Interview with Steve Van Wagoner

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Jonathan Stillerman, PhD, CGP

In preparation for the Fall 2013 MAGPS Conference, I had the pleasure of interviewing our guest presenter, Steven Van Wagoner. As you will read, Dr. Van Wagoner is personally and professionally invested in the conference theme and very much committed to creating a learning environment where it is safe to strive and grow together.

Here’s a taste of the weekend to come:

JCS: Competition. Envy. Shame. That’s a daunting triumvirate. Perhaps you could begin by telling us a bit about how you became interested in this theme?                                   

Steven Van Wagoner, PHD, CGP, FAGPA

SVW: My academic interest in this topic began during my first few years at the American Group Psychotherapy Association (AGPA). I was taken with how competitive our colleagues in the field can be. I attended a workshop on competition led by my friend and colleague Leyla Navaro, who edited the book Envy, Competition, and Gender with another friend and colleague Sharan Schwartzberg. At the time I    was leading workshops and institutes on intimacy in groups. Leyla and I began to discuss the relationship between envy and competition, and its impact on the development of intimacy in relationships.   Over time, we developed this into a workshop, and then co-led a related institute for five years. On a personal level, I have always been intrigued by envy, I was one of four, the one who always managed to slip under the parental radar. I was envied for being the only one to attend college, let alone graduate school. At the time I never considered that to be what envied meant or that had I possessed something that others in my family wanted (parental prizing, opportunity). So I would downplay what I thought might elicit envy, “dim my lights” as a colleague of mine says. This way of hiding, of not being exposed, opens the door for shame. Shame can also show up when one becomes aware of one’s own envy or competitive yearnings. Some people learn to enjoy being competitive. As a child I sublimated it into sports or academics, but there was always a message in the family to avoid boasting or being too proud. It took years to develop a healthy sense of pride, to neither hide it, nor boast about it.

JCS: Can you give us an example of how competition, envy, and shame may manifest in a therapy group?

SVW: Sure. In one of my groups, a member decided to confront the person who sexually molested him as a teen. He came to group afterwards with a sense of pride that he had been able to navigate this confrontation so effectively. Another member of the group with a similar history asked why on earth he would expose himself to such an experience, and the first member immediately felt deflated and ashamed of his poor judgment. Fortunately, other members saw it differently and were able to praise the person for his courage.

JCS: So when you’re witnessing this kind of emotionally charged interaction in group, is there a theoretical framework you find particularly influential in guiding how you think about the situation and choose to intervene?

SVW: I heavily rely upon both relational and modern analytic group theories. The language of relational theory really speaks to me as it pertains to the mutual influences that take place between the group therapist and the members in the group, and how we co-construct experience. The modern analytic approach developed by Hyman Spotnitz and Louis Ormont is a wonderful theory of technique that can steady us at times when the group is engaged in a powerful enactment that defies explanation, seems chaotic, and makes us question our competence. Techniques and tools like bridging, emotional insulation, progressive emotional communication, and affect education can help the group members continue to explore what is taking place between them as a way of learning about how they interact in the world.

JCS: Many people, on first glance, might think that acknowledging competitive and envious feelings would threaten intimacy in relationships. You seem to see it differently. Can you tell us why?

SVW: Of course it depends, but I see the opportunity for intimacy. When envy and competition are acted out in the group, they often have a negative impact. But if members can face their envious feelings and translate their behaviors into words, they begin to have more choices about how to relate. Once a person can own their envious feelings, they can then explore and communicate the potential admiration and prizing that is the underside of envy. In this transformation lies the greatest potential for mutual understanding, creativity, and intimacy. The catch, of course, is that many of us feel shame at having our competitive behaviors and envious feelings observed and exposed, which can make it difficult for members to study those parts of themselves.

JCS: I was struck in the conference description by your use of the phrase “competing for relatedness.” It’s not what I typically imagine people competing for. Can you tell us what you mean?

SVW: Yes. In a group, talking time is divided. Sometimes this can lead to members feeling deprived and competing for space and attention, either from the leader or other members. Or members will witness a really intimate interaction take place between two people and want some of that connection for themselves. How they go about trying to get it reveals a lot about that individual. Some might try to share in the interaction. Others might try to change the subject or interrupt in a jarring manner because they feel left out. No matter how clumsy, these are all attempts to compete for relatedness.

JCS: Given that competitiveness is often seen as a typically masculine quality, do you see competition for relatedness in your groups manifesting differently depending on the member’s gender?

SVW: It sometimes does, but as gender roles have blurred over the past few decades, I’ve noticed both men and women rethinking competition, moving away from a “win-lose” paradigm to a “grow with” paradigm. I’ve certainly noticed that shift in myself. When I was a much younger professional, I felt the urge to be brilliant and offer up some insightful comment (that hasn’t completely gone away), and I felt threatened if my ideas were challenged. Now I become excited when challenged, interested in how others see things, and curious as to whether I can learn something new. I plan to bring this attitude to the conference, and so long as I can manage my shame, it should make our experience together that much more engaging.

JCS: I noticed on the MAGPS website that shame is prominent in the conference title, but it doesn’t appear in the narrative description of the conference. Do you think that says anything about the challenge of maintaining a focus on shame in our work?

SVW: You caught me. I think you’re onto something. Working with shame is difficult, especially when we suddenly find ourselves having a partial identification with another person’s shame. This is the contagious aspect of shame. Jerry Gans taught me that the therapist’s shame is always nearby, and we have to tolerate and examine our own shame if we are to help our group members do the same.

JCS: You just mentioned your own shame. It seems that none of us are immune to feelings of competition, envy, and shame. How do you manage and use those experiences in yourself when running a group?

SVW: It’s a great question. Whenever I am having a strong pull to act a certain way, or am having an intense feeling, I explore in my mind what I’m feeling, why, toward whom, and ask myself what are they feeling, why, and what could I say that would progress our relationship. These are techniques I learned from my friend and colleague Elliot Zeisel. I also ask myself, am I the only one feeling this way? Who else might be having a similar feeling? Sometimes if a feeling seems induced to me, what Spotnitz calls “objective countertransference,” I might ask the group “Why am I feeling envious right now?” If another in the group feels similarly, this could invite him or her to express it. And if you want to know more, you’re just going to have to come to the weekend.

JCS: In the spirit of the conference theme, I found myself wanting to ask you how you’ll know by the end of the conference if you’ve WON…but in all seriousness, what do you hope members will take from attending this weekend?

SVW: That envious and competitive feelings are normal in human relations, and nothing to be ashamed of. I hope that attendees will bring their competitiveness to the weekend, and that we will all adopt a curious attitude toward whatever transpires. I don’t intend to win anything, but certainly invite others to. I do hope that whatever feelings emerge, I can create an atmosphere that welcomes their verbal expression and exploration. And if folks return to their groups with a greater awareness of these dynamics in their work and a better sense of how to work with them, even better.