An Interview with Ali Kimmell:
|Today I’m interviewing Ali Kimmell. Ali Kimmell is a Certified Group Psychotherapist (CGP) who also teaches, consults, and writes about group therapy. She received graduate training in psychodynamic psychotherapy at The Psychotherapy Institute in Berkeley and in modern group analysis at the Center for Group Studies in New York City. She serves as faculty at The Psychotherapy Institute’s Group Therapy Training Program in Berkeley and has taught group therapy at Grateful Heart Counseling Center, Northern California Group Psychotherapy Association, the American Group Psychotherapy Association, and The Center for Group Studies. She recently published a book chapter Belonging: Queer Theory’s Contribution to Modern Analytic Groups in Kane, Y., Masselink, S. & Weiss, A (Eds.), Women, Intersectionality and Power in Group Psychotherapy. Routledge.|
We talk here about the Modern Analytic approach (and its shortcomings), immediacy, joining with resistance, the unique benefits of group work, social identities in group, therapist self-disclosure, applying queer theory to group psychotherapy, moving towards queer moments in group, and leader resistances.
The following resources were mentioned in the interview:
- Center for Group Studies
- Louis Ormont
- The Psychotherapy Institute’s Group Therapy Training Program
- American Group Psychotherapy Association
- Karim Dajani
- Women, Intersectionality, and Power in Group Psychotherapy Leadership
- Queer Theory
- Bay Area Group Therapy Center
Ryan: Okay. Well, welcome Ali. Good to see you.
Ali: Thanks. Good to be here.
Ryan: So, I just wanted to start with having you tell us a little bit about who you are and how you spend your time.
Ali: Okay. So, my name’s Ali Kimmell, and I use she/her pronouns. I identify as white, queer, Jewish, cisgender woman. I have a private practice in Oakland where I see individuals. And I also run four modern analytically informed process groups. I also do some teaching on group therapy at The Psychotherapy Institute in Berkeley and the Group Therapy Center.
Ryan: Wonderful. So, people who are listening will have various levels of familiarity with different approaches to group. And I’m just wondering, can you say a bit about the modern analytic approach? How do you think about that?
Ali: Yeah. So well, and there’s also – the modern analytic approach is taught differently at different centers as well – so, I specifically am familiar with the modern analytic approach as trained at the Center for Group Studies in New York City. So that’s a school that was borne from the teachings of Lou Ormont. And I would say that, in general, it’s an approach that’s focused on the here and now of the group members; really, interventions based on highlighting the relationships as they’re emerging in the group room, and helping people study what comes up for them in relationships in the moment with each other, so that people do talk about things going on in their lives and their past. But the biggest focus is understanding ourselves and each other in relationships as they arise in the group room.
There’s a lot of other approaches. I guess one other part of modern analytic that I really like and speaks to me is there’s a big emphasis on really respecting and studying and joining with people’s resistances to whatever – whether that’s talking or connecting or expressing anger or expressing sadness. So, it’s an approach that – one I found was very freeing for me instead of trying to get people to do things. It’s really saying that people don’t want to do certain psychological things for good reasons. And we want to support them in that resistance until they’re ready to do something different or they have a good option for something new to try.
Ryan: Rather than the experience of being nudged or pushed to go beyond the resistance, before they’re actually ready to do that, or they’ve felt joined in the resistance.
Ryan: I’ve also done some trainings at Center for Group Studies, and similarly, had a very inspiring experience, to have some of those resistance that come up in me being met in a very different way than I had experienced in other trainings before. And I felt like there’s something here that I want to keep exploring.
Ali: Yeah. I would say that – and, as we’re talking, I’m thinking of other aspects of modern analysis that really speak to me. And I guess the other thing that I would mention is following the contact function. So that’s saying that you’re really following group members’ desire for contact, what relationship they want to be having with you, and letting them take the lead rather than saying, “okay, everyone check in” or “I haven’t heard from you for a while, what are you going to say?” So, you’re respecting – I think this is connected to respecting resistances – but you’re letting people lead the way in terms of how much contact they want with you as the leader and what kind of contact.
Ryan: So even if that contact is in the form of anger or protesting something, that would be similarly something that you would follow or embrace?
Ali: Yeah, I think the idea is that we want people to be able to put all their thoughts and feelings into words as best as possible and be able to have all their feelings and have all their feelings in relationship with other people. So, with anger in particular, I think there is a difference between destructive and constructive anger. So, if someone’s lashing out or attacking me, I am going to want to have interventions that meet that and contain that for other members. But I find anger to be a very connecting and enlivening force. And when group members feel free to express their anger with me, that can be very helpful to me as a leader and to the group.
Ryan: And you started by talking about immediacy as one of the central features of modern analytic, and that’s pretty common to a lot of approaches to process work. Can you just say a little bit about the importance of that? Because I’ve run some groups in which – and I think this would be thought of in modern analytic as one type of resistance – but there’s been some pushback around the importance of immediacy. And group members will say, “we want to talk about things that are going on for us outside of group or aspects of our history, because it helps us feel closer to one another. We get to know more about each other in ways that are important to us.” So why might you emphasize in your own groups the importance of immediacy, and how would you respond to group members who have some objections to that?
Ali: I mean, my groups certainly do talk about things going on in their lives, because I think it does help [members] support each other and know each other. But I think there’s a difference between talking about things outside in your lives in a way that’s deadening rather than enlivening and connecting. So, I think we all can feel that difference, where if someone’s coming in with something that’s like bubbling over, like, “I’ve been wanting to tell you all this this week, there’s a da da da, and then this happened,” and people are responding and there’s a real relational aliveness and engagement. I would say that that is immediate because we’re in the relationship, which I think is a felt difference than someone going on and on about their cousin or something that feels – and you can see people are starting to shift in their chairs. People are not engaged. There’s an anti-relational quality to that.
So, again, that’s not a problem. Someone’s telling us about perhaps the level of intimacy that they want, that they’re open to. But my interventions as a leader at that time might be something like, “well who in here reminds you of your cousin?” You’re trying to help get people engaged with each other. And if that person doesn’t want to be engaged with the group, that there’s a reason for that. And if the group is also letting someone drone on about their cousin or something outside, well, that might be also a group-wide resistance where they’re using this person: “yeah, encourage this person! Maybe this person could just spend the whole group talking about this thing outside the group so that we don’t have to grapple with a certain intimacy or vulnerability between us.” Yeah. I think of immediacy as aliveness and relationality in the room rather than we’re only talking about the relationships in the room.
Ryan: Right. And sometimes that means helping the member get clear if they’re talking about something that’s deadening to the process, maybe what kind of impact they’re wanting to have on the other members, what kind of feedback they’re wanting from the other members, helping them stay in relationship to the other members as they talk.
Ali: Or study what they’re doing! Like if I have the idea that they don’t need to change, they could keep doing that, but why? Why are they doing it? So, I think just getting really interested with people. And why is the group letting them do that? You know, I had a group for years would start the first fifteen minutes with just chit chat, and I think that was important for them. I think it was – they finally were able to talk about why they were doing that, what the purpose was. So, it’s like easing in, like a saying hello. They’re not doing that anymore in the same way. But that we just want to get people interested in what they’re doing and why.
Ryan: I like that you’ve mentioned a few times the importance of thinking about it as a group-wide phenomenon also. I think that for a long time I fell into the trap of thinking about that member’s behavior or that member’s choice as something that I needed to focus on in them, and forgetting that all of the group members were actually playing a part in that. And I’ve started to make comments now about the entire group that I think can be less shaming for that member and just more interesting for the process.
Ali: Right. Well, and I think that’s the whole concept of joining, which is being able to have the idea of joining with resistance. Like “yeah, it’s so much more relaxing if John here does all the talking for all of us!” There can be a playfulness. I like that stance as a leader. It’s more enjoyable for me to run a group where I’m not trying to get anyone to do something different than what they’re doing.
Ryan: Yeah. Welcoming all of it, not policing the group.
Ali: Yeah, exactly.
Ryan: Well, backing up for just a moment. I’m curious if you can talk about your interest in becoming a group therapist, a little bit more about your journey developing as a group leader. I imagine that as you’ve been doing this over time, you’ve noticed a lot of changes in your own leadership style, your own personhood. So, anything that you might want to say about those?
Ali: Yeah. Well, I have a background in theater, and I always have really loved the energy of a group and what’s possible in a collective. I think I’ve been more drawn to that than to one-on-one work. So, I knew that when I went to graduate school. I went to Smith’s social work school and had a really incredible group teacher there who actually trained at Center for Group Studies. And he got me interested in AGPA. So, I started going to the American Group Psychotherapy Association annual conference in graduate school. And that was so exciting, so formative. And every time there would be a workshop that I would really like, I would ask the people where they trained. And they all had trained at CGS And so I was like, okay, wow. I probably should go there. So, pretty soon after started training at CGS.
And meanwhile, in graduate school, I got a placement at the VA, doing the drug and alcohol treatment clinic. And so, I was doing tons of groups and just felt really excited by group work and what was possible in terms of the mirroring and the power of other members being able to transform things for each other in a way that I think an individual therapist can’t alone. And then I worked for years as the classroom teacher in a counseling enriched classroom for an elementary school, and was training at CGS during that time. And CGS was a real lifeline for me in being able to think about what was happening, the intensity of affects and acting out behaviors and the need for containment and joining people’s resistances during that time.
And then after that, I left that school placement, did some more training in dyadic relational psychoanalytic work, and started doing with a colleague of mine improv process groups, where the first half of the group, we would do some therapeutic improv and the second half, we’d do a process group. And around that time I also started doing just straight talk therapy groups in my private practice. And over time, I’ve just fully transitioned – I’m not doing the improv process groups anymore – to just process groups. And more and more I’m feeling really excited about continuing to expand that part of my practice and focus my practice more and more on group work.
Ryan: The background in theater and improv must be so helpful to you at this point.
Ali: Yeah. I think it is. It’s interesting reflecting on this, because I don’t think about it often. But I do think that – Lou Ormont has a background in theater. And Ronnie Levine, who’s a faculty member at CGS and who I’m in a weekly training group with and who I love very much, she’s I think, one of my biggest influences. She also has a background in theater. And she’s very – I think there is a certain, being able to, when people are expressing big feelings, embody it and match it and be playful and expressive in those ways. I do think that my theater background is quite helpful in that.
Ryan: Right. And to be able to roll with whatever’s happening in group and say “yes” to it, instead of having too many preconceptions about how things need to go.
Ali: Yes. It was actually quite interesting. One of the reasons I wanted to stop doing the improv process groups is I didn’t like planning the curriculum. So, it was this irony because I wanted to be more responsive to what was happening. I find that when I’m able to be in that state, I like work more.
Ryan: Several things that you just said brought up new questions for me. I was wondering about your comment about group being able to facilitate certain experiences for clients and group members that individual therapy can’t. So, what is it about group that you see as having unique benefit?
Ali: Well, I mean, I think there’s a number of things. One is that I do think that group evokes certain family experiences and also larger societal cultural experiences around belonging, exclusion, competition, envy, who’s going to be recognized, ways in which you may be misperceived in catastrophic ways, that I think can certainly come up in individual therapy. But I don’t think that they’re evoked with the same potency as they are in a group. And so, there’s the potential to have, I think, particularly certain pre-verbal experiences, super young experiences of “is there going to be enough for me?” You know, “am I going to be left behind?” There’s a great potential for those things to come up and hopefully have a new experience with.
And then, I think there’s also certain attachment states that people are in where contact from the parent or an authority figure is really not tolerable. And that you really need to be able to attach to the group as a whole rather than a one-on-one experience, that it can help people, I think, start to have the potential to find a leader or find that more hierarchical relationship when you can come in through an experience of peer relationships and peer connections. So, I think that there’s different possibilities around different attachment styles that group offers that individual can’t.
And then I also think that at different times of, particularly identity development or experiences with marginalization in society, having a group where you have more mirroring around certain identity experiences can be really powerful. And even if you have a lot of demographic similarity with an individual therapist, you might not have that kind of group experience of establishing kind of consensual reality with other people. Like, “this thing that I keep experiencing out in the world, is this real?” You’re seeing me in this or other people like you.
Ryan: Yeah. I’m also in a training group right now, and we had a process occur recently in which – well, I’ll just say that it was me who was feeling very alone in the group and really having to hold that in a way that felt very uncomfortable for several sessions. And then slowly other group members starting to see that and feel concerned about it, and ultimately join me in it in a way that I think freed me up to start to relate to the leader differently. So, I really appreciate what you just said about how sometimes the attachment to the group can facilitate something different in terms of our relationship to authority or to the nurturing other, where maybe it’s more difficult to access sometimes in the dyad.
So, can you talk a little bit about the particulars of your groups and who you like to work with? Do you have mixed identity groups or focus on certain identities? And from my memory, you run multiple groups, so perhaps you do both?
Ali: Yeah. In general, my groups are – I work with a pretty wide range of folks. And all my groups are mixed gender – one group is not, right now. We’ll see how that evolves. The group is thinking about what we want to do around that. But I would say I tend to have – in my practice, I always have at least one group that’s LGBTQ dominant and one group – and sometimes it’s the same group – that’s BIPOC dominant. And sometimes I have multiple groups that are that, but always at least one. And so, I do like being able to have somewhere in my practice for people to land if they’re wanting more of that experience of mirroring around certain identities, particularly BIPOC folks and LGBTQ folks. So that feels important to me because I think, especially in the therapy world, it can be fairly white and straight. And so, people being able to have an experience of – there’s different work you do if you’re one of the only one of your demographic characteristics in a more dominant group than work that you get to do if you’re one of many.
Ryan: I know that for folks who are entering into mixed identity groups, there can often be a fear that some sort of repetition of harm is going to reoccur. So, it can be a space where some sort of corrective cultural experience can occur, but it can also be a space in which harms get repeated or played out all over again, just like they do in the larger society. So, I’m wondering how you respond to those concerns when they come up in group, or maybe before, as you’re talking to group members about the potential of them entering in. How do you like to have that conversation with prospective group members? And also, how might you respond to the concern in the group itself?
Ali: Yeah. I just took this course by this person, Karim Dajani on the social unconscious theory. I’m getting really excited about this idea. And it’s a body of theories, but the basic idea is that just like our family and our parents are inscribed upon our unconscious and shape our patterns of communication, how we relate to the world, so does society and culture. And that that all happens at the same time. They’re interwoven together always. And so, of course, folks who have had experiences of more marginalization in the society, when they’re coming into considering being a group, especially if it’s a mixed identity group with a variety of things – it’s not an all queer group or a group for black women or something like that – they’re going to have – and even in those spaces, people have those fears – but particularly in a more mixed group, those experiences are going to be, “am I going to be misrecognized? Am I going to be excluded? What kind of harm is going to happen to me? Which kind of learning is going to happen on my body?”
So, I guess I’m just interested in people feeling permission to talk to me about that. Talk to me about what their experiences are in the world, what their experiences are in the medical establishment, that their space – just as they’re telling me about their family, they’re telling me about their experiences in society and in therapy and in groups. And that we might be wanting to think about, okay, given that, which type of group environment is going to be right for them? And that’s why I like to have fairly different types of groups in terms of demographic makeup. I tend to cluster around that stuff. And so, people have choices then about what kind of environment they want to be in or not wanting to be one of one demographic characteristic in a group.
Ryan: I notice myself feeling some relief just hearing you talk about that training. So much of my own training, and even, I guess I could say, the history of psychotherapy has focused so much on the family and its influence and forgets about the larger influence of society and culture. And so, it’s really nice to be entering into more conversations about broadening that focus.
Ali: Right. And the history of psychoanalysis around this is so complicated because since the 1920s these theories have – and before – these theories have always been there. There’s always been theorists. A lot of the social unconscious theories started in the 1920s, but they’ve been excised and marginalized from the conversation. And that’s why it feels incomplete because there’s so much that gets disowned or can’t be talked about institutionally.
Ryan: Okay. So, I hear you saying that you want to give group members choice and that you’re, of course, thinking about the prospect of other corrective experiences happening or potential harm. But again, in group, what are some of the ways that you actually promote safety so that some sort of repetition of harm is not occurring? Is it just this invitation to talk openly about that? Are there other interventions or ways that you think about safeguarding against further harm?
Ali: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. I’m just reflecting on these words around safety, around these things. I don’t know how safe group is with these ideas. There’s a fair amount of unsafety, actually, in group, but we want to be working the edge of safety and being able to go into spaces that might feel unsafe while still staying in relationship and talking. And I think that for me, it’s just like someone who comes in scared of their anger, scared of other people’s anger. I as a group therapist thinking about paying attention to, “are we talking about anger? Are we not talking about anger? Wow, everyone went silent when Joe got angry. Well, why?”
Similarly, if we’re – well, “why aren’t we talking about race? Or there’s a shooting that just happened, an anti-Asian shooting just happened out here. No one in group is mentioning that. Well, why?” So, you’re just starting – I mean, my main interventions around this are that I’m trying to help my groups just like with any emotional or familial themes that we’re curious about in ourselves and each other, and that we’re trying to talk about or talk about why we don’t want to talk about, that’s the same with cultural or social or identity issues in group. And so, that you’re, as a group leader, building a culture of curiosity about those things.
So, if I’m noticing that the only people in a group that have been talking about their relationships are the straight folks, well, what’s happening for the queer folks? Or there’s been a straight person expresses attraction to another straight member of the opposite sex. And the group is very supportive of it. And then there’s attraction express between same sex folks in the group, and the group goes silent. What’s happening? Someone mentions race, someone changes the subject. Why? What’s happening about that? So that we’re just – and I think especially at the beginning of a group, just like I’m showing the group how we’re doing group. You’re paying attention to immediacy or paying attention to full expression of emotions, all emotions are okay. I’m also, especially at those times, naming, “can we talk about patriarchy in here? Can we talk about sexism in here? Can we talk about racism in here?” So, I think it’s just how do we engage with systemic forces in the group. And how do you model that that is something that the group is curious about and thinking about as it’s coming up for them in the world and in the room.
And I think as a leader, since there is so much in mixed spaces, so much taboo around talking about certain things, especially if they challenge white supremacy or patriarchy or monogamy or something like that, there’s an extra mandate, I think, as a leader to name it myself, because I’m trying to remove the forces, remove the blockages to free expression in the group. And white supremacy and patriarchy and homophobia don’t want you to question them and don’t want you to look at them. The way that our culture functions is that it normalizes certain things and says you can’t look at this. This is just what health is, or this is just how we do things. This is the goal. And psychoanalytic treatment certainly has this bias in it that health looks like white, upper middle-class people being married and monogamously with two kids. And so, I think it’s very important to be naming and confronting those biases as they arise in the group and helping the group get curious about systemic forces just like anything else.
Ryan: And if you’re not leading or modeling curiosity and engagement with those issues, it sends a message that this is a space where these things can’t be talked about, and people have to leave certain aspects of themselves out of the room.
Ali: That’s right.
Ryan: Yeah. Well, that makes me think about the issue of self-disclosure as well. I’ve been playing with in my own groups being more self-disclosing about various identities that aren’t apparent to group members. And I think when I think back on my early training, I got a lot of messaging around not self-disclosing and actually being more neutral, allowing group members or clients to project. So, I’m curious how you deal with this. Do you bring in some of these aspects of yourself that aren’t apparent to the group? Or are you more interested in what might come up if you don’t do that? Or maybe some combination of both?
Ali: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question. I mean, I think it’s a very interesting question, especially as a group therapist, because individually you could be exploring for months or years with people: “do you want to know this? What would it be to know this? What do you imagine?” And then you get to a place where it feels like, okay, maturationally, for this person’s treatment, they do want to know more about me in certain ways. They need that. They need me to feel more real in the room. And then you have that person who knows certain things about you, and then they enter group and other people don’t know those things. And I do a lot of work in group with people who I also see individually, I think as many group therapists do. And so, it’s very tricky. And especially with queer identity, I think there’s this historical experience of being – and I think for many marginalized identities that can pass or not pass or choose how visible they are – there’s a historical experience that people have of what it means to see other people that they know are like them but are not being open about it. That has a visceral impact for people.
So, it’s something – I don’t have any rules about it, and I don’t have any super clear ideas, but I’m very interested in it. And I’m very interested in thinking with the group about how they’re perceiving me, what they want to know about me, what they imagine, what it’s like for individual patients that know more. In general, I say to my individual patients, no one keeps secrets for me. So, if there are things you know, you go ahead and share them. But yeah, it’s very interesting. I also, two years ago became a parent, so I took parental leave. And so, there’s this huge thing about me that now all these people know! And then as new members come in, they don’t know that, and then people tell them. So, I guess I’m just curious. I certainly work analytically in that I want to be really, really careful about what I’m sharing and why. And I want to work in the way that’s going to be the most spacious for my patients to use me in the group as feels most helpful to them.
And I’m also trained relationally and with a more social justice lens. And so, I have this idea that, well, of course I’m not a blank slate, and people are always sensing and reacting to me as an embodied subject. And what they imagine about me in all sorts of ways is present. And me being silent is a communication or not sharing is a communication and a disclosure just like sharing is. So, I’m just thinking about it. And I am also very aware inside of me, I have, especially – I guess in all ways, I feel a great longing to be seen and fear of being seen. And so, I want to be really cautious of why I would share something or not share it, and of my own desire to be recognized or of my own shame, or I’m not sharing it because of my own shame or fear of being recognized.
Ryan: You’re really speaking to all of the different complexities and implications. And I appreciate what you’re saying: that there doesn’t need to be necessarily a rule about how you enter in or do that, but that it’s going to be different for every member and different from group to group. And these things are always in flux. As well as our own motivations for doing so or not doing so.
So, you also wrote a chapter in a book that I recently purchased. The book is Women, Intersectionality, and Power in Group Psychotherapy Leadership, and the chapter was called Belonging: Queer Theory’s Contribution to Modern Analytic Groups. I’m curious how you got involved with the project and what it was like for you to write.
Ali: Yeah. So, Saralyn Masselink reached out to me, who’s one of the editors, to see if I was interested in contributing. Yeah. And I was very excited about the idea of putting to paper some of the thoughts that I had been having or talking about here and there with folks, which were my love and passion for modern analysis and also the ways in which I felt dropped by it. And that there were times in those groups where there were big parts of me that just couldn’t be there or weren’t recognized or weren’t seen and injuries that I was having and that I saw other people having because, again, the cultural or the social or the political just didn’t seem like it carried the same weight or was able to be talked about or power dynamics weren’t able to be talked about.
There’s this move often in modern analysis where it’s like, this is an intervention that any person could do with any group, and it would have the same effect. But of course, if I do something or a person of color or an immigrant or an older white man does something, it’s going to land differently just because of how people respond to us in our embodied subjectivity. Plus our personality, plus our style. And I felt like that was so missing from the literature. And I, like many, was cobbling together modern analysis and then other types of theories that helped me more in those areas. And so, I was excited about the idea of writing about the two of these together. And when I started writing, it was so fun because I just got to read things that I really liked and write down quotes I liked and come together. My first draft to my editor, Yoon Kane, was just other people’s quotes, with like a couple connecting sentences. And she was like, “yeah, you’re going to have to find your own voice here.” So, it was actually very exciting at the beginning and then very grueling as it developed to really be able to own what I wanted to say and say it as me. I found that challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
Ryan: Yeah. And so, now that you’ve done that, now that you’ve thought through the intersections of the two, is that finding its way more and more into your own work? Are you finding that you’re interest in queer theory is informing your group therapy in a new way or enhancing your groups in any particular way?
Ali: I do think that queer theory and, more recently, feeling really interested in some of the individual theories that would fall under the social unconscious umbrella does really help guide and ground me when I get into, as a group leader, the more tricky terrain of talking about identity in group talking about power dynamics in group. And yeah, I think that there are theories that just help – I recently heard someone say these theories help us remember that there’s more rooms in the house in psychoanalysis. It’s not just these rooms. And so, helping me feel like I’m grounded in theory, which I love and helps me so much as I’m swimming in these waters. And especially with race and other identity conflicts in group therapy, they’re so trauma-laden because there’s so much violence in our culture around these. And so, it gets really heated and intense really quickly. And so having theory that really helps me orient to what are we trying to do in these kinds of conversations is very steadying. So, I find that I need that and I don’t find that modern analysis really gives me that in quite the way I’d like it.
Ryan: Right. One of the things that I felt interested in in the chapter was you’re writing about queer moments. And particularly, one of the lines that I really liked was that these moments are a precondition, I think you said, to vitality. And I wonder if you can talk more about what you mean by queer moments, maybe an example in a group of what a queer moment might look and sound like, and what did you mean by it being a precondition to vitality? What’s the connection there?
Ali: I guess what I mean by queer moments are moments in which we’re chugging along, along the expected. “This is who I am, this is who you are, this is what that means about what we like, how we think, what we’re going to do.” And then there’s a moment in which something different is revealed or something is revealed to be not as we expected it to be. Or there is a real – I guess I think of queerness in these ways as like contradiction in the identity. Like, you can’t say “it’s just this.” I have a colleague of mine who’s written about queer theory and understanding biracial experience or multiracial experience, that there’s this feeling of like, “is it this or is it that?” And it’s like, you can’t say either. It’s both. There are contradictions always.
And I think in psychoanalysis we really want to be moving towards those moments because often – I think this is the connection to vitality – those moments of contradiction help us realize or open up space for what’s been disavowed. We are always making compromises in how much of ourselves we can be or express at one choice. We can’t have all lives all at once, but in group we can. In group we can feel or want, we can be two or we can be eighty-five. We can be a man, we can be a woman, we can be queer, we can be straight. We get to experiment with moments in which we embrace aspects of the self that have been previously disavowed.
Ryan: And that they can coexist.
Ali: They can coexist, right. It’s not choosing, oh, that means you are. It’s in this moment, this is what I feel. And I think that is quite – it gives a lot of vitality for people. Because it’s parts of the self and the life energy that you haven’t had access to. It’s very exciting.
And I think this goes back to the idea of immediacy in groups, that in life we do have to make a lot of choices. And there’s a lot of losses. Like, I can’t say yes to so many things. But in group, in the moment, I could express and feel something quite beautiful and alive, but it doesn’t last forever. It doesn’t mean I have to sell my car and my house and move somewhere. So yeah, I guess, what’s coming to mind as an example are these moments where people are able to – with someone else in the group – someone says “oh, I’m feeling really connected to you” or “I really like you.” And that they’re able to deepen that into like, what would they imagine doing together? What do they like? And imagining what their connection would be outside of group. What would they like to do? Like that there can be, I don’t know, something quite unexpected in what emerges from that, or different parts of the self. Like, “oh, you’re a DJ, you like dancing? I didn’t know that about you!” It’s like this whole rush of something new that can come out.
Ryan: Yes. And you also wrote about aspects of ourselves as leaders that can either encourage those moments or block those moments, which I found very fascinating. It got me thinking a lot about the ways that I maybe block those moments or have resistances within myself to letting those types of moments emerge. Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by resistances in the leader to allowing a moment to emerge or allowing a moment of vitality to actually come forward? How do we get in the way of that?
Ali: Yeah. Well, I guess I’m thinking about in particular – the example that came to mind is expression of attraction in group. And what happens – especially if leaders are straight, so there’s not a lot of lived experience of grappling with some of the resistances inside yourself, or at least conscious experience with that. What happens inside the leader when that happens? And I think that there can be a move often in the group to privilege certain types of expressions. And this could be gender identity expressions. If we’re just talking about queer identity or queer sexuality – I think queerness can be used to express a lot of different things – but there can be a move to shut that down or get the group back in line. You know, it’s like, let’s stick with the dominant narrative right now, that these moments disrupt the dominant way of being. And I think that there can be really subtle things that happen, that there could be experiences of whether it’s someone talking about queer sex or queer desire, and that there can be just a subtle discomfort or a subtle kind of feeling of urge to devalue. I think the way that dominant society upholds itself is through subtle messaging around superiority and inferiority and what is more valued and what is less valued.
And so, I think that there – if leaders are not careful, there can be a move to give certain types of expressions of sexuality or identity more air time or support or delight than others. Or to the other extreme, to fetishize or make too big of a deal of other ones. And so, I just think that it’s very important when anything non-dominant or queer gets expressed in the group, I get really curious how the group members are responding, how I’m responding. Is there no emotion? Is there a lot of emotion? Are we moving away really quickly? Are we lingering really long? And also aware of my own impulses – away towards. Queer theory has the idea that everyone has had to make compromises around their gender expression, their sexual identity expression, that no one is really fully straight or fully cis, that it’s always a little more complicated. And so, as a leader, there just might be moments of like, “no, no.” Like internal shutting down, need to shut down …
Ryan: Just reflexively.
Ali: Reflexively. It’s a programmed instinct in all of us.
Ryan: Right. No matter the intersection of our identities, whether we’re holding a more privileged identity or subjugated identity, we still may have that response of blocking that type of opportunity.
Ali: Yes. I think that’s a really good point because anyone – we all grew up in the same society – different people who grew up in different societies, but there is an overarching similarity around what ideas are supported and which are subjugated. And so, I think that that impulse to squash certain things exists in all of us, and we have to be really aware of it.
Ryan: Yeah. It’s one of the benefits I think of participating in lots of groups at the same time that we’re developing ourselves as leaders is to have more and more experiences of getting to see how those moments get shut down or allowed for in groups and hopefully become more aware of those reflexes within us, like “am I also participating in that or perpetuating that in some way?”
Ali: Right. Or “how am I?” It’s the idea that we all do and what do I give myself permission to explore or know of myself?
Ryan: So, are you able to talk about some of the areas that you know that you struggle with as a group leader?
Ali: Yeah. I’m always, as a group leader – I think part of why I am so drawn to modern analysis is the idea of just studying things and joining people where they’re at, supporting people where they’re at, being available when they’re ready to shift, is that I can really get controlling and get really – I come from a family where everyone’s like really in each other’s business and, like, in a really wonderful way, because everyone really cares and we’re all talking on top of each other and “have you heard this and da da da, and do you think you should do this?” And so, I think being able to walk that edge of when to just sit back and enjoy my groups and let them do their thing. And they know I’m there. They’ll reach out if they need something. Not having to keep showing “I’m here, I’m here.” It’s like they know, sit back, enjoy, let them go at their own pace.
Ryan: I love that. Just allowing yourself to enjoy the group. It takes some of the pressure off, doesn’t it?
Ryan: Yeah. I mean, we do have so many responsibilities as group leaders and we can afford to relax sometimes.
Ali: Well, to trust yourself that you – there’s a time to be very, very engaged and then there’s a time to trust your group.
Ryan: Well, we’re coming up on the end of our time and I want to make sure that before we do end, just if there’s anywhere that you’d like to point listeners towards to learn more about you, to learn more about some of the resources we talked about today, like the book or the Center for Group Studies, anything you’d like to point folks towards?
Ali: Yeah, well that book that you mentioned, Women, Intersexuality and Power in Group [Psychotherapy] Leadership has some great articles. So, I’d recommend people check that out. Yeah. Center for Group Studies, they have a weekend training program and also online workshops. So, there’s a lot of accessible ways to get involved. And then, yeah, my practice. I just shifted to – I’m now at the Bay Area Group Therapy Center and starting to build out my group practice. So yeah, people can find me there.
Ryan: Well, thank you so much, Ali. It’s great to talk to you. I’m glad we had a chance to sit down.
Ali: Yeah. Thank you.