Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Lonely Italian

No, I haven't been watching too many episodes of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (RHNJ). I've been too busy working on my self-torture project known as graduate school qualifying exam. What these two things, RHNJ and grad school in clinical psychology, have in common is that they are excellent examples of the how culture often shapes our thoughts and behaviors. Is this a MacArthur Genius Award-worthy idea? Most definitely not. It just helped me make sense of the fact that I am the only person of Italian decent in my program.

One day in our group supervision, a few classmates of mine were discussing a family case they were working with. They showed the session video, which had captured a mother and teen-aged daughter speaking loudly at the same time while waving their hands around. Our wonderfully insightful and incredibly supportive supervisor made a keen observation: this family talks very loudly and often over each other. Other families, apparently, were more quiet and subdued, often sitting in silence and taking turns to insult each other rather than interrupt, all of which is totally odd, in my opinion (Why? You'll see.) Then, my classmate says: Well, they're Greek. Aha! That's the diagnosis for poor communication skills, being Greek. Then said supervisor asks: Is this cultural? It's like Italians. Do we have any Italians here? All eyes turn to me, the daughter of Italian (pop) and Ecuadorian (mama) parents. Also, what makes me even more of an authority on all things Italian is that I'm a native New Yorker. I'm practically the Dhali Llama of Italian-American culture.*

What could I have done with this? At first, I sat there stunned with eyes wide open (not unlike those flashed by Dina or Caroline when there's been an "attack" on the famiglia). This is when I realized that I was the only person in the room with any sort of Italian descent. One could imagine this being a very strange moment for someone who grew up in a predominantly Italian/Irish area of New York where it was weird if you weren't Italian--instead of Smiths and Williamses, we had Cusomanos, Pagliucas and DiFazios. I also realized that I don't know any other Italian-American in Los Angeles, except for my husband's friend who's a self-identified "pizza-bagel," an Italian-Jewish hybrid from Boston. That doesn't count.

I asked myself: Are Italians loud? Some do of course speak at elevated volumes, myself and my immediate family included. My Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn is not loud, in fact, they are Mario-Puzo's-The-Godfather quite. All you'll hear from them is a low, scratchy whisper, at best. Unless you piss them off, then watch out. OK, so we're loud. Fine.

So, I responded: Did you just ask me if Italians are loud? (laughing) I suppose some are. Let's face it, I'm a little loud, for a therapist at least. How is this relevant to Greeks? Actually, what I think we should be asking ourselves is how this style of communication, marked by conflicting shows of power, interferes with their relationship? For one thing, this Italian (pointing to myself) often feels like it's so hard to be heard in this context, that you have to ramp up the volume. (Yeah, nice, right? Well, I could have just flipped the table on them.)

After this, I started to think about my therapeutic style: tons of empathy punctuated with playful challenging that I fondly refer to as "gentle-tough-love." I find that this approach help me build rapport quickly and gets my clients to let their guard down. Do I get this from my Italian culture? Maybe. Then there's the volume issue. I am louder than other colleagues, who have a distinct "therapy voice." It's softer that the "indoor voice" and much more annoying. Frankly, I hate when I'm spoken to that way in therapy. As a friend once told me: You like to keep it real. And I do.

My clinical evaluations from supervisors often say that clients appear to feel heard and comfortable with me. Maybe, because of my history of decibel-driven power struggles growing up, I know how important that can be for someone. I also don't let my clients off easy. I'm also like this with my classmates, albeit with much less tough love. I just think it's interesting how culture can shape my therapeutic style. Culturally-matching therapist and clients have been debated in the field and it's kind of a mixed bag of findings with regards to it's benefits or costs. What's interesting to me is that I often get contacted by other therapists trying to refer difficult clients. Maybe, the true "culture" here is just that neither the client or I take BS lightly. If that's a cultural match, so be it!
Now, geddouta hea!

*This just happen to be the PhDini being minister of all things Italian. Most other days, I'm the minister of all things "Latino." I'm very important and influencial.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What a therapist thinks about....

I've noticed that people are often curious about what therapists think about during sessions...or outside of sessions, for that matter. To sate this craving, I'll start posting random therapists' thoughts...enjoy.

Facing the music...

OK, I lied about writing regularly. I admit it. I'm a dirty liar. I sit in an over-sized arm chair of lies. In the spirit of forgiveness and acceptance, here I am.