Meet the Topic Experts: Jonathan Bartlett

jonathan-bartlett-topic-expert-0327137Jonathan Bartlett, the fifth contributor to be featured in our new “Meet the Topic Experts” column, has been providing his insight to The Good Therapy Blog since December 2010.

A professional psychotherapist for nearly a decade, Jonathan, who practices out of his office in Los Gatos, California, infuses experience as an elementary school teacher into his sessions with clients who are struggling with child behavioral or development issues. He also focuses on broader family and relationship concerns, a focus that dovetails nicely with his area of expertise on relational psychotherapy.

Jonathan’s articles are equal parts thoughtful and artful. Recommended readings include Adjusting to Uncertain Times: Shame, Dread, and Doubt, as well as pieces about entering fatherhood and the benefits of couples therapy.

We asked Jonathan 10 questions we hope will help readers, fellow therapists, and potential clients get to know him better, both as a person and as a therapist.

1. How did you come to choose a career in psychotherapy?

I started my career path as an elementary school teacher. Since most everything we know is learned by age 7, I found my classrooms to be a frontline for personal transformation, both for my students and for myself. Exhilarating and exhausting, I got the chance to rehash my own early experiences—confronting bullies, being a better ally to friends, nurturing hidden intelligences. As a few gray hairs accumulated and the desire to remain seated longer than two minutes grew, how could I not choose to pursue the same work with grown-ups?

2. Why relational psychotherapy in particular?

Growth is a mutual process. A relational approach allows me to disclose more of my participation in the growth of my clients. Developing an accurate diagnosis, treatment strategy, and assessments for increased adult functioning—these are necessary components of my profession and help lead the work. But let’s not forget the heart of healing. Human connection.

3. If you had to specialize in another area, what would it be? Why?

I’m excited now to be supervising therapist interns as they develop their own approach in the room. As therapists, we often ask our clients to unmask themselves but end up holding on to our own masks in the process (as maternal figures, academic experts, or dispassionate witnesses to pain). Good supervision allows us to examine the roles we play while treating others and experiment with alternatives. My most helpful supervisors have been those who practice very differently than I do yet gave me license to discover my own emerging competence. It feels good to pay that forward.

4. Do therapists take their work home with them?

I am touched rather deeply by my work. Though each session ends at the door as we say goodbye, it may take time to metabolize what has occurred. If my session with you stirs unfinished business within myself, you will undoubtedly appear in my dreams or I might catch myself ruminating about our interactions while walking my dog. Confidentiality is key to our ongoing work. Part of my responsibility to you then is to address my own uncertainties in consultation groups and/or personal therapy where I know that privacy will be respected. The other part of my responsibility is to maintain a satisfying, full life apart from my passion as a therapist.

5. What are some of your favorite hobbies or interests away from the office?

If I am in nature, I am happy. I like to romp.

6. What are some of the most common misconceptions about what you do?

I wonder about my own misconceptions regarding the importance of “therapeutic experience.” Am I getting better at what I do over time? My first reaction is a resounding yes. Familiarity with basic recurring patterns in relationships allows me to intervene and inquire more deeply into issues as they arise. Practiced attention to nonverbal signals allows me to provide more penetrating observations. Comfort with my role as therapist has allowed less second guessing and suffering over my own mistakes. It’s comforting to be with a man who is comfortable in his own skin. Yet who would I really want as my own therapist? A self-important old codger? Or a modest newbie willing to take some risks? It takes real humility to be available for authentic connection with a client. I wonder if experience and comfort in my shoes might eventually get in the way sometimes. I’m at my best when feeling like a beginner.

7. Have you ever come across a client you simply couldn’t help? Do you feel helpless in certain cases?

Backward steps happen. Capturing the sense of helplessness together and sharing the feelings and memories associated with it is a big part of what I do. Generally, even if treatment ends without a clear-cut resolution in place, I gain a sense that progress is underway. There are, of course, exceptions. People who suffer on the spectrum of borderline personality issues pose a specific challenge. Without a stable self-center, growthful interactions can occur without really touching them personally, and thus they can leave therapy feeling only further abandoned, isolated by the process. Identifying this level of wounding early on is so important. Personal growth can’t always occur within the context of a therapeutic relationship. For some, it takes a village approach. There are group treatment options within the dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) modality that work exceptionally well in these cases.

8. Who or what has shaped your approach as a psychotherapist?

There are some teachings which will take me a lifetime to digest. Specifically, the works of James Bugental and Martin Buber.

9. Have you ever felt threatened, fearful, or endangered during a therapy session? If so, what was that like? How did you react?

With clients who have a history of violence, I take a very slow, safety-first, approach that has kept levels of pure aggression from dominating the room. With safety established, role plays can be used effectively to visit fearful circumstances without having them take over. (An ounce of prevention has been worth a pound of cure.) With other “nonviolent” clients, I have certainly been blindsided by shadow in the room. A client may suddenly expose intense levels of hurt, despair, or rage that neither of us might have anticipated. A slow-motion camera would show that my initial autonomic reactions are to freeze. My eyes will then go from witnessing the event taking place for the client to a safe spot above or below them. From there, I can access other states available to us in the room. The principal of Ahimsa (harmlessness) as taught and modeled by Gandhi is an energy that I can actually draw from at times of crisis. Saying no to the intent to do harm exposed in a client can be an extremely connecting experience. To see this in action, I highly recommend the 1982 film Gandhi. It was a life changer for me.

10. World peace and good mental health aside, what causes or dreams do you champion as a person?

See answer to question No. 9.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rob Wieman, Managing Editor

  • Leave a Comment
  • Leroy

    March 27th, 2013 at 11:36 PM

    I always wondered how professionals in fields like psychology handle taking their work home.It must be intense to be lost in what happened in the therapy room even outside,isnt it?How do you manage to space out those things when you have to? I have trouble doing that and I am barely doing anything as intense as providing someone therapy!

  • M. B.

    March 28th, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    I like Jon’s post about uncertain times and the metaphor about getting lost in the woods. I shared that with my family who were going through a bad bad time.

  • Micki

    March 28th, 2013 at 2:15 PM

    So important to put someone at ease who has suffered from violence and abuse.
    I feel like a lot of times those who have been through this are so uncertain about therapy because they are afraid of the violent past that it will bring up and will cause them to relive that feeling of being threatened all over again.
    I think that any patient of yours will appreciate the slower is better approach that you take with them and that they will automatically see that you are doing this with compassion for them.

  • jayden

    April 1st, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    I would think that patients and families would find it very comforting to know that you were a classroom teacher because this really gives you a very good view of the things that kids today are struggling with.

    I know that as a parent I would want that expertise from someone who has dealth with those challenges head on rather than just reading about them in a book. It is nice to talk with someone who has witnessed first hand the battles that some of these children are facing and has developed things that the families can do together to fight them.

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