Today I’m interviewing Pearl Waldorf. Pearl is a somatic and attachment-oriented, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Certified Group Psychotherapist (CGP). She graduated from the California Institute of Integral Studies: a program which holds – as she does – the human, meaning-seeking journey as central to individual emotional well-being.
Pearl has been running a wide range of therapeutic groups since 2012. Several years ago, she recruited some of the city’s hidden experts in the field and other practitioners passionate about group to build the local training opportunity she felt Portland deserved: an affordable, self-led training group. Pearl continues to train at The Center for Group Studies in Manhattan.
You can learn more about Pearl and her offerings at https://www.pearlwaldorf.com/
We talk here about Pearl’s motivations for specializing in group work, the modern analytic approach, the variety of ways one can structure group offerings, the challenges of recruiting, solo facilitation versus co-facilitation, and the self-led training group that Pearl built from the ground up.
The following resources and practitioners were mentioned in the interview:
- American Group Psychotherapy Association
- Ellen Wright, Matt Modrcin, Anna Schaum, Cindy Aron Miller, Jim O’Hern
Ryan: Welcome, Pearl. Thanks for being here with me and for talking about your experience with group work.
Pearl: It’s a pleasure, Ryan. Any chance I get to talk about group, I enjoy it and it’s really fun to connect with you too.
Ryan: Great. Well, I will have recorded a separate intro just saying a little bit about you, but why don’t we start there. Can you tell anyone who might be listening just a little bit more about your background, about who you are?
Pearl: Yeah, I’m in private practice in Northeast Portland. I’ve been practicing there for about eight years now, so since 2012. I do a lot of attachment oriented work both with individuals and in group settings. And I’m passionate about thinking about the body, the brain, and our physiological systems as much of a part of our healing process as our thinking minds. I think that’s a big piece of what I feel passionate about.
Ryan: Yeah. And so 2012 – I must have met you in 2013 when I was doing my internship at M.E.T.A. as a graduate student. And so you were probably just in the early parts of your practice and you were working in the same building as the clinic?
Pearl: That’s correct, yes. You know, we both have that history together. M.E.T.A. – the Hakomi and attachment orientation from over there has been a big piece of what informs my work for sure.
Ryan: Yeah. And it makes me wonder, you did your internship there also, so was that your first opportunity to run a group, with M.E.T.A.? Because that’s a part of the internship experience. At least it was for me.
Pearl: Yes. Yes, as a matter of fact. That was my first group experience. I ran a group for creatives, which was a wonderful, wonderful experience – and a little bit of an improvisation, you know. But I got to bring in my background in the arts and incorporate that into my work, you know, as an intern there
Ryan: And then it seemed like it took a few years, but you really started getting more and more passionate about it, and then really just dove into trainings in New York, and you had the self-led group, which I hope we can talk about a little bit more later.
Pearl: Absolutely. Yeah.
Ryan: What happened in those interim years, where you were starting to build some interest, and starting to think about training? I’m just wondering what motivated you to have this become such a central piece of what you do?
Pearl: Oh, it’s such a good question. I mean, I think with my background in teaching and my background in the arts, I’ve always worked in groups. You know, the shift for me has been from running more psychoeducational groups, or groups on a particular topic, or to build particular skills from that kind of a group, to more of a process-orientation. And the big change for me was actually attending the American Group Psychotherapy Association’s yearly conference. And for anyone that is excited about group, I really recommend participating in that.
Ryan: Why do you say so?
Pearl: Why? Well, they do this – the thing that really grabbed me was what they call the Institute Experience. And basically, it’s an immersive process group run by an expert group therapist. And they offer, you know, the kind of groups that I run, very classic process-oriented groups; they offer groups that are maybe more expressive arts-oriented. But these are two-day group experiences where you’re just immersed with one leader and you get a feeling for, you know, what it feels like to be in a more ongoing group process. So my experience there just jazzed me. You know, and I did some group work as a graduate student when I attended the California Institute of Integral Studies and those experiences were incredibly challenging. You know, group is not for the faint of heart, but for anyone who is excited by engaging with other humans and understanding how I work and how others work and how we can all connect, process groups are just one of the most exciting ways to learn more about that.
Ryan: Super interesting. So you got a taste of that just by doing it in such an intensive or accelerated way.
Ryan: You decided you were going to make this a bigger part of your –
Pearl: Absolutely. Yeah. So I attended that conference for a number of years. And through that conference, I learned about the model of group therapy that I am trained in and that I continue to train in, which is called modern analytic. It’s very interesting to me that, you know, I am trained in this orientation that’s sort of rooted in Freudian psychotherapy. But it’s so interesting because I realize that my experience of doing my internship at M.E.T.A. and learning about the body and – really for me, coming into my body through that experience – I recognize how this modern version of the analytic form is incredibly experiential. It’s all about being in our experience and feeling our feelings and recognizing what we’re feeling and being able to express it. And I imagine if I hadn’t had that somatic training, it might be all in my head. So I feel very lucky that I kind of went the route that I did.
Ryan: Right. And so M.E.T.A. is all about experiential work, but it sounds like there’s something different about modern analytic that you would differentiate from that type of work that’s being taught at M.E.T.A. What is it that you would say is really different?
Pearl: From my perspective, one of the biggest differences between the analytic orientation and the Hakomi orientation is the way that the therapist does the work with the clients. So, I took a training with some Hakomi-trained therapists on group process. And what I noticed was that it was, in my opinion, quite leader-centric: the leader is the facilitator of the experiences. And what I love about the modern analytic approach is that when I’m doing my job well, I’m really just sitting back and supporting the members to do the work together. There’s a lot about agency that I think is really emphasized in modern analytic work. And again, I think it’s a little more challenging in a certain way as a client. You know, it requires each of us as clients – and I’ve been a client in groups, I’ve been a trainee in groups – but it requires me to take some responsibility for my experience. And I think that what’s drawn me to this form is that the change that I see is really deep-seated. Because ultimately, I am finding my way to changes within myself. It’s nobody else that’s facilitating that for me. And that’s, to me, one of the big differences.
Ryan: Yeah, well said. So I want to make sure that we talk a little bit about how groups are structured, also, for folks that are listening that want to learn about different ways that they might norm groups as they start working with their members, and even before the group begins. So I wonder – is that something that you’re really working in the early stages of group to norm for members – that this is the way this type of group works?
Pearl: Yes, I think that’s a really key piece of any group and there are so many different ways. You know, my orientation is particular. I have colleagues in town that run groups in this particular way, but there are so many different ways to structure your group. And I think one of the most important things that a group leader can do – both in terms of creating a container where really good work can happen and also in terms of having success with bringing people into the group, you know, like filling your groups – is to be really clear about what you’re trying to achieve, right?
So with my groups, I am trying to achieve an experience for people where they’re learning about how they relate to others, and they’re learning to express what they feel with others, and they’re learning to connect, and they’re learning to individuate as well. Some of my groups in the past have been much more psychoeducational or skill-based. So I’ve made that clear and set up different structures along the way through the group process to support people to get what I’m trying to achieve from that.
Ryan: In the more process-oriented group, though, you’re outlining that vision that ultimately you want them to be the ones with the agency and really leading the process, and that you’re there to support that, but not to manage it too much?
Pearl: That’s right. And I’m – although I’m not managing it, I am keeping track of rupture and being sure to facilitate repair when that’s necessary. It’s not – we want people to feel reasonably safe even though the setting is challenging.
Ryan: Okay. I’m just thinking about over the years, you know, I’m on your mailing list, I visit your website sometimes, I’ve seen your flyers in my building – you’ve had a lot of offerings over time! And that’s part of what you’re naming – is that you’ve had different types of groups. I sometimes lose track a little bit. Is Pearl running long-term groups, is she running short-term groups? Are they open to members at any time? Do you try and close them up so that your cohort is building that container with one another? So, can you talk a little bit about how you make those decisions?
Pearl: Yeah. Well, you know, talking about that in terms of building my group practice, I think what you’re speaking to, Ryan, is really what I call in my business terminology, throwing spaghetti at a wall. I’m a very creative person and I have a lot of different passions. I think a lot of what people were seeing out there from me were work-related offerings, creativity-related offerings. And so I was sort of putting one-off offerings out there and seeing, you know, what were people excited about, what were people interested in?
Then I started to offer one-off offerings that were all on a particular topic – or not exactly a topic, but all in a particular theme that I would offer once a month. So in a way, what I did was … I started really, really small and then I started to expand what I was offering to see what kind of interest I had. And from there, what I’ve been doing is … I’ve been offering short-term groups, you know, anywhere from eight to twelve weeks within the process orientation, but with a little bit more support. And those are kind of funnels that bring people into my practice. They get an experience of me as a group leader and, from there, some of those folks will move into my ongoing groups.
Ryan: So you do both?
Ryan: Okay. And, help people understand: why the difference? Why would you choose to do a longer-term ongoing group versus an eight-week or a twelve-week offering?
Pearl: Yeah. Let’s see. I’ll start by saying that there’s a very particular thing that happens when you can build a closed group of individuals who are committed to group as a therapy method, right? So that’s what I do, I run group therapy offerings and they’re ongoing. So, some of my clients will come in and see me as an individual therapist, and they will see me for individual work for a period of time. And then I might say, “Hey, I think group could be a good setting for you to continue to work on what you’re working on.”
And from there, putting together a group of people that are going to come in with their stuff, whatever it is that they’re working on – in some ways, like they might do in individual therapy – in an ongoing setting, creates a bond where basically you’ve got a whole group of people who are committed to supporting each member’s therapeutic process and to learning about that. That’s harder to create in a short-term situation. And honestly, from my perspective, when we do a shorter-term group, we’re really thinking about outcomes – specific outcomes more. And so what I do with my short-term groups is I help my group members think about what they want to work on for the period of time. And from there, you know, we track it together and see how it comes together.
Ryan: Yeah, whereas in a longer-term group, you’re much more open, I’d say, to it evolving over time into different sets of outcomes and different focuses along the way.
Ryan: Cool. So, I want to ask also, I ran a process group for four years. You know about that. And I always co-facilitated that group. I found that to be so rich, to have another person that I was working with – her name was Jeannie Songer. And the opportunity to debrief afterward, the chance to just split up all of the responsibilities that come along with putting a group together and making it go. And just the experience of being able to see another therapist at work, which I feel is so rare in our field because of privacy. It seems like you’ve largely chosen to do this on your own and I wanted to ask about that choice.
Pearl: Yes. From my perspective, running a group with someone else is, in some ways, more challenging than running a group by yourself. When I’m by myself, I’m in charge, I don’t have to worry about what somebody else is thinking about or needing or wanting. You’re absolutely right, I don’t get the feedback and I don’t have the opportunity to consult specifically with others – with someone else – as the group is unfolding. I try to do that outside of the group setting, which requires me to be able to share what’s going on, and I only have my perspective on that. And I find the dynamics of the group leaders to be complex. And in order to create an atmosphere that feels – I don’t know, safe maybe? – I’m not totally sure how to put that part into words.
But maybe you know a little bit about what I mean, where you don’t always know where your other person is coming from. I think a great way to run a group with someone else is to be with someone who’s a mentor, someone who is in the power position, who is the leader, and who I am sort of learning from by observing them. Two people who have, really, possibly very different orientations to a group experience working together, it requires a lot of consultation and a lot of attending to just the unconscious material that’s showing up there.
I’m thinking about it now, having run groups on my own for a period of time – I’m thinking, you know, is there somebody out there that I might like to team up with? I think that I needed to get clear about who I am as a group leader, and not being clear about who I am as a group leader and bringing that into, you know, interaction with another group leader, for me, I think it’s confusing.
Ryan: Right. Let’s just talk a little bit about marketing and recruiting. I found that to be a really challenging aspect of running groups. Mine was long-term, ongoing, we got commitments from people up front to be there for at least six months, but nonetheless there was – it seemed like we were always having to reach out to colleagues to try and recruit new members. And then even when people would get in touch with us, it was often questionable about whether they would fit with the rest of the group. And it was a whole other process that Jeannie and I had to manage on an ongoing basis. So, how are you doing that and how is it going?
Pearl: Yeah. Well, I think what you’re speaking to is a culture in Portland that, for the most part, sees therapy as an individual process, right? And so it’s kind of an educational bit to be able to help clients understand when a group might be a good fit for them, a good place for them to do whatever work it is that they are looking to do. So, just to be frank about it, a lot of my group members started as individual clients of mine. So, in a way, that process of filling groups from the external population, that has been a huge challenge for me as well. And every group leader in Portland that I speak to has the same challenge. My motivation is to support the community to understand more about how group can be helpful.
My methodology has been to just keep putting myself out there, keep naming myself as someone who people can come to around what group is about. You know, I’ve recently gotten certified as a Group Psychotherapist and I just keep putting out there what it is that I’m doing. And I have a number of therapists now who do refer clients to me and that has been a long-term journey. I think if I were to offer any kind of advice, it’s like: hang in there! If you’re passionate about group, it’s going to take you some time to earn the community’s trust as someone who offers groups that are of value to their clients.
Now, the other piece of that is just that – marketing to the population at large – I still haven’t figured that one out. It’s a very, very challenging task. I think it’s questionable, you know, I’m still trying to find the balance between remembering that I have something really valuable to offer and that it’s important that people know about it and coming across as a business proposition … therapy coming across as a business proposition. So it’s a balance.
Ryan: Yeah. So it sounds like colleagues, you know, as you’ve become more and more known as somebody who’s really passionate about group, have been willing to send folks your way. But in the early part of running groups – and still, even – it sounds like you look within your practice of people that you’re working with individually, especially because you have a perspective on how group might be really helpful to them.
Pearl: Yeah. And right now I’m just about to start a short-term group that is folks from – it’s a mix. Some people are from my practice and a majority of the members are not from my practice. And I would say maybe half of those have come from other therapists’ referrals, and then just a sprinkling of folks have found their way to me through their own searches a lot of times around the specialization that I provide.
Ryan: Well, maybe in the last few minutes, you referenced this just a moment ago, but you, a few years ago, got a self-led group going. That was a project that brought in other people that were interested in leading groups, as well as trainers, and together you all got practice facilitating and you also got the benefit of learning from these more experienced group facilitators. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. And it seems like, you know, that’s very much in line with your mission of building more of a community and culture around group therapy. So maybe for folks listening in other parts of the country, this could be useful for them as well, if they want to build more of a community around group.
Pearl: Yeah. I mean I was inspired by communities in other parts of the country, so if I were ever able to inspire others from different places in the country that have, you know, that are trying to figure out how to connect around group, I would love that! Basically, I did a lot of my initial training in group outside of Portland. I have been involved with a local trainer, a trainer who travels from the East Coast and who comes to Portland. Her name is Ellen Wright. She’s a modern analytic group psychotherapist and I knew that was the work that I wanted to do, so I’ve been working with her. But it was a small group of folks in town, many of whom are running groups and some of whom are really just participating because the process is rich. And it’s a wonderful process for therapists in general, just to do our own sorting of like what’s my stuff and how do I clear it out of the process of my work with my clients.
The self-led group came out of a desire for more immersion in group training, and that I really wasn’t able to find a lot of group offerings. There are a few practitioners in Portland that have offered things here and there, and I started to contact those folks. Matt Modrcin, Anna Schaum, Cindy Aron Miller – these are all folks that are running groups themselves and who were able to provide training for myself and these colleagues that I pulled together. I pulled everybody together because I wanted training that was local and all of us benefited from that. It was a really wonderful process. We traded off leadership a number of times a year and then three times a year we would have trainers come in and work with us.
Ryan: I was in touch with a number of people that were part of that group and I know they all really valued it a lot.
Pearl: Yeah, It’s been wonderful and we continue to work together. And this year, we’re actually working with a colleague of mine. His name is Jim O’Hern. He is a modern analytics psychotherapist and he’s leading our group a few times this year. So it’s very exciting.
Ryan: Awesome. Anything else that you want to say or that maybe we haven’t touched since we have to wrap up here?
Pearl: I think what I’ve learned about myself through my passion and fascination with group is that group is incredibly dynamic and there’s so much material that’s kind of percolating in a room with five to ten clients, right? Part of what excites me about the work is the aliveness that comes from these connections being made. And what I find is that when my groups are running well, my clients in the room are making connections to the things that trouble them in their lives. And change happens that way in the moment. That’s my job. My job is to point out: here’s what’s happening! Can you see how this relates to what you’re struggling with!? And it’s exciting and it’s – I love the way group members come together and support each other. And that doesn’t always look like – it doesn’t always look like we think support looks. Sometimes it looks like conflict, but with the right framing, I have found that it’s just a very exciting way to do healing and change work.
Ryan: I don’t know if we’ll end up publishing a video of this conversation, but the aliveness and the excitement is so visible and just comes through as you talk about it. It’s really sweet to get to chat with you again and just to hear your insights. It’s really inspiring, just everything that you’ve done.