The Person of the Therapist

The Person of the Therapist: An interview with Dr. Harry Aponte

An interview with Dr. Harry Aponte about challenging the idea that therapists can be blank screens or “surgeons.” We talk with Dr. Aponte about the importance of the self of the therapist in creating the relationship and doing effective clinical work. We also look into his Person of the Therapist Training and much of his body of work supporting therapists as well as communities of color.

It’s time to reimagine therapy and what it means to be a therapist. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy talk about how to approach the role of therapist in the modern age.


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Interview with Dr. Harry J. Aponte, HPhD, MSW, LCSW, LMFT

Dr. Harry Aponte - headshotDr. Harry J. Aponte, HPhD, MSW, LCSW, LMFT, is a family therapist known for his writings and workshops on the person of the therapist, spirituality in therapy, therapy with disadvantaged and culturally diverse families, and structural family therapy. Dr. Aponte was a staff member and teacher of family therapy at the Menninger Clinic, and subsequently Director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center.  Currently, Dr. Aponte is clinical associate professor in the Couple & Family Therapy Program of Drexel University in Philadelphia.  He has a private practice in Philadelphia, and conducts training and workshops throughout the country and abroad.

Dr. Aponte published Bread & Spirit through Norton, a book that speaks to therapy with today’s poor in the context of ethnicity, culture and spirituality.

Dr. Aponte and Dr. Karni Kissil have edited a book entitled The Person of the Therapist Training Model: Mastering the Use of Self, published by Routledge (2016).

In this episode we talk about the person of the therapist:

  • Aponte’s story, including his work with Salvador Minuchin, Virginia Satir, Murray Bowen
  • Debunking the idea that therapists act as surgeons and that clients from marginalized communities “don’t talk.”
  • Aponte’s racial background interacting with the work that he did
  • The reasons he was asked so frequently asked to work with families in poverty-stricken areas
  • How the ideas in The Person of the Therapist came to be
  • Bringing mental health into communities of color

“If we were going to make a difference in their lives, we also had to make a difference in the community.” – Dr. Harry Aponte

  • Social justice and advocacy within the therapist’s purview
  • Working with Jim Lester, an activist in Philadelphia, to bridge the gap between education, mental health services for kids who were truant
  • The ideas of structural therapy being translated into the communities
  • The difference of lived experience in bringing oneself into the therapeutic relationship
  • The Person of the Therapist training at Drexel University
  • How Harry’s personal experiences continue to impact his work
  • What is missing in most clinical training
  • The use of self in therapy
  • The importance of knowing yourself before you become a therapist
  • The idea that you must also know your hang ups and challenges and what you’ll be bringing into the room, so you can recognize and be “with” your clients

“Therapy is not a conversation; it is an experience.” – Dr. Harry Aponte

  • The vulnerability of being a therapist and the need to do work your work early in your training
  • The importance of doing versus reading about what should be done
  • Reasons that understanding yourself and bringing yourself into room provides better therapy

Resources for Modern Therapists mentioned in this Podcast Episode:

We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below are affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!

Family Therapy Pioneer Salvador Minuchin on the Therapist’s Self (article in Psychotherapy Networker – article missing)

Family Therapy Pioneer Salvador Minuchin on the Therapist’s Self (article in PESI UK)

The Person of the Therapist Training Model: Mastering the Use of Self (book)

Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:

How to BE a Therapist

Who we are:

Picture of Curt Widhalm, LMFT, co-host of the Modern Therapist's Survival Guide podcast; a nice young man with a glorious beard.Curt Widhalm, LMFT

Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making “dad jokes” and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at:

Picture of Katie Vernoy, LMFT, co-host of the Modern Therapist's Survival Guide podcastKatie Vernoy, LMFT

Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also a former President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt’s youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at:

A Quick Note:

Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.

Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.

Stay in Touch with Curt, Katie, and the whole Therapy Reimagined #TherapyMovement:


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Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Creative Credits:

Voice Over by DW McCann

Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano

Transcript for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast (Autogenerated):

Announcer 0:00
You’re listening to The Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide where therapists live, breathe and practice as human beings. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, here are your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy.

Curt Widhalm 0:15
Welcome back modern therapists. This is The Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. I’m Curt Widhalm with Katie Vernoy. And towards the end of last year, we dedicated an episode to the wonderful training program at Drexel University and really talked about the development of person of the therapist as a model of training. You all really loved that. That was one of our highest downloaded episodes ever. And one of the people that we talked about as far as being really foundational to those ideas is Dr. Harry Aponte. He is gracious enough to join us as a guest today and talk a little bit about his processing going into that. We’re also featuring Dr. Aponte as keynote speaker at our Therapy Reimagined 2020 Conference and for the latest updates on how that is going to play out and what’s going to happen check out our website at But we are so thankful and so excited to have Dr. Aponte join us today. Thank you for joining us Harry.

Dr. Harry Aponte 1:20
Glad to be here.

Katie Vernoy 1:21
We are so excited to have you. There is a lot that we want to talk to you about. But we ask all of our guests who are you and what are you putting out to the world?

Dr. Harry Aponte 1:32
Well, I, at a personal level, I’m a New York Puerto Rican. Parents came from Puerto Rico. I was born and raised in New York, Harlem and South Bronx. Came from I’m an only child, came from a very troubled family, Catholic. Spent a good part of my life trying to figure out how I fit in this world. But it didn’t just come comfortably. Differences in being an ethnic and racial minority and having essentially grown up in the ghetto, and then getting into the professional world. Well, I guess what says it all is to me is that after I graduated from social work school at Fordham, I went for postgraduate training at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. And as the first time I actually met and had conversation with white Anglo Saxon people. So that’s, you know, white people to me were the Irish kids and the Italian kids and their gangs, you know, so it was we were all ghettoize within the ghetto. That was my world. All of that was then when I got into the professional world, it was It also was complicated because I going to the Menninger Clinic, it was a psychoanalytic environment. Very classical psychoanalytic, the first hospital that tried to put into practice Freud’s principles into a in-hospital environment. Murray Bowen came from there, Nathan Ackerman was trained there. So we had a few of our predecessors and founders of family therapy and systemic thinking coming out of the Menninger Clinic, you know, and so there we came from an environment where you learned Freud’s idea of, he actually used the words that, that the posture of the, of the therapist should be that of a surgeon and not personally involved in with your clients. And at the same time, though, his theory and technique was based on something that to me felt very personal, which had to do with transference and counter transference.

Katie Vernoy 4:06

Dr. Harry Aponte 4:07
Yeah. So I was there for eight years. And then Sal Minuchin, had moved from New York to Philadelphia. And he invited me to come work in Philadelphia and I, I think, part of the reason why he invited me was because I’m Puerto Rican. And the clinic, the Child Guidance clinic in Philadelphia was situated in a black neighborhood. And I had grown up actually not in Spanish Harlem, even I was born there. I grew up in black Harlem, the only Latin family in that environment. So it was a very comfortable and welcoming environment to me. And I assume that that’s why one of the reasons why he invited me to come work with him in Philly. He had only been there a few years and really experimenting with working the structural approach in really in the neighborhood completely in the neighborhood where our clients came from, we contrasted, even though Sal was very focused on technique, but it also contrasted with what we were getting from I remember, Virginia Satir and Don Jackson came to Menningers and, and spoke with us. And she came with California thinking, you know.

Katie Vernoy 4:58
The crazy California.

Dr. Harry Aponte 5:28
You know, but it, you know, because she came from a place where she used the words like intimacy, when she spoke about the relationship between the therapist and the client, which was quite unlike the concept of being a surgeon with a anesthetized patient. So I had to deal with that. What I’m saying is that all of my personal background, and as well as the professional exposure that I had, all they did was to make me reflect and reflect and reflect and think deeply about, What about me in this world? And what about me, when I’m sitting down with these people who are very strange to me, and I have trouble communicating with, and I have to somehow empathize with them and understand them. And they have to understand me, and believe me, that I’m really there for them, and all of that, so that, so that the whole business of forming a relationship was demanded of me some serious thinking, you know, and then the contrast when I was with came into Philadelphia, and was working with the African American population there, where I felt immediately comfortable and related without any, it was no barrier that I experienced, which was so different. When I used to do workshops, we used to do live family sessions. And I remember, in those days, people are inviting me to talk about structural family therapy. And what they will do at the workshops, most often was to bring the most difficult, no low income, you know, under organized, families, for me to see, and what always stuck in my mind. It just was in print, it was the times and when I heard them say, well, these people don’t talk. So my reaction was, well, maybe they don’t talk to you, but they certainly talk to each other. You know, so the so that, both in my personal life, and in my professional life, there were bridges to cross and barriers to overcome. And that made me very self aware. I didn’t take the relationship for granted.

Katie Vernoy 8:06

Dr. Harry Aponte 8:06
I was very conscious of the relationship. And I was very conscious of the, of the challenges that the relationship involved and I could see the differences in the work that I did, from the work that I saw others who didn’t have my background do with the same families that I was working with, rather naturally came to me to be sensitive to my myself and who I am and what I bring to the experience of being with clients, whether they were clients who were foreign to me in terms of their ethnicity, in terms of their race, in terms of their cultural backgrounds, as well as being with people who, to me felt more in sync with what I knew from my growing up, you know, so the work of thinking about the self of the therapist came quite naturally to me. In fact I just couldn’t avoid it. And so I…

Katie Vernoy 9:06
It sounds like it.

Dr. Harry Aponte 9:07
Yeah. So I had to give it a lot of thought. And I just incorporated it into my work, the work that I was doing. In fact, I was I think I was at the Child Guidance clinic, I don’t know 11 years or whatever it was quite a while, but I couldn’t talk there about the person of the therapist, Sal was interested in technique. I used to then talk about the self of the therapist when I used to do workshops and in my writing, but that was outside the clinic, which was really very strange.

Curt Widhalm 9:42
How was that particular piece accepted? Because for our listeners who aren’t familiar with Harry’s career, and I’m really glad that you’ve kind of shared the story so far because there was a hot minute there were eco-structural therapy was what you were writing about. But I’m imagining Sal coming to you and saying, Harry, that’s fine. Do that outside of the clinic here, but don’t don’t cross the streams here.

Dr. Harry Aponte 10:14
Well, he didn’t, he didn’t, he never said that, to me. He just ignored it. You know. But, you know, the story I tell was that when I first got there, early on, he put me in charge of the clinical services. And he, he focused on the training. And he was training people from the community, actually, to be lay people to become therapists, which was a great concept. But he asked me to handle the clinical work but there was trouble in the community this was in this was in the late 60s, early 70s. And people in the community had organized and they wanted to be sort of an advisory board to the clinic, but an advisory board that would tell us how we should work. And he with some of the higher administrative people were meeting with that group, and it wasn’t going very well. So then he invited me to figure out, okay, this guy maybe can better communicate with these people from the community. And well, we sat down one day, it was the first time I joined the meeting. And so they were like, you know, I don’t know, 15 or so people from the community there, and four or five of the administrators from the Child Guidance clinic. And it was a back and forth, and I was just keeping quiet, was, I didn’t really know a whole lot about what was going on. And then community people said, well, you know, we need to counsel among ourselves. So you white people get out. So I sat there, and I thought for a minute, I don’t think he meant what he said, I don’t think you realize what he just said, so I sat. And Sal got up with the other administrators, and they looked at me, why wasn’t I going out with them? And I didn’t say a word I, what was I gonna say to them? You know, they walked out, they weren’t too happy with me. You know, it was like Tonto had left, you know, the Lone Ranger in the winter talk with the Indians, who were the group there, they, they were uncomfortable with me, they didn’t address me, they, I was just sitting there, you know, like this sore thumb. And then finally say, oh, you know, excuse us when we don’t want to insult you, but this is a community group, and you know, I said Yeah, yeah, I understand what you’re saying. But you’re you were talking about white people, you know, and I don’t consider myself a white person. And I have as much African background as some of you do. So you really want to, you know, the people from the clinics to leave, you should have said that, but that’s not what you said. So, well, I they left me there. And they didn’t throw me out. And so after that, I was I was I started to meet with them myself, you know, Sal did not come and meet with them. And, and then they got pretty aggressive about the we’re going to run the clinic, basically, is that that’s how I heard it. And I said, No, you’re not. I said, you know, if that’s what you intend to do, that’s the end of our meetings, I had no problem speaking up. I felt perfectly comfortable in calling them on that. And I said, I’d be happy to have you involved and hear from you. But I’m not going to have you try to even attempt to try to run the clinic. And so that was the end of the meetings. And then I went out into the community. And I started to ask who runs this community? Who was the leadership from the community? And to make a very long story short, I found there was a guy named Jim Lester, who was a so called activist at that time, a African American activist and a very scary guy who had confrontations with Frank Rizzo the mayor of Philadelphia.

Katie Vernoy 14:18
Oh, wow.

Dr. Harry Aponte 14:19
And he and the cops are not in very good standing, but I think everybody was afraid of, of Jim, but it was also a he oversaw the South Philly and, and the gangs were pretty much under his control there. He kept them from fighting with each other and killing each other. They were there. But there was a certain discipline that he imposed on that part of the community. And in one day, the clinic had given me freedom to meet with him, and they supported it. So he and I would meet in the bar and have a drink. And I say, Hey, Jim, you know, you’re very good with the kids. You’re very with families, why don’t we work together? And he liked the idea. And I And so we talked about it. And we said, Well, why don’t we get a hold of the kids who were not going? Who were truants. Who were not going to class. And he said, Well, you know, how do we even find out who they are? And how do we get access to them? I said, Well, that’s the advantage that I have at being at the Child Guidance clinic, because I know the superintendent of schools in this district and you and I can go meet with him. And so we met with the guy and told them what we had in mind that we had in mind setting up a school an alternative school for the kids who were not attending class. And he said, Well, if you can get them to attend class, who don’t ever attend class in the public schools, good luck to you, but it has to be after three o’clock, you can’t compete with us. We said, Okay. Jim, put pressure on one of the radio station and it’s also TV station to let us do a telethon. And we did a fellow fund, raised money, bought a building…

Katie Vernoy 16:08
Oh, my goodness,

Dr. Harry Aponte 16:09
And then Jim went over to the University of Penn to their school of education and got the black students there who were learning to be teachers and got them to volunteer and use this as a practicum. For themselves.

Katie Vernoy 16:22
Oh, my goodness.

Dr. Harry Aponte 16:25
So we had a school, you know, and then we all contacted the families, we had a list of all the kids who weren’t attending class and we contacted the family, told them what we were doing, and Jim set up school, trying to make something that was very long and complicated that was simple. But it was set up, we had classes going and think about this. I mean we’re talking about kids who were not going to school at all? Well, Jim said to them, to the kids class begins at 3:30. And if you’re not here, by 3:30, we lock the doors. Well, so I went down, and I would observe from a hiding place, see what would happen at 3:30. And kids were running to get to class, running to get into the school. And we tested those kids and in a few months, they just jumped grades. I mean, they were doing wonderfully in the schools. It was a whole new experience for them, they loved it. And they were very disciplined. And if the teachers weren’t disciplined, he threw them out. And the people who were disciplined, who came from Penn, who were disciplined and knew how to behave properly and be respectful of the kids. And then when I became the director of the clinic of Child Guidance, and Sal was still doing the training piece of it, I then incorporated that portion of the schooling into the clinic itself, although we had it going in the clinic, and the parents came into the clinic and the parents invited other parents to come in. And so the whole eco-structural thing came out of that. So that while Sal was focusing on the families, I was focusing on the families with community, with the environment, knowing at least convinced that and knowing in my heart, that if we were going to make a difference in their lives, we also had to make a difference in the community. So I had city council, I had representatives from the State coming in, African American city councilman and representatives come in, get to know the clinic, give us access to the licensing and inspection people, to the police, to all all the city resources so that if the therapist needed connections to get resources for the families, they were there, and they knew us. And we had people to contact that we could make a phone call and actually get through. And somebody could actually listen to us.

Katie Vernoy 19:01
I just imagine like, This is amazing. And this is so wonderful that you were able to identify this need and create such a huge impact in this community. I’m just thinking about if you had remained a surgeon with a anesthetized patient, like none of this would have happened. And I you know, you talk about like that, that modality of thinking about things as well as Sal, let’s focus on the intervention. When I think about what you were doing in the background there, why do you think so many people were ignoring themselves in the situation and how they could connect on a human to human level and actually make a difference? Because it seems like you had such a strong experience of bringing yourself and having yourself be important in this role. And it was so different from what everybody else was talking about or were even willing to look at him and Sal ignored it. Why do you think that was the case?

Dr. Harry Aponte 19:59
Well, you know, It wasn’t like Sal ignored it. I think he was aware of it. But you know, I mean, he came from Argentina, you know, he’s he, he has his roots in Israel and in Argentina, that’s a certain environment and Virginia Satir. Where does she come from Murray Bowen? Where did he come from? Okay, so these are all great people. And, you know, ours was, you know, they were, they were interested in the community. Sal clearly was interested in the community, you know, that’s the families of the slums. That was his first book. So it’s not that they ignored it, but I grew up in it. Okay, I lived it. Okay, so I also knew firsthand what it was like, to not have the resources readily available. Okay, not to be able to make contact with people who had any kind of influence, okay, so it’s one thing to go into therapists office, or even have a therapist come to your home, okay, but it’s another thing to then be out in the community, and have all these resources out there, and they were out of reach. And you were treated differently, you know, in these places. So this was, this was in me, this was part of who I was, you know, it came naturally to me in a way that it would not have come naturally to these people who had the concept, you know, I mean, think about it, Sal did, families of the slums, Sal, you know, did his work, he took the work with school, and he brought it into, into the community itself and effect in hours while was working with the, with the community. So these people were not insensitive to this. But they also didn’t have a certain natural instinct that comes from actually growing up in it, and living with it and the frustration of it. Okay, it added a whole other dimension to it. And by the way, if, if you read, I think it was in it was called The Family Therapy networker at the time and Sal did in an article there a year or two before he died. And and in that article, he talked about how it wasn’t technique that made the difference. It was the therapists, and the personnel it was there.

Curt Widhalm 22:27
I want to use this as kind of a jumping off point, because you’ve so colorfully illustrated the impacts that you had, not just with the clients that you’re working with, but also the broader systems within the community and the interventions that you’ve led there. So many of the training programs for therapists now don’t even teach the concept of having that kind of, of influence. They they see it as outside the scope of the therapist, they see it as outside the role of the positions that we’re in. But this is where it seems like the way that we’re training therapists now and the way that therapists learn what really works, and what’s actually impactful for clients seem to be really two separate worlds. And you’ve, you know, bridged that with your work at Drexel, you really started popularizing the person of the therapist training there, right and around the time that every other program was going the other direction back into, it’s just about techniques.

Dr. Harry Aponte 23:35

Curt Widhalm 23:35
Can you talk about how you’ve continued to stand on your own and do it successfully, in this way that really does add this robust, good therapeutic training model that can continue to serve clients, not just at the individual or the family level, but within the bigger systems.

Dr. Harry Aponte 23:57
This is who I am. Okay, and this is how I think, and whether anybody listened to me or not, I didn’t know any other way to do it, except the way that made sense to me.

Katie Vernoy 24:11
I like it.

Dr. Harry Aponte 24:14
You know, I went through my training and the schooling and all this and that, my parents still, you know, lived in South Bronx and I had to go through the painful years even then, of when they were ill, when trying to get them services at Lincoln Hospital in New York, services for their for their eyes and for their for all their physical ailments and how difficult it was for them to get the resources that they needed. And they were still there. And I was in Philadelphia and my frustration in reaching out to the community to try to mobilize these things and make them accessible to my parents and how difficult that was. So I was living this in those years. I mean, I still remember my father was, was dying, and he said he was dying, he told me he was dying. And he went to Lincoln Hospital and they looked at him there and they said, No, you know, you’re not sick enough to stay in the hospital. And he says to me, Harry, I’m, you know, I’m dying. And he calls me and I, and I was about to go do a workshop in in Ann Arbor. And I said, you know, I can’t leave you telling me this. I’m in Philadelphia, I’m supposed to go to Ann Arbor and you’re telling me you’re dying, and the hospital discharges you saying you’re not sick enough. To me, they just didn’t understand. So I call Lincoln Hospital and had the chutzpah to call and said, I want to I want to talk to the person in charge of the hospital. And strangely enough, they put me to the guy and I got the guy on the phone immediately. I don’t know how that happened. That was an act of God, you know. And I said to him, Listen, I’m, I’m about to do some training of people in Ann Arbor. My father tells me he’s sick, that he’s dying. I can’t leave my father in this state. And he looked, he sounds to me like he’s in a, he’s in really in bad straits. And the guy said, All right, he says, I’ll make sure that have him come back, I’ll make sure that gets hospitalized, you can go ahead. I said, I’m not going anywhere, until he’s in the hospital, and you call me and tell me that he’s in hospital. He said, All right. You know, so later on that day, you know, my father, went they admitted him, I got the call. I went to Ann Arbor. That night, my wife called me, oh, you father died. But it was in the hospital. And they were attending to him, and they listened. But my God, you know, having to go through all that trouble. To make it happen. You know, how many people there had a son who would be able to call and get the person who could make a decision, you know, and make things happen. So, you know, this is in my blood.

Katie Vernoy 27:18

Curt Widhalm 27:21
I’m taking away from this, that when we enter into this profession, when we’ve had to bring our own experiences into every single situation, whether it’s something that is for the greater change of the people that we work with, or whether it’s deeply impactful to us as individuals that we can’t ignore both. That we can’t, one does not exist without the other. And this is, you know, really where we’ve been big fans of Harry and his work for a very long time and have had a couple of conversations with him leading up to this podcast, and have really enjoyed the the wit and kind of the, the pathway that he’s blazed through a lot of his career. Because, as we mentioned in the previous episode, on How to BE a Therapist of we love when people have done the research for us, and provided the body of work, the things that we encourage. And I’m so proud that we get to share this space with Harry, because this is a lifetime, an example of a lifetime of standing up for what you believe in, knowing that what works is not just the techniques that you read out of a book. That is much as the influences around therapy seem to make it come faster, come cheaper, get people out the door, that there’s a very deep personal impact in this. And that’s not independent of the life that we have in our own lives. And sometimes we end up with really, really tough personal situations that impact that. And that’s part of the human factor of being a therapist.

Katie Vernoy 29:22
I think to add to that, Curt is, I’m just so struck with your story, Harry about how your personal life experience has made it impossible for you to see it any other way, to do anything different. And to me, it just really highlights the privilege that had designed therapy before believing that somehow we didn’t need to exist in the room, where we didn’t, we weren’t relevant to the room and not recognizing the full needs of the clients before us to have people who truly understand and are able to not just do an intervention, but to advocate and inform and to design systems that actually will make a difference. And to me being a WASPy, white woman, you know, I, I’m always struck when I’m able to more fully recognize how privileged I am, and what I would not have thought to bring into the room. And I think that’s why, you know, even in this idea that we could be blank screens, or surgeons, or any of these things, like it just feels so, I don’t know what the right word is just ridiculous. Maybe I’ll just go with ridiculous like, it feels so ridiculous that we could actually not have a personal relationship or not bring any of ourselves into the room. And granted, Freud nodded to it with countertransference. Right. And, and there are systems and they’re all those things, but, but to me, I’m just so struck with how you naturally and organically, were able to identify the differences with how you were interacting with the clients, or the community members around the clinic, when the therapists or the counselors or the folks who were creating these things, did not recognize what that barrier was to connecting. They just didn’t talk or they just didn’t understand. It was, it was something where the notion of looking into yourself in your experience was obvious to you, but completely not to folks who are so privileged to not have to understand it in the same way. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but. But to me, I just I really appreciate that. And I, I’m curious, because I think you’re very humble in saying, Well, this is just how I think. This is just how I didn’t couldn’t do it any other way. And I believe that that’s true. But I also believe that many people wouldn’t be able to put that together into something like the person of the therapist training. And so I’m going to steal one of Curt’s questions, because I think it’s so relevant, which is, how do you think clinical education for therapists, social workers, psychologists, how do you think it should change? Because I think if Curt and I had our way person of the therapist training would be required. So looking at not everyone’s necessarily going to adopt a whole program. What do you think, at the minimum, do clinical programs need to do before therapists really can enter into this work effectively?

Dr. Harry Aponte 29:28
Yeah, I’ve done another story.

Katie Vernoy 32:10
We love your stories.

Dr. Harry Aponte 32:34
Yeah, well, I think they illustrate better than I can conceptualize some of this myself. I had been invited to do some teaching, as an adjunct at Drexel on structural family therapy. And then there was a change of leadership there, the woman named Marlene Watson was became in charge of the Couples and Family Therapy Program. She’s African American, she had seen some of my work. And she was interested in what we’re talking about, given where she was coming from. She’s very interested in social justice. And so I said, Well, this is, this is what I’m doing. I was doing my training on my own, on training people on the use of self and with this perspective, and she said, can you bring it into into our clinic? And I said, Well, I think I can, but with one condition. That she said, What’s that? I said, I think your faculty needs to be exposed to it first. And they should be into it, because I don’t want to be, you know, another little class that’s being taught on the side here.

Katie Vernoy 33:45

Dr. Harry Aponte 33:46
I’m on 10 others, because I think this is, this is very much to the core of what’s necessary for the development of the therapist. I don’t think this is just something that we add on, you know, and she said, All right, we’ll do it. I mean, that was that quick. And I said, Well, can you get them together? She said, Sure. And she said, and I’ll be the first one to present. And she was the first one to present. She presented her work and expose herself and some of her own issues in supervising, that she offered for me to work on with her. And I did it with all the faculty that was there. The five or six to core faculty that was there and, and, and she said, we’re going to make this, you know, a cornerstone of our training program. So she made a full commitment to it.

Katie Vernoy 34:36
That’s so good.

Dr. Harry Aponte 34:37
Okay. And gave me everything that I asked for. You know, I said, I don’t I don’t want to do this by myself. I can’t like I want to I want a co leader. I’d like to have a woman, that I have my perspective, but women have their own perspective. And I’d like to just expand our perspectives on this. And so that’s what she arranged for. So we designed the program, the program was also labor intensive, which is one of the reasons, we can talk about this a little later. But you know, why don’t think it’s the program is being used in too many places. Although people are hearing about it many places, including Africa, Asia, and so on. Getting correspondence all the time about this program in other continents, but it is labor intensive. And so I designed a program that had three basic components to it. First component was that you as a therapist who want to be a therapist, you need to know yourself. And in particular, a wrinkle that I added, which is not too common in the field, which is you also need to know and be able to speak to your own hang ups.

Katie Vernoy 35:52

Dr. Harry Aponte 35:53
I’m painfully conscious of my hang ups. And I always was, and I still am. And I know how difficult it is to change. And I know what kind of problems it creates for my relationships. And I know how hard things that I have to overcome in order to do some decent clinical work, but I also know that for me to be able to not just hear people and observe them, but also to feel them, I have to be in touch with my own experience of life, with my own struggles of life, okay. And when I do my clinical work, I do part of what I learned from psychoanalysis. I free associate, as I’m engaging with people. And so as they’re telling me about their troubles, I’m remembering mine, I’m remembering my experiences, my trauma, my failures, my hang ups, my problems and trying to change, my suffering around these things. And I have them, they’re there, you know, and it’s automatically there. And what it does is it opens me up to, to feel with them. So when they talk about their pain and their hurt and their insecurities, I’m right with you, buddy. You know, I don’t tell them. But, but I’m with you. And yeah then I can begin to intuit you, I can begin to get a sense of what you’re going through, and not just depend on your words to understand what you’re going through. You know, and then when I when I do an enactment which came from Sal, again, people can bring their and live their issues right there in the room with me, okay, it’s for real, and they’re doing their thing, and I’m feeling it, and I can enter it, and I can engage them in it, and be with them fully myself, okay, in the sense that it just opens me up to resonate, to identify with, to associate to the things that that I’m experiencing, so that that’s what my saying about therapy, that therapy is not a conversation, it’s an experience. We’re trying to make an impact in people’s lives. But that has to be disciplined. And okay, especially if you’re getting into things that are truly sensitive to you that are truly hurtful, traumatized, a part of you, you need to be on top of it, you know, otherwise, it can overwhelm you in there and paralyze you, can freeze you in the session, or you can act out on it in ways that are destructive to yourself and to your client. So then I developed a program that says, Let’s spend this the, we have three quarters. So let’s spend this first quarter with you, taking turns and writing up so that I can read it and my co leader can read it. You know, tell me about who you are. Tell me about what your core issues are, personal issues are. Tell me how you think this is going to affect your clinical work as you begin to get cases. And this is first year people. You’re going to do this in the presence of your cohort?

Katie Vernoy 39:15
Yeah, it sounds overwhelming.

Dr. Harry Aponte 39:19
Absolutely. Okay. And you know, it’s like the first person is going to do this. It’s like saying to them, alright, strip, take your clothes off, you know, in front of your cohort, but I also know, you know, how sensitive it is, I know how secretive I am about my own stuff. And so I’m very sensitive to be protective of them. And to be very clear with them, let’s listen, if there’s something that you don’t want to talk about, you don’t you don’t want to put out there. Keep it to yourself. I understand that that’s not a problem. But I want you to be conscious of it.

Katie Vernoy 39:52

Dr. Harry Aponte 39:53
Okay. So let’s talk about it. When you talk about it. I’m going to be there. Yes. I’m going to explore with you. I’m going to try to help you to conceptualize it, I’m going to try to help you to put words to it, I’m going to help you to be able to converse with yourself about it so that it begins to make sense. I want you to get desensitized to the emotions that overwhelm you, when you connect with all of these experiences, with all of these associations, so that then you can actually use it and work with it. Is this, this has to be instrumental for you. Okay, so this is this is a training, this isn’t just reading about something and saying, Oh, that’s a nice idea.

Katie Vernoy 40:35
You mean, my whole grad school experience of Oh, this sounds like a good idea. That that wasn’t effective.

Dr. Harry Aponte 40:39
That wasn’t effective, right. So I, you know, I say to them, you know, I say that, you know, you don’t train a football player by showing them videos about great football games, you know, you have to get out there and do it, and get bruised in doing it and so that it becomes something that’s automatic to you. You know, something that just naturally comes up for you, and you’re able to say, Oh, this will help me in relating to my client, this will help me in resonating with my client, and in being sensitive to what they’re, what they’re going through. This is going to help me to really make an assessment, you can get a get a real idea as to what they’re really going through, I can get an idea as to really why it’s so difficult for them to change, because I’m getting deeper into their experience, they’re not just telling me that they’re depressed. And this thing in bed, I’m understanding why and I’m getting a feel for why they’re depressed and in bed, okay, and what makes it so hard for them to get out of bed, etc, etc, etc, I conduct this session with them in the presence of the cohort. And they, they talk about it, they would joke about a lot of them, it’s okay, this is the crying session with our teach. So we have to have a lot of you know, tissues there. And I understand that because I cry myself, you know, around this stuff. So they will talk about it, I want them to conceptualize it. In the second quarter, I’m saying I want to, I want to show you how to take this and have you give life to the work that you’re doing clinically, technically, you have to go to school, you have to learn the various schools of therapy, you have to learn the techniques, you have to learn about psychopathology, all this stuff is absolutely essential. But this stuff, these are tools, okay, these are tools that you will make use of through your human relationship and connection that you’re having with your clients. So I want you to be able to give life to that, life that really connects with your clients and makes an impact on them, you’ll have a sense of where they really are, what they’re going through, how they’re relating to you, how much they trust you, you have a sense of timing, okay, now I can say it, now I can do it, you have a sense of this is how I should do it. This is the kind of personality I have. I’m a man, I’m a woman, I’m six feet tall, I’m five feet two, you know, I have this personality, I have that personality, I have to do it in a way that makes sense to who I am and who that person or that family or that couple is, okay, I want you to have that kind of experience. In other words, I’m trying to train you to master yourself within the context of being in the role of being a therapist. Okay. And so we’re going to do role plays, and we’re going to bring in videos of your work, so that I can see it. But I’m more interested in the roleplay. When you do the roleplay we’re going to have people from your class are going to roleplay couples and families, okay. And they, they’re your clients, and they’re going to have the experience of you trying to relate to them. And you’ll have a sense of what it’s like to have somebody trying to connect with you, you know, and I’m going to sit right behind you. And every few minutes, I’m gonna stop and say, Okay, what’s happening with you now? What are you thinking? What are you feeling? Why are you only talking to this person? You’re not talking to that person? You know? Oh, well, because well, you know, like, I’ve had experiences in class a number of times, you know, I have a, an African American client, and then married to a white woman is the guy and the therapist is only relating to the African American and I say, why are you doing that? Why are you ignoring her? Well, she’s privileged, you know, she doesn’t suffer the way the black person does. Oh, really? So she doesn’t suffer. You don’t suffer? You know? And so we go through that and say, Oh, is that what we’re talking about? So we’re talking about a transformation. But something revolutionary, okay, we’re talking about creating something and training a person to say, I, who I am is really important and at the very heart of the work that I’m doing. And I have to be an instrument that can knows how to use these tools that I’m being trained to use. And so by the, by the third quarter, we have paid actors who then I supervise with the students, working with them. And I work with them in the same way making them aware of themselves, making them have conscious use of themselves, so that they could make all of this technical training that they’re getting and learning, they can make it useful and effective.

Katie Vernoy 45:42
I just love that program. Because to me, it feels like such a relief to think about being myself in the room is not only allowed, it’s important. And being able to do what we do naturally, which is free associate and to try to connect with the person across from us and understand their experience or our own experiences. Instead of trying to, you know, put those away, put those away, this is about the client, this is about the client like that, to me, feels so important. And so validating that I can be a person in the room. And in fact, I should be and it’s the only way that I can really do this work effectively. I feel like we could talk with you for hours and hours and hours, but we are so low on time. I’m so glad that we get to have our to continue this, I was gonna say conversation, but I’ll call it experience to continue this experience together in September. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Harry Aponte 46:42
I’m very happy to be here and have a chance to put it out there so that somebody can hear it and somebody takes it seriously as you’re doing.

Katie Vernoy 46:51

Curt Widhalm 46:52
There’s a number of things that Harry has mentioned during this episode, we will put links to those in our show notes. You can find those at And like I said, we have Harry slated to be one of our keynote speakers at the Therapy Reimagined 2020 Conference. Just like everywhere else in the world right now. We are watching the whole health situation. We are constantly making tweaks to how our event is going to be presented and exploring all of our options. And for the most up to date news on that, check out our website and we would love to have you join us and join Harry and until next time. I’m Curt Widhalm with Katie Vernoy and Dr. Harry Aponte.

Announcer 47:40
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