Therapy as a Political Act: An Interview with Dr. Travis Heath
An interview with Dr. Travis Heath, PhD, regarding the myth that therapists can remain neutral and be considered not “political”. Curt and Katie talk with Travis about how he perceives effective therapy and how to interrogate the ways in which people interact within the systems where they live and work (and what they consider to be absolute truths). We also look at decolonizing therapy and honoring preferred, culturally relevant methods of healing. Finally, we look at being a therapist (and especially a BIPOC therapist) during this time – the ways we can support each other and the opportunities we have to impact real change with our clients.
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.
Click here to scroll to the podcast transcript.
Click here to scroll to the podcast transcript.
Interview with Dr. Travis Heath, PhD
Travis Heath is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He has worked in Los Angeles, California and is currently a licensed psychologist practicing in Denver, Colorado. The work he has been focused on includes shifting from a multicultural approach to counseling to one of cultural democracy that invites people to heal in mediums that are culturally near. Writing he has contributed to has focused on the use of rap music in narrative therapy, working with persons entangled in the criminal justice system in ways that maintain their dignity, narrative practice stories as pedagogy, a co-created questioning practice called reunion questions, and community healing strategies. He is currently co-authoring the first book on Contemporary Narrative Therapy with David Epston. His practice has been apprenticed by David Epston, substantially influenced by the work of Makungu Akinyela, and inspired by collaborators such as marcela polanco, Tom Carlson, Sasha Pilkington, and Kay Ingamells. He has been fortunate enough to run workshops and speak about his work in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Norway, United Kingdom, and United States.
In this episode we talk about therapy as a political act:
- Travis’s personal history and its relevance to the current conversation
- Therapy as a political act
- How neutrality fits into the idea of politics-free therapy – “Neutrality is a political position”
- Narrative therapy’s role in anti-racism
- Interrogating systems at play in clients’ decision-making
- Challenging assumptions and “absolute truths”
- How therapists are impacted by the stories and perspectives of their clients
- How to manage clients who have held positions that are threatening to you as an individual
- The systems perspective on how people behave and how systems shape their beliefs
- The place for antiracism work within therapy
“We don’t need more social justice theories; we’ve got many of those. We need more social justice practices.” – Dr. Travis Heath
- A framework to carry social justice in therapy beyond the current news cycle
- The problem with multicultural counseling
- Decolonizing therapy – looking at how to restore culturally relevant methods of healing
- The problem with CBT for non-Eurocentric clients
- Preferred mediums of healing and cultural democracy
- The mediocracy of typical therapy prescriptions
- Elevating the knowledge of the other
- Expertise in asking the right questions and elevating the expertise of the other
- Co-creation of tools and strategies
- The liberating effect of asking your client for their inherent knowledge
- Where to use your role as expert
- The benefit of mentorship and apprenticeship in learning to be a therapist
- The lack of mentorship within the current educational system for therapists
- How to do antiracist supervision and training for therapists
“In this field we do far too much telling and not enough showing.” – Dr. Travis Heath
- The idea that we can apprentice the whole person of the therapist
“Theory doesn’t do therapy. Therapy does therapy.” – Dr. Travis Heath
- What is considered therapy and what it actually can be
- Community work as the work of therapy
- The exhaustion of being a BIPOC therapist right now
- The importance of support and community for therapists
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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 may be 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!
Dr. Travis Heath on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DrTravisHeath
Contacting Dr. Travis Heath PhD: email@example.com
Makungu Akinyela: https://www.drmakungu.com/
Vikki Reynolds: https://vikkireynolds.ca/
Navid Zamani: http://www.navidzamani.com/
David Epston: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Epston
Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:
Who we are:
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: http://www.curtwidhalm.com
Katie 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 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: http://www.katievernoy.com
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 https://www.facebook.com/McCannDW/
Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano https://groomsymusic.com/
Transcript for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast (Autogenerated):
Curt Widhalm 0:00
This episode is sponsored by SimplePractice.
Katie Vernoy 0:03
Running a private practice is rewarding, but it also can be demanding. SimplePractice changes that. This practice management solution helps you focus on what’s most important your clients by simplifying the business side of private practice, like billing and scheduling.
Curt Widhalm 0:18
Stick around for a special offer at the end of this episode.
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 0:38
Welcome back modern therapists, this is The Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. I’m Curt Widhalm, with Katie Vernoy. And the world has continued to raise their voices up in the aftermath of a number of incidences here in the US. A lot of this is being attributed to the response around the killing of George Floyd and being respectful of all of the other incidences across the country in the last, I don’t know, couple 100 years. But also just recognizing that there are multiple incidences that have led to a lot of the protests for systemic changes going on and building on our conversation from last week about ally work being a action and not just a statement. Adding to our conversation today is Dr. Travis Heath. He’s a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. And thank you so much for joining us and lending us your experience and your expertise with this.
Dr. Travis Heath 1:44
Thanks for having me. The timing sort of uncanny. I think we were planning this even before this most recent iteration of the world exploding. But however it happened, I’m glad I’m here at this particular time with you too.
Katie Vernoy 1:57
I’m so glad to have you here. And I’m also glad that you’re going to be speaking in our Therapy Reimagined conference on some of these issues. I just so appreciate your reaching out to us and becoming part of this with us, our Therapy Reimagined stuff, which is awesome. But the way that we always start our interviews is providing an opportunity to let us know who you are and what you’re putting out into the world.
Dr. Travis Heath 2:21
Yeah, that’s a cool question. I think well, I’ll locate myself in terms of my own background. So I’m a transracial adoptee, which is an interesting psychology and identity in itself. So my birth father was what’s called Pardoe in Brazil, which is a mixed race, right? So it means Brazilian, indigenous African, and European. And my mother, birth mother was of European descent. Right? And so that locates me in sort of an interesting place anyways, but in this particular time in our country’s history, it’s like my body sort of represents as marcela polanco would call it, the colonized and the colonizer, right, it’s my body, sort of a mix of that of the oppressed and the oppressor. So that’s, that’s an interesting psychology to carry anyways. But I think, particularly at this time. I’ll also I mean, I guess I’ll give you a little bit of the professional background. So I’m a licensed psychologist, I have a master’s degree from Pepperdine University, in Southern California there. And then I have a PhD from out here at University of Northern Colorado. But small private practice, I’d say 12 to 15, they I don’t know, if you have the same experience, it always gets a little bigger than I like think that maybe it should be right, I should be eight to 10. But I’m more 12 to 15 is just how it goes. But I’d say about half of the folks that I see at any given time are entangled in the criminal justice system in some way. And then you know, I also work with couples and families, I get bored easy, so I see a whole bunch of different folks. Perhaps pertinent to some of where our conversation might go today, it’s interesting, because I also work with law enforcement. So I have law enforcement, who by the way, don’t want to see the psychologist in the department because they don’t feel they can be completely honest with the psychologist in the department, right, which I talk we’ll talk we’ll talk about systemic problems. But perhaps there’s just one small part of a systemic problem. So it’s an interesting place to be because I work with people who have been victims of violence of the state. And then I work with people who are parts of organizations who have perpetrated that violence all at the same time. And then lastly, in terms of introducing myself, I’ll say, when I was 16 years old, I myself was a victim of police violence. The story I told, well, an abridged version of the story of my Twitter feed, I don’t know in the last week or so. But I feel that important to share because I’ve had the experience of having a white police officer with his knee in my back and having that sensation, that physiologic sensation of not being able to breathe. And so I’ve spent much of the last week protesting. It’s strange, because the Denver Police would say, well, there’s a curfew. Like you’ve got to be out of here by eight o’clock and then the police chief said, well, the curfew is mainly to deal with the protesters while I was protesting and seeing people in my office on the same day, so like, how does this pertain to me? Like, am I going to be harassed driving home, I mean, because you know, you’re allowed to be driving home from work. And I was also protesting that day. And so I just bring this up, because I think I owe it to you and your audience to be transparent about how I’m positioned, especially in all of this kind of madness that’s been taking place in the last week or so.
Curt Widhalm 5:27
And I will echo again, that this is sheer blind luck that we had Travis on our schedule this week. We, in a lot of our content coming up here in the next couple of months, we’ll be exposing all of you to many of the people who are going to be participating in Therapy Reimagined this year. And that’s where we originally scheduled Travis, and I didn’t know any of this background stuff about, you know, some of your experiences here. And I know you from kind of the questions that we send back and forth in kind of digging in a little bit online, doing the, you know, fanboy stalking you online sort of thing. But then it just kind of makes, you know, some of the professional work that you’re doing around therapy as a political act, being something that I was thinking a couple of weeks ago that we were going to talk about, and kind of this more conceptual way. But, man, this has taken so much more of the space in our offices and our practices just immediately. Can you guide us through what what you mean, when you say that therapy is a political act?
Dr. Travis Heath 6:36
Yeah. Thank you for the question. I think, look, our our history, I suppose in psychotherapy is diverse in certain ways. And there are different perspectives. And I’m not saying everyone assumes this perspective of neutrality. But traditionally, it would seem that therapists have largely been taught to be neutral. And I think that’s problematic on a number of different levels. The first is that we’re not neutral, like most of us have positions. Okay. Now, even if somehow you were 100%, neutral. I don’t know a person like that. But if you were, that in itself is a political position. Neutrality is a political, you could be neutral about the events happening in our country right now. And that is a political position, right? And so neutrality does not absolve you of taking a position. So the first thing I’d say is we’re not neutral, I guess, then the next part is kind of, and to be neutral is a great privilege. By the way, not all of us have the privilege of being neutral. Now, how does this manifest like in therapy? So I hope that the I’m I’m informed by narrative therapy, right? I’ve had the great luck really was luck. In a lot of ways I can tell you this story, another time of, of bumping into David Epston, and then having having him mentor my practice, one of the creators of narrative therapy. But as someone who is informed by narrative therapy, I ask a lot of questions. And most of my questions to the people that come to see me, my clients, they’re interrogating the systems of which we’re a part, right. So if, if some if somebody comes to see me, and I’m asking questions about state violence, that’s a political act, right? Because I am anti-racist. I am against state violence. Right now. I think if you were to listen to some of my questions, you know, my questions are not like, tell me why you think we should abolish the state? You know, these are not my questions, right? I mean, my questions are more subtle and nuanced, which is getting people to consider the ways in which these systems are putting pressure on their lives, right, that maybe it isn’t as simple as good guys and bad guys. Right? You know, and then it’s, if I could just deviate for just one second, to talk about this political part in your question is not just about police violence, the violence of the state, that’s very, very heavy, but also where I see this all the time, like women I work with, the ways in which women’s bodies are politicized. Right, how women’s bodies are supposed to be shaped, how much they’re supposed to weigh, interrogating these sorts of things alongside people, right? And sort of going well, okay. Like, I’m thinking of one woman, and I share the story with consent, who was upset because she was eating peanut butter, you know, and she said, Well, I eat it out of the jar. And this is bad, you know? And I said, Well, how did you come to understand this is bad? Like, where did you learn this was bad? When did you decide that? You will? I don’t know. I never decided that was. I was like, What did you when you came out of the womb did you know that eating peanut butter was bad out of the jar? And she said no. I said, Well, how about your teenage years? At what point did you consent to this idea that this was bad, right? And then I could take you down some other questions. But, see to me, that’s therapy as a political act, because what we’re doing is we’re interrogating those systems. Now, that doesn’t mean that people look sometimes the systems we have work for people, and that’s, that’s okay. I mean, if it’s racism, I’m not sure that’s okay. You know, but hey, I will say this, it’s a person’s right to hold a racist belief, if they want to hold that belief, I probably won’t be a good therapist for them. But, you know, whatever if that’s the belief they’re going to hold, okay. But my job is not to, I think this is where sometimes there’s some confusion, is not to enforce a party political agenda onto anyone, but rather to interrogate the systems at play so that then people might be able to see those in new ways or see them with a little more clarity.
Katie Vernoy 8:02
To me, it sounds like making a conscious decision based on critical thinking versus blindly following a system because that’s the system that’s in place.
Dr. Travis Heath 10:34
Yes, I agree. And I think often it’s, things are happening beneath the surface. They’re covert, right? They’re taken for granted. We just assume this to be true. I’m thinking of my work with men, right? Where, like, when I had, you know, my kids are a bit older now eight, and almost four. But when I had little babies, men would find it wild that I could watch a football game while holding my child. It’s like, I could do this masculine activity, traditionally storied masculine activity, while also being nurturing. Right. And it’s sort of like, but these these quote unquote, well, air quotes are bad for podcasts. So I’m making air quote fingers here. But but you know, you know, truths, these truths, we often don’t think about them. It’s not that people don’t want to critically think but they don’t know that there’s anything to think about. If it’s an absolute truth, what is there to find out, right? But if we interrogate that a little bit, and we begin to break it apart, well, now we have some interesting directions, we can go with it.
Curt Widhalm 11:32
You talk about kind of these different aspects of people who come to your practice, and especially with some of the personal experiences that you’ve had, and even being challenged as a therapist and your own beliefs as clients are bringing these kinds of concepts into your space. You’re, you’re talking this great, you know, narrative approach of being able to challenge their systems, but you’re also talking about not being this neutral, blank slate sort of thing. How are you managing where that you’re, you’re a walking, talking intersectionality of so many different things. But in those particular moments, how were you able to respond to that and be there for your clients while still holding true to these ideals that you’re bringing?
Dr. Travis Heath 12:20
Yeah, another great question. So I’ll give a specific example that I think is germane to what’s happening in our society right now. So imagine me a person of color, who is, you know, of mixed answers ancestry, but part of that ancestry is African working with a white police officer, because this is happening in real time with more than one police officer. Okay, so then a very fair question is like, Well, how do you? How do you manage that, because you’ve been the victim of this violence, right? And you are working with people who also have been? Well, see, this is where I, my belief in a systems approach, like the systems to me are not just a metaphor, right? Like, my belief that systems help author our identities. And if I believe that, like we, with cops, we do this bad apple thing, which is really weird to me. Like, it seems grossly inefficient to even if you wanted to get out of my weird system talk, like, we’re just gonna find each bad apple and pluck them out? And I looked at this a little differently. I think that when you have a toxic system, it can take even the best apples and infect them and turn them rotten, right? And so I then don’t look at this cop, for example, as an evil person, I look at this cop as being part of this system. Right? It just like the woman I was talking about earlier with peanut butter, it’s not as though this cop was born evil, like I don’t get into this good and evil thing. What I get into is trying to understand the systems. And so how can I sit with someone with very different beliefs is I can really, in my office, I almost this might sound bizarre, but on that I have sort of two couches that are almost connected at 90 degree angles, right? And wherever the person is sitting, it’s almost like I make places for these different systems that I identify as I’m listening, right. And these systems are sort of sitting with us, and they’ve helped to form this person’s identity. And so that I actually believe that. And so that makes it a lot easier than it’s not something that’s inherently evil within a person, if if we’re dealing with something like racism, even, it’s something that is toxic within the system, and then I can I can meet that person. And by the way, if they can be infected by this, they can be uninfected. And maybe that’s part of my job is to begin to have those kinds of conversations.
Katie Vernoy 14:44
I would imagine that those conversations would be very enlightening. Being able to really look into how this person in front of you is interacting with the system, how they perceive the system, what the decisions they’re making within that system. To me It seems like it’s really trying to get into their perspective so that there’s an opportunity to then get into those those deeper questions where they’re critically thinking about how they want to do those things versus assuming that they’re true. Or even if they recognize that this system is flawed, that they that they actually feel empowered to do something different, because I would imagine there’s a lot of people, and I’m thinking mostly bystanders, for people that are kind of further removed from the the overt acts that are fairly conflicted, or at least, that maybe that’s me being very hopeful, but fairly conflicted with how they’re interacting with this oppressive system.
Dr. Travis Heath 15:43
Yeah, it is enlightening. And see, I think, to be able to do this work well, I’m not only learning about their relationships to systems, I’m continually learning about mine, right? I mean, in this new book we’re working on, there’s a chapter of me working with a Trump supporter, I’m not a Trump supporter. This requires something of me too. It requires me to look at some of my biases and how they have been formed and my relationship with some of my systems, which doesn’t mean I have to give up my positions. But boy, would I be a hypocrite if I don’t at least look at some of how some of my relationships with the systems, right. So it’s enlightening on multiple levels. Certainly I learn more about them and what’s going on with them. But in order for me to ask questions that are going to be of any value, I also simultaneously have to be sort of interrogating myself and my own beliefs, which, you know, that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden, I’m going to think like racism is good or something like that. I mean, there’s we’re dealing, we’re doing anti-racist work all the time. At least I am. But it’s heightened now. Right, because of what’s going on. It’s been it’s been brought into the public consciousness. But that I think, is always and should always be a part of our work. And by the way, well, you’re a person of color. Well, yeah, but see, here’s the thing. And a friend of mine, Naveed from San Diego State told me this three or three or four years ago, it’s just great, I carry it with me, he goes, if you are part of like the dominant system of psychology, you are functioning as a white man. Like, it doesn’t matter what, what your actual background is, because the systems were created by white men, you’re functioning as a white man. So if all I’m doing is reproducing these same ideas, which I’m not saying aren’t with, are without any redeeming value, but they are Eurocentric ideas, right. And if all I’m doing is doing is reproducing those, it doesn’t matter what my racial ethnic background is, it doesn’t matter, the hue of my skin, because I’m reproducing these same white systems.
Curt Widhalm 17:45
And I think, you know, to build on this is a lot of therapists in here in the last couple of weeks have essentially learned about anti-racism, for the first time. Have adjusted or are struggling to adjust where they are, as far as not being in part of the bigger social political systems of racism, whether that’s moving from colorblindness to trying to really take some of these steps there. We also, in a lot of countries that have kind of these very strong systems, people tend to lose out on this enthusiasm once it falls out of the news cycle. And for a lot of this work to really change, to really continue to challenge and decolonize therapy in this way. How do we keep this conversation going to actually make lasting change? And not just have this be kind of the enthusiastic thing that everybody’s behind for a few weeks or a month here?
Dr. Travis Heath 18:51
This is a great question. And there’s a lot to it, I’m gonna do my best to kind of address it as systematically as I can. We don’t need any more. And this this phrase, social justice is has become a little tired. Like, if everybody’s doing social justice, nobody’s really doing social justice, it has to be on the cutting edge to really be social justice. But I’m going to use that term because everyone’s familiar with that term. Okay. We we don’t need more social justice theories. We’ve got many of those. We need more social justice practices, right. And so I and there are many, I’m going to share with you a little bit about how I do it. It’s not the way to do it. It’s just a way. Okay. And the reason I’m going to share this is because then maybe it gives people a framework to carry this past the news cycle, right where they go, like, shoot, maybe I can actually practice some of this in my in my practice. So multicultural counseling. I’m gonna start with that term, and then we’re moving to the term decolonizing that you brought up. Multicultural counseling. This seems to be like the gold standard. Even when I was a graduate student, I recognized something that didn’t quite sit with me and how it was being explained, but I couldn’t identify why. I’m maybe a bit slow, but it took me about a decade. And then what I started to notice is like, oh, what multicultural counseling essentially is and Makungu Akinyela, one of my mentors was instrumental in this. Like multicultural counseling takes Eurocentric ideas, right? And it basically says, hey, those of you not from European backgrounds come heal in our Eurocentric models of healing, which it’s like, okay, like, that’s a nice gesture, but I’m not sure how effective that’s going to be. Right. And that’s, that’s remnants from colonization, right? I mean, when you think about colonialism, or what it really is, you’re talking about, like a nation that sort of asserts control over another nation, economically, politically, etc. Okay. And then the act of decolonizing. I mean, I can say so much about this, but I’ll keep it brief is sort of restoring that which rightfully belongs to the colonized. But here’s the problem. And I’ll speak just for our country, the United States, we’ve never really done that. Like, we sort of just put some laws on the books, we put it in paper, but we don’t put it in practice, which really doesn’t do much. And so there has never been a decolonizing process that has has happened now, then us as therapists in the field of psychology, psychotherapy, counseling, social work, all of these helping fields. Like we I think we would be naive to believe that our field isn’t, uh, isn’t problematic. And the ways in which it embraces certain colonizing ideas, like, give you a quick one, and I don’t mean to pick on CBT.
Curt Widhalm 21:30
No, go right ahead, go right.
Katie Vernoy 21:34
Episode called Is CBT crap. So…
Dr. Travis Heath 21:39
Now, I’ll acknowledge it can be helpful for folks. But this is an idea of the mind. And then it’s psychotherapy attending to the mind. And solely the mind, the idea being, that if you change the way you think, then you’ll sort of fundamentally change the way that you are in the world. I mean, I’m CBT therapists would say it’s deeper than that. But I only have so much time. Why isn’t therapy an act of the heart and soul, right? And for many cultures around the world, that’s what healing is. It’s more of a heart and soul practice. And it’s less of a mind practice, right. And so, if we are working with people, and we are taking these prescriptions, if you will, I mean, not medical prescriptions, right, but just these 123, here’s how you should heal yourself. That can be really well intentioned, but it’s very problematic, because we’re ignoring the context of the person. So here’s my alternative with the idea of like, how do we carry this forward? Now, the phrase I’ve been using is preferred mediums of healing, perhaps not everyone comes to therapy to heal, but just, we could change healing into whatever it is the preferred mediums of whatever it is, they’re coming to therapy to do. And what this is doing, and we might call this cultural democracy, right? It’s allowing people to speak on behalf of their own healing. Now, what I find, to be honest, just to be very pragmatic about it, it’s so much easier and so much more efficient. Because at the beginning of my practice, I would give them these prescriptions, whatever they’re supposed to do, right? And then they’d come back and the usual outcome was mediocrity. You know, some people were being nice, too. But they do that thing where they’re like, Well, it was, it was helpful, but you heard their voice, like, that’s BS, it was not helpful at all. And then you know, your more honest clients would be like, it wasn’t helpful. But very rarely Was it not helpful at all, or supremely helpful, it was, it was remarkably mediocre. What I found when you ask people about preferred mediums of healing, which can be this can be done, this kind of conversation can happen across cultures in some really cool ways. But sometimes, even within culture, so even if you know, you’re a white therapist, working with a white client, I still think this applies because people have knowledge about the ways in which they prefer to heal, they often don’t realize it because no one’s asked them. But if you can go through a conversation with them, then they can heal now. So the decolonizing work and therapy, then or one way to go about the decolonizing work is to allow people to speak on behalf of their own healing to like, do we psychotherapy has been around what 100 or so years, you know, healing has been around a lot longer than that. I mean, why are we so arrogant to believe that these other cultures had nothing to offer people and other time periods and cultures, like, you know, sometimes ancestral knowledge can be so significant that and much more significant than our sort of modernized knowledge is. Now, my but again, my job is just to engage them in a conversation and try to through my questions, find what’s going to work best for them within, within their context within their cultural traditions. And when you allow people first sometimes people are confused, especially if people have been therapised, you know, they’ve been through like a lot of therapists. They’re confused at first, but then it’s like, Oh, okay. And like, Oh, I really the job is how do I elevate the knowledge of the other? Right, how do I elevate that knowledge as opposed to elevating the knowledge of psychiatry, psychology and whatever else, you know?
Katie Vernoy 25:04
I think the piece about that that is empowering to me is that it really provides an opportunity to see the other person, and to really understand them in a deeper way. Because I think when we step into the role of expert, giving them a prescription, this is what you should do. I think that maybe early in the relationship that can feel helpful, here are some tools that you can take with you, here’s something that might make you feel a little bit better, but, but I was so struck by this idea of mediocrity, because I think it truly keeps you at that place where the only thing that you’re really doing is kind of making it not as bad. It’s not really allowing this, and I like the word healing, so I’m gonna, I’m gonna use that word too. But I think it’s not allowing for this idea of healing, it’s for being okay. And so being able to tap into their own inherent abilities, their own instincts to do that, that just seems very, it’s very exciting. I think that the question I have is, with folks who are struggling to identify what they what they typically do or feel, really, without any resources or thoughts, how do you? How do you get to that place where they’re able to do that?
Dr. Travis Heath 26:29
That’s a great question. And I just want to say that I do have expertise. My expertise, though, is not in prescribing specific ways of being, it’s an asking questions, right, that can tap in and elevate the knowledge of the knowledge of the other. So I do have an expertise.
Katie Vernoy 26:45
Dr. Travis Heath 26:46
And that’s the expertise I carry, right. And so when people because people will come and they will want tools, and I’ll say I don’t do tools. I said this to someone, just the other day, I said, I’m sorry, I don’t do tools. I said, I do like co- create things together. Like I’m, I’ve done this long enough. And I you know, I’ll say this with humility to people, like, Look, I’ve done this long enough to think that we’ll probably be able to co-create something together. Right. But I, you know, but I don’t have the tool, because I don’t know you like how the heck do I what I know what to do when I don’t know you? And then there’s another level of this, which is, if you’re a person who has been oppressed at the hands of the colonizer, right, there’s no place for your knowledge. And so when you start asking questions about that knowledge, there’s almost a liberating effect, right? Because now it’s this knowledge that wouldn’t have been taken seriously or wouldn’t have even been called knowledge, you know, or healing. Now that’s allowed to spread its wings, and then part of my job with a PhD and the licensed psychologist and all that nonsense behind my name. That’s where that’s helpful, because now I’m standing in support of that, right, I’m endorsing this idea of going forward with, you know, these knowledges. And because often those knowledges get stifled by people with my credentials, right. And my well, that’s not really helpful. And, you know, but but boy, I don’t do a lot of the doctor stuff in the, you know, PhD psychology, but in these instances, I will sort of endorse, endorse their local knowledges with all of my credentials, right, and stand behind them with all of my credentials.
Curt Widhalm 28:32
You didn’t come to these ideas during your training. And one of the areas that you do speak about is just didn’t, you know, one of my big passion things is changing the way that therapists are educated and change. How did you come to these? And what do you how do you come to these conclusions? And how do you see us being able to introduce this earlier in people’s trainings, so that way, we’re not stumbling out of the blocks and providing mediocre therapy and doing good work from the beginning?
Dr. Travis Heath 29:05
Oh, I’m so glad you asked this question. I’m gonna do my best to be as succinct as I can be. So no, I did not come to these ideas during my training. I’m very fortunate. You know how I did. Because people that had the wisdom of decade’s worth of working took me under their wing. You know, I remember there’s a woman named Vikki Reynolds, she works up in Vancouver area, she’s incredible. You can just Google Vikki Reynolds and find her website. I remember coming across her for the first time like 2006, I was in a Ph. D program. You know, I was I was an neurotic, sort of mess of a PhD student, as we often are. And she took me aside it was at a conference in Vancouver, and she said, Travis, one day you’re gonna get out of this place, and you’re gonna have to go out in the world for five years and learn how to be a fucking therapist. And I was like, like, I got it, but I didn’t really get it right like I You know, I got it up here in my head, but not in my heart. And then five years out in the world, I was like, oh, like, I get it right. And so then, you know, I have people like Makungu Akinyela, David Epston, who have taken me under their wing. Now, this idea about how do we change the training? Like what David Epston has really done for me as his apprentice to my practice it was, you know, like, I imagine how many of our ancestors did things as you were apprenticed in a practice. Okay. So I don’t know if it’s this way, every place. But I think it’s this way, a lot of places, at least anecdotally, from what I hear, I haven’t read empirical research on it. But I never watched a single professor of mine do therapy, that’s bizarre, like, like, Okay, put it in a different context. Now, I don’t know anything about surgeons or whatever. But this is the example I like to use. Imagine there’s a senior surgeon and a junior surgeon for lack of a better way of saying, now imagine that the junior surgeon goes into the surgery room, that’s a heart surgeon, and the senior surgeon stays outside, and dubs feedback on a tape and they’re like, watch out. That’s the aorta. This is how we train therapists. And you know, I know and I don’t say this out of ego, I say it because I wish I had it. But I teach in an all undergraduate institution now, right. But when I it’s interesting, like when I go overseas, and they have me do not like workshops for therapists in the public, but like they bring me into graduate school. Over in Europe and other places, what they do, is they have a client that I get to see, and it’s fantastic, it’s great. And then they get to see the work and they get to see the imperfect. See, because they have this idea that if I came all the way from United States, like I must be this really great therapist, and it’s like, I’m a therapist, I mean, I have, I think I can do a good job. But I think part of what makes me a decent enough therapist is that I interrogate my own practice, that I’m critical of my own work. And so we should, you’re talking about reforming this, like, Okay, go back to how do we do anti-racist work, not by standing behind a mirror as a supervisor and checking a bunch of boxes, I get my backside in the room, as a supervisor, Professor, whatever. And I go first, and I interrogate my own work. And I look at my own biases. And then when I when I, and not because I’m some master therapists, but because I owe it to them, because I have more experienced than they do. I owe it to them to go first I have to be in the fire too. Then I come out. And I interrogate my own practice. And then in a way that is honest, but hopefully compassionate, and hope that invites the same spirit where we can hold one another up when doing this work in a way that’s accountable, and also honest, but I look and maybe it’s just me, maybe listen, maybe folks who listen to this show be like my program is exactly like you describe. Great, I would be so happy. I don’t I don’t want to be right and say most programs are this way. But that’s my sense, at least in the United States. And so if you want to practice decolonizing, anti-colonial, anti-racist work, you know that when you see it, you don’t know it through checkboxes, right?
Katie Vernoy 33:10
Dr. Travis Heath 33:10
Well, and what’s weird is like, you know it when you don’t see it, like when someone brings something racist, you’re like, ooh, that’s, but then what is it? To me, we in this field, we do far too much telling and not enough showing. And when we can show the practice, and this is what David Epston and others have done for me. But David really led the way with this, it was a, it was an apprenticeship. And it was not just about therapy. It was about being a person. You know, it was about like, just, I mean, to this day, he apprentices me in so many different ways. And you know, like, when I started doing more speaking, he started talking, well, you know, you should talk to your partner and let her know that these are some of the pitfalls of this. And if you’re going to be away from your family, and your kid, like, it was an apprenticeship that went beyond just what I was doing in the therapy, like it valued me as a human being. And this the last thing I’ll say on this, I know I’ve been talking a lot here, but there’s a lot to say, to be frank. I learned more. And this is, this is not I’m not trying to trash the places that I went, because again, I think this is systemic. It’s not like oh, the individual places I went to graduate school are bad. I don’t mean that. I think it’s just we’re sort of bogged down in ways of doing things that are archaic. But I learned more in six months of being apprenticed by David than I did in eight years, or whatever the heck it was of graduate school about really being a therapist. Now, I learned a lot about theory in eight years, and I learned a lot about, like, waxing intellectual about stuff. I didn’t learn a whole hell of a lot about practice. And so I feel like, Look, I’m not a philosopher. That would be fun in a lot of ways. I like philosophy and theory. I’m a bit of a theory nerd. But that theory doesn’t do therapy. Therapy does therapy, right. And so we need to be apprenticed in the practice.
Katie Vernoy 34:56
You’re talking about apprenticeship and being a person, and really looking at all of the elements of it. And certainly stuff that Curt and I’ve talked about is kind of this whole person therapist, like you’re bringing yourself into the room, you’re, you’re you can’t help but be impacted in the therapy room by what’s happening outside of the therapy room. And I know that I’ve definitely had been thinking about, especially black therapists this week, but a lot of BIPOC therapists and how doing therapy this week has a different element to it. I don’t want to I don’t want to take words out of anybody’s mouth. So I will just leave it there are so I, I want to open this opportunity for you to talk to speak to that in any way that you think might be helpful for our audience.
Dr. Travis Heath 35:44
Yeah. First, I want to say about that, that often what gets considered therapy… Like I’ve got told by people, well, that’s not narrative therapy, I’ll say good. Like I don’t like I don’t like, well, that’s not even being a therapist. Well, you know what that might be a compliment, in a lot of ways. Like, I don’t really care if you consider it to be therapists with it be doing the work of the therapist within your doctrine, you know, my job is to promote healing, right. And maybe it’s other things, but let me just use that word for point of conversations to promote healing. And that means that I’ll be out in the community, a therapy session that I did this week to folks that I see together that are entangled in the criminal justice system have both been victims of police violence, we went marching together at the protests. Now, I’m sure I get all kinds of this is not ethical or that. No, it would be unethical to not do that in this.
Curt Widhalm 36:40
Dr. Travis Heath 36:40
It would be unethical to not and so I think part of this is we have to think about what does it mean to be a therapist, you know, it’s not always just a conversation sitting in an office. Not to say that that can’t be generative. It absolutely can. And I do that. But, you know, a lot of times doing the work of therapy for me, is it’s it’s community work. I’m out in the community. I’m not always in my office, right. Now, to the question that you’re bringing up, Katie, I’ll say we have to support one another. You know, there’s a young brother that I know and met him when I was in San Diego at San Diego State, Eric Anthony, and he’s working in the south side of Chicago now. And you know, just checking in with one another, and just going How are you doing man? Like, do you need anything? Because it’s hard right now in the South. I mean, it’s hard a lot of places, but it’s really hard there. It’s often hard there. I mean, he’s doing important work really hard right now. And so we owe it to one another to check in and just say, Hey, man, are you doing okay? Like, how can I stand in support of the work that you’re doing, you just need to talk, like, I’m here, I’m here for you to talk, right. And I just want you to know that. We have to, we have to support one another. And too often, I think therapy becomes this individual individualistic job, right? When really, the work Eric’s doing in Chicago and the work I’m doing in Denver and the works that my friends are doing in Los Angeles and other places, this is a broader community work, we’re connected and doing this work, right and, and what he’s doing is going to teach me about what I can do and what I’m doing is going to teach him about what he might do. And we can inform one another. And so I think providing that support in these moments is really important. And that can come in so many different forms. For me, it’s just, I just check up on my people. And I just see, like, what do you need? How are you doing? And you know what I’m fortunate, because they do the same for me. And that sustains me, because I’ll tell you, this last week or so has been exhausting. Like it’s exhausting to go protesting, and get flashbangs thrown at you and get tear gas thrown at you. When you have two hands in the air. And you’re not a threat to anyone, you know, like that’s exhausting. So, and not that everyone needs to protest, people just need to show up, show up in the way that you show up. Like I don’t, I can’t tell you how to show up. And it doesn’t have to be protesting. It’s there are lots of different ways to show up. But we can’t look, the only social media I have is Twitter. And to me, it’s just a free associative tool that I try to use to make people think or better said maybe to make them feel about things right and reconsider them. That’s how I use the tool. And that’s fine. Maybe that makes some difference if people reconsider things. But that’s not where the work is. The work’s out there in the world. And there’s many different ways that we can do it. Right. But I guess the last part and answering your question, Katie is we’ve got to show up in the ways that, like, this is a personal issue to me because of what happened to me when I was 16. So, you know, it’s personal. But even if it hadn’t happened to me personally, it’s an affront of my community. And when it’s an affront of my community, then it’s affront against me. Right? And that’s that sort of collectiveness that even in these moments of being exhausted is what sustains me is that I’m not doing this alone, right? I’m doing this collectively.
Curt Widhalm 39:57
Where can people find your Twitter, so that way they can free associate with you.
Dr. Travis Heath 40:05
Yeah, that was…
Katie Vernoy 40:05
And all the different places they might be able to connect with you.
Curt Widhalm 40:08
Dr. Travis Heath 40:09
Yeah. Well, that’s the only social media I have. So my social media is just DrTravisHeath. So doctor DrTravis Heath, so DrTravisHeath is my Twitter, I don’t have the Facebook or any of the rest of it. Twitter is good because I can get in and out. I mean, I guess you could scroll all day. But that seems like not a smart move. So I don’t do that. I just get in and out and just put whatever I’m thinking. So that’s a good place to maybe get in touch with like, some of my wild ideas. And then you know, you can always email me. So my email address is my last name, Heath, H-e-a-t-h and first initial t so Heath T at msudenver.edu. M as in Michael. So msudenver.edu. My email, it’s a little wild right now. So I’m pleased if I can be of service in some way or you’re interested or you want to critique what I’ve said, that’s fine, too. It just might take me a little while to get to you I’m a little a little backed up, I think, like everything going online, like my email was already a little bit of a disaster area. But now it’s, I’m a little behind. But I promise you I’m not blowing you off. If you email me, I will get back to you.
Curt Widhalm 41:16
And we’ll include links to Travis’s contact information and some of the references that he’s making in our show notes. You can find those at mtsgpodcast.com. While you’re over there, check out how we’re reimagining the Therapy Reimagined conference, we’re coming to some decisions on how that’s going to be playing out here in the next couple of weeks. So check out our website for the latest updates on that where we’re going to let Travis have the floor and bring all of these ideas out there in a little bit longer format. And please come and join us in whatever virtual way that you can. We’re saving those dates, September 25 and 26th. So, in till next time, I’m Curt Widhalm with Katie Vernoy and Dr. Travis Heath.
Katie Vernoy 42:03
Thanks again to our sponsor SimplePractice. The leading EHR platform for private practitioners everywhere.
Curt Widhalm 42:11
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Katie Vernoy 42:32
Make sure you check this out folks because I really love SimplePractice. It’s made my practice way easier. And if you can get a couple of months to check it out. I think it’ll be very, very helpful. Go to simplepractice.com/therapyreimagined to learn more.
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