption allowed me to dismiss an entire genre of music and in some ways a generation of concertgoers. That’s okay. I’m right. You’re wrong. But then my daughter insisted I listen to Nicki Minaj and her outrageous/courageous voice of a woman’s experience. Surprised, I discovered an appreciation for the art form. I will probably never spend a hundred bucks on tickets to a concert, but my willingness to embrace my daughter’s appreciation drew us closer and more engaged as I understand her life a little better.

Our differences can be unsettling. And the easiest way to deal with this discomfort is to disregard and dismiss the value of the “other”. However, as long as you dismiss your wife’s pleasure in theater or your husband’s delight in finding the correct fly fishing lure or a parent’s love in participating in the community chorus, you miss knowing something important about them. You miss the opportunity to love a part of themselves that they love.

I get it, the fishing lure is not that interesting to someone who doesn’t fish and rap music is certainly not interesting to someone who adores Leonard Cohen or Dinah Washington, but if we take the time to listen to one another’s story and let them teach us, we just may learn we have more to join through comparison than dismiss in contrast. And this simple yet significant act may provide the magic elixir of connection.

A photo of a group therapy session.

Investing in Therapy is Investing in Yourself

One of the fundamental elements of our humanity is the certainty that we are wired to connect with one another. In fact, our first experience of another human being is our absolute dependence upon that human being. Bound together by biology, we are shaped by connection and unless there is a serious rupture we are compelled over and over again to connect with others.

Though we are wired to connect, it is the sustaining of relationship that provides one of the primary challenges of our lifetime. Because of the naturalness of connection, the magic elixir of need and the alchemy of attraction, we assume relationships should be easy to sustain. However, the challenge really never goes away, does it? Anyone who is over twelve years old has experienced the effort it takes to maintain cordial, deep, lasting, genuine and respectful relationships. I use these qualities because I am not interested in participating in the opposite: hurtful, superficial, demeaning or disrespectful.

We can assert we want loving and mutually satisfying relationships but the day-to-day barriers to maintaining them oftentimes is beyond our abilities to uphold. This is where therapy can help. I chose the headline for my web site “The Courage to Love: Love inspires us. Relationships challenge us “ as it speaks to this very issue. We feel the yearning to connect, imagine the pleasure of acceptance and then slam into the reality of the work of being in a relationship.

This is why we need to develop the skills which promote the art of living and loving.
Most people possess some kind of skill which they have worked to develop: computer coding, accounting, car repair, musicianship, crafting, cooking, skiing, cycling, teaching, on and on it goes. These skills help us to maneuver in the world and define our quality of life. They provide our vocations and avocations. They help to define who we are by how we spend our time. To get those skills whether we utilize them as a means to support ourselves either financially or spiritually or emotionally, we invest time and money to develop them. We attend college or trade school or participate in apprenticeships or residencies to develop the skills we need to develop a meaningful career. Whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, we invest time and money to develop the life we want. We save and invest our time and money to buy a home and make it a place where we can be safe and comfortable. All of this takes effort. All of these efforts are a form of investment and no on expects significant returns to actualize overnight and without effort. The same is true for living in a meaningful relationship. It is an investment.

A therapist, the right therapist is your teacher, your coach, your advocate, your drill sergeant, your pastor and your personal trainer. This time and money is about investing in yourself and your ability to create and maintain meaningful relationships with yourself, your friends, your colleges, and your loved ones.

I think this is a worthy investment.
And invite you to do the same.

A child coloring and a box of crayons in the foreground

Mad, Sad, Glad, or Scared?

It takes a lot to be a fully developed and realized human; living with style and grace and having love in one’s life. To acquire and maintain these qualities we must develop essential skills with which to navigate. Cultivating the language of emotions, which promotes emotional intelligence, is one of these skills that has the power to profoundly influence our relationships with the people around us.

Mistakenly, we often put the responsibility of connection onto the ears and hearts of others. “Do you understand me?” “Am I making sense?” “I just need you to listen to me!”

What many fail to realize is that what is actually getting in the way of connecting isn’t the lack of understanding from another person, but our own inability to identify and name our feelings. How can we communicate effectively with others if we ourselves are unable to recognize and connect with our own feelings? This is when I think it is helpful to keep it simple and distill our feelings into four basic feeling experiences: Mad, sad, glad and scared.

When learning to color as young children, we are started with the most basic colors: Red, Blue, Yellow, Green. The crayons were often made large for our unskilled hands to easily manage. When we learned to use these four colors well, we graduated to the box of 24 crayons. More colors offered more ways to add depth and dimension to our masterpieces. The crayons were smaller as we were more nimble and adept. Overtime, 24 colors weren’t enough to express all of the nuance we wanted to portray. With practice, we progressed to the pack of 48 with the sharpener in the back of the box. We didn’t have just blue, but we had cerulean and cyan. Instead of being left with nothing but red, we learned to use scarlet and crimson.

Similarly, once we have mastered the four basic feelings of mad, sad, glad and scared, we can graduate to more nuanced feelings like frustration, anger, rage, grief, despair, heartbroken, happy, excited, contented, fearful, anxious or dread.

Once we are able to identify a feeling with detail and color, we then have the ability to communicate more vividly and accurately. We are more nimble in our ability to communicate. Having developed the ability to communicate more truthfully, we are able to advance to identifying the difference between what we feel and what we think. Without this ability, we are in a constant state of reaction. We are not free to decide what to do or not do with our frustration, despair, anxiety or delight. Our lives are not our own as we live in a chronic state of reaction. Ultimately, it is a painful way to live.

Emotional intelligence teaches us that there really is a difference between what we think and feel. Without the ability to recognize this difference and respond to them in a skillful manner, we are destined to be at the mercy of what I call the “coat hanger mess“ of feelings when we attempt to unravel them. (Have you ever tried to pull out just one empty hanger, and then three or four others fall out with it? It’s like that, but for emotions.)

So where to begin in the development of an emotional intelligence?
Start with Mad- Sad- Glad -Scared.
Take your feeling temperature several times a day just for practice.
What am I feeling right now? Mad? Sad? Glad? Scared?
Confused, bored or worried? Not feelings.
Get it close to the bone.
Notice without judgment what it “means “ that I am so fearful, so angry or so happy. Just identify it. Notice it. Breathe into it. Watch it.

Once you have developed the initial language of emotional color you can begin to work with a larger box of emotional colors. Once you have mastered this you are now ready to risk being penetrated by the experience of that feeling. Only then are you free to choose how you are going to act.

You are on your way to developing the next skill of emotional intelligence: response.

Several items of clothing hung carefully on hangers.

Hangers in the Closet, Feelings in the Heart

I’m old enough that I have clothes from the ‘80s hanging in my closet.
And, like some of these clothes, I am experiencing my vintage years.
Between these clothes from the ‘80s and current fashion purchased from Forever 21 by my stylist daughter, I have a lot of hangers in the closet. Hanging with these clothes are memories; the holiday party I wore that sweater to, riding in gondola through the canals of Venice in that pair of pants. They’re all clung on to the growing collection of hangers.

As organized as I try to be by placing all of the empty hangers in one place, it almost always happens that I pull one out and another four come with it. “@#$%^! I have got better things to do than spending the next five minutes untangling all of these hangers! All I wanted was two!“ I can feel the irritation rise up the back of my neck and in a flash I am cursing at that bunch of hangers.

It happens so fast. I lost it. The hangers have won. Hopefully no one else or the dog has heard my rantings. It scares and upsets them. It’s humiliating. A nest of hangers has control over me and the loved ones in my life know it.

What the heck is going on? Is it that there are too many hangers in the closet or too many memories? Because of course, that’s how memories work. No memory is isolated from another and no memory comes without a feeling attached.

I remember a particular day I was running late. It was the beginning of the economic recession. The variable rate loan I had was now increasing at an alarming and prohibitive rate. I had tossed all night because I was worried about how to pay the mortgage. Finally at 5:00 am I got a few blessed moments of sleep. The result is now I’m 15 minutes behind schedule. My daughter was late to school and furious at me. I was late to work (because, of course, the car needed gas) and my boss noticed. I was attempting to do my best and my best was not good enough. That day was a nest of feelings: despair, overwhelm, heartache, fury, resolve and even pride. To the people in my life it didn’t matter I had figured out a solution; I had failed them.

The memory of that day is attached to today because I disappointed someone again.
In the moment my best is not good enough. So once again I am filled with not one feeling but many. They are all attached. It’s a mess. And just like that, the heat rises up the back of my neck.

The task is to take a breath. Slow down. Separate out the feeling from the event. Soothe the heartache and the panic. Make a plan. Do the next right thing.

I believe my story mirrors the story of many. Few of us were taught how to cultivate the emotional resources and practical skills for unraveling the nest of feelings that come with the daily complexities of living and loving. The emotional discipline to separate out our feelings and actions is an acquired skill developed over time. It is my view these skills are developed in the context of relationship and that the psychotherapeutic relationship provides a matchless opportunity to develop and practice. Spare the dog. Spare the spouse.