Austin Group Psychotherapy Society

Interview with Katharine Barnhill LCSW, CGP, the facilitator of our July Institute

Thursday, July 20, 2023 11:57 PM | Melissa Savoie AGPS Coordinator (Administrator)

You are leading an institute on emotional engagement. What led you to focus on this topic?

I have both a professional and personal interest in the topic! As a sensitive, deep feeler who internalized a lot as a kid, shame and fear took residence in my nervous system. Many (many!) years in emotionally engaged individual and group therapy has helped me explore the thoughts and feelings I decided were off limits, not safe, or would result in rejection or relational ruptures I wasn’t equipped to handle. My window of tolerance for my own emotions, and others’ emotions, expanded. As a group leader, helping my clients authentically engage with one another is a foundational part of the job. Emotions help people bond to one another. They help us know where the hurts are, what’s important to us, what we want or need, where our boundaries are.

Groups that spend too much time analyzing, fixing, or storytelling can start to feel boring and disconnected. Helping people say more about what they feel, while staying curious about what they aren’t expressing and why, creates thriving groups.

And why an institute on the topic?

Experiential learning is critical for group therapists. The more parts of ourselves we get to know, the more conscious and regulated we can be in the therapy room. We increase our capacity to be with our clients in the fullness of their own growth and healing.

What are the challenges of emotional engagement, the positives, or the goals?

Groups with high emotional engagement have an energy current that feels alive and self-renewing. When members take risks to express what they feel inside themselves and towards one another, they typically feel alert, engaged and invested in the process. But everyone has a different window of tolerance for emotions, and everyone has defense mechanisms or protective parts that show up when things feel too vulnerable. In a group there is often a push/pull between wanting to engage emotionally, but also wanting to stay safe and comfortable. As a leader it can be challenging to balance members’ different experiences of safety and hold the dialectic of respecting protective strategies while also encouraging emotional contact.

My kids attended a camp that encouraged taking “reasonable risks” and I loved that phrase. I think it applies perfectly to group therapy. The goal isn’t to break down all our defenses, overwhelm the nervous system, or discharge emotions in an uncontained way.

The goal is for members to take enough reasonable emotional risks that they are growing and the group feels alive.

What do you love most about group therapy?

At the top of the list is probably how group therapy provides a new experience in a “family.”

Group can stimulate family of origin wounds like nobody’s business, but it also provides a unique therapeutic environment that supports healing and integration when those old wounds emerge. To sit with a group that’s deep in emotional work, then erupts in shared laughter in response to a member’s well-timed joke, is a master class in nervous system co-regulation. The ritual of showing up week after week, staying curious about oneself and others, and investing in a shared relational experience provides a slow drip of healing and personal growth that’s hard to replicate and very needed in our world.

Tell us something about your groups (the idea here is your ideal client and what that client could possibly gain from becoming a group member)

I lead four long-term process groups focused on personal and relational growth. I also lead a process group for therapists, and have a new online group for therapists starting in early fall (I still have spots in this group if anyone is looking for a group home!). I tend to work with people who have family of origin wounds, attachment insecurities, perfectionism, and shame. Group supports people as they learn to express the thoughts, feelings, and desires they adapted to ignore or manage in less relationally healthy ways. Group also provides a secure base. Over time, being part of a “good enough” group – one that is reliable and responsive and doing the work of rupture and repair – can support one’s movement towards earned security.

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