Interview with Our Fall Conference Presenter,
Jonathan C. Stillerman, PhD, CGP
with Lisa Haileab, PhD
I was excited for the opportunity to interview Jonathan Stillerman in preparation for our Fall Conference. Here is a preview of our upcoming weekend.
Lisa: MAGPS members are looking forward to your leading us in our fall conference titled “Indecent Exposure? The Pitfalls and Potential of Group Therapist Self-Disclosure!” How did you become interested in the conference topic and how do you define, “the pitfalls and potential of group therapist self-disclosure?”
Jonathan: I’ve been thinking a lot about why this particular topic piqued my interest. A couple of things come to mind. When I began seeing patients more than 25 years ago, I did all I could to embody a “blank slate” in sessions, right down to resisting the urge to smile. That stance was heavily influenced by the teachings of my classically analytically-oriented grad program and the classical analysis in which I was a patient. But, to be fully honest, I think it also reflected something more personal, a deeper belief that I was better off hiding my true self from others, a deeper shame about my authentic needs and desires. Who I learned to be in my life and who I was taught to be as a therapist seemed a perfect fit at first. Anonymity felt natural. I think I’ve been recovering from that ever since, personally and professionally. Years of my own therapy helped a great deal to loosen my grip on shame and exposure to other, more relational, models of clinical practice expanded the possibilities for who and how I could be with patients. On the one hand, that freedom from the old “rules” has been relieving and exciting, but it’s also been disconcerting and has raised new questions and professional challenges. In some sense, it’s simpler to strive for “anonymity” as a therapist than for “authenticity”. The possibilities of the latter can seem limitless, the boundaries slippery. I’m hoping that this conference will provide a space for us all to be thoughtful about the opportunities and challenges of navigating this evolving professional landscape.
Lisa: What professional experiences have most influenced your work as a group therapist?
Jonathan: Every experience I’ve had as a group leader and group member over the course of my life has contributed to my development as a group therapist. Most recently, I’ve been especially drawn to modern group analysis and its focus on valuing resistance and promoting progressive emotional communication amongst group members. Stewart Aledort’s emphasis on “passionate bad and good fits” and the role of shame and excitement in group work has also made a big impact on me. Going all the way back to my internship days at Howard University’s Counseling Service, Ayana Watkins-Northern and many others opened my eyes to the vital interplay of sociocultural and psychodynamic forces in groups, an understanding that only deepened while leading consciousness-raising groups for male students in DC public high schools during my tenure as Co-Director of Men Can Stop Rape. And finally, I cannot overstate how vital have been my experiences as a group member. Currently, I am a member of two peer supervision groups and three training groups, and, though sometimes painful, the experiential learning remains invaluable in my development as a group leader and as a person.
Lisa: Can you speak more about the vulnerabilities of group therapist self-disclosure?
Jonathan: There are many. First, simply being a group therapist opens us up to an intense level of scrutiny and exposure. As leaders we are always being observed from all angles by the group members, which makes becoming known, whether we intend to reveal ourselves or not, virtually guaranteed – and not always in our control. Second, while the power of group forces, conscious and unconscious, can help members grow and heal, they can also exert enormous pressure on the therapist to self-disclose, even when it might not be therapeutic to do so. It’s one thing to resist the push of an individual client who wants to know something about you; it’s another to contain yourself in the face of an entire group pressing you for information. Even when the therapist does make an informed choice to disclose, doing so in a group can still be tricky because each member can experience the disclosure differently. For example, if a therapist becomes tearful during a group session in response to a member’s story, that member may feel loved, but another member may experience the therapist as fragile and feel scared, and a third might become jealous of another member receiving such care from the therapist. We’ll be spending quite a bit of time over the conference weekend exploring these unique challenges.
Lisa: How can therapists be mindful of diversity when working to avoid the pitfalls and maximize the potential of self-disclosure in group work?
Jonathan: That is a great question and an often overlooked dimension of therapist self-disclosure. We could spend an entire weekend on this alone. I think it’s very important to consider how issues of culture, difference, power and privilege can influence a group therapist’s choice to self-disclose and affect the impact of that choice on the group. I often wonder how my own approach to self-disclosure, in general, and my choice in any given moment, is intertwined with my identities as a white, straight, Jewish, upper class, Midwestern male. And I wonder how group therapists with different identities might approach these choices differently. For example, how might it be different for a gay male therapist to disclose his sexuality to a group than a straight male therapist? How might it be different for a black female therapist to reveal anger toward a group member than a white female therapist? How might it be different for a Muslim group therapist to disclose their religion than a Catholic or Jewish therapist? The answers to these questions are complex and also, of course, depend, in part, on the identities and personalities of the group members themselves. By the end of our weekend together, my hope is that every attendee will be more thoughtful about the many cultural contexts in which every group therapist’s choice to disclose (or not) is embedded.
Lisa: How does your identity and experience as a clinical psychologist, faculty member, and poet impact your thinking/openness to self-disclose?
Jonathan: In spite of how I started out in the field, and in life, I tend to take a fair number of risks in groups, whether as a member or leader, and share myself in ways that others might be more hesitant to do. How I got here is still a bit of a mystery to me. Both of my parents put themselves out there in certain respects (despite being very private in other ways) – my father wrote numerous op-eds that were published in our local newspaper about a variety of social issues and my mother was a tremendous athlete despite having grown up at a time when girls were not encouraged to play sports – so maybe some of my approach to self-disclosure is an identification with them. Some of it has also been trial and error, speaking up and seeing what happens, and finding that more often than not, my willingness to open up engages rather than repels others. Elliot Zeisel, a modern group analyst in New York, often talks about developing “unconscious competence”, by which he means developing a certain trust in one’s intuition as a group leader over time. While there are still many times when I’m in the dark as a group therapist, and when not speaking seems the better option, there are other moments when something will come to mind that I trust has meaning, even if I’m not sure exactly why, and it feels right to find the courage to speak those thoughts or feelings out loud, even without being sure where they will lead. Writing poetry also helps take these leaps. There’s a saying in the poetry world – “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”. I think that applies to group therapists too. Sometimes we have to be surprised by where our own minds lead us and offer that to our groups as a way of evoking something new in the members as well.
Lisa: In relation to self-disclosure, what are you going to be looking for from our members?
Jonathan: I think the success of this conference really depends, not just on what I’ll be offering, but also on the willingness of the participants to actively, honestly and openly engage with the subject matter, with me and with each other. I’ve tried to structure the weekend in a way that encourages a lot of audience participation and provides a number of evocative clinical examples for people to chew on. Therapist self-disclosure is a hotly debated topic in our field and there is little consensus about what the boundaries should be. I’m hoping we’ll all be willing to muck around in this murky area together, take risks to share our own experiences (positive and negative) with therapist self-disclosure and reveal our own questions and uncertainties as a way of clarifying where each of us stands in relation to this complex aspect of group work.
Lisa: In closing, how has poetry influenced your identity as a clinician?
Jonathan: I actually think my passions for poetry, reading and writing it, and for being a therapist have influenced one another. Understanding a poem and understanding a therapy patient or group requires a similar type of analytic attention. The literal meaning of the words the poet writes and the words the patient speaks is only part of the story. In order to fully appreciate what a poet or a patient is trying to communicate, one must “listen” on multiple levels, beyond the words, beyond the manifest content. For poetry, that means paying attention to rhythm, sound, line breaks, emotional tone and shape of the poem as well as the feelings and associations evoked in the reader. As a therapist, I try to do the same. I pay close attention to process, not just content, which includes body language, moments of silence, sequence of topics, shifts in emotion, double meanings. And perhaps as important as any of those dimensions, I tune in to myself when I’m with patients, staying open to my reactions and associations, no matter how random they may seem at the moment. To me, the deepest understanding and meaning exists between the lines of a poem or a therapeutic exchange.