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Meet Matthew Silverstein, Ph.D. of Integrative Psychology West Hollywood

Today we’d like to introduce you to Matthew Silverstein, Ph.D.

Matthew, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I have been training, teaching, and practicing within the field of clinical psychology a little over twenty years. I came to this work initially as a client of psychotherapy with no intention of becoming a professional psychologist. Eventually, I realized that I felt a calling to this work, and I gradually put aside a first career as a theater director, as I moved into years of training in the field. I saw psychology as a kind of inner theater, and that in some ways I was really continuing to pursue many of the same areas of interest that drew me to the theater–the healing power of life stories, the value of seeing beneath the surface, and the intention to find harmony in the madness of everyday life.

I arrived at a hybrid approach to clinical psychology that brings together different aspects of my life experience and training informed by principles of (1) social justice understood as diversity consciousness, (2) contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy or depth psychology, and (3) classical Buddhist informed meditation practices or applied mindfulness. I have had the good fortune as a faculty member to develop and now direct a specialized training program within the graduate psychology department at Antioch University, Los Angeles in Spiritual and Depth Psychology, which is built on these three core elements. I can share briefly how I came to each of these threads and how they weave together in my work.

Diversity consciousness is the process of bringing greater awareness and insight into the many, if not infinite ways, that being human can be expressed. I was first introduced to psychotherapy as a young man in my twenties when I was struggling with coming out as gay. I grew up very closeted, even within a liberal Jewish family setting. When I was a child, before Ellen, Glee, or Ru Paul’s Drag Race were on national television, before the internet, and when being homosexual was still medically considered an “illness,” I learned early on to keep that part of myself hidden and to feel very ashamed of my homosexuality and gender (as a third gender, or gender nonconforming male). The closet is a miserable place to grow up in, and even though I was pretty well adapted as a young adult, I was often anxious, and I harbored emotional problems I was not aware of.

I lived in New York City at that time exploring the possibility of being an experimental theater director. Though fearful of what I would encounter, I realized that I was ready to reach out for professional help. I lucked out and found a therapist through New York University’s post-graduate clinic who listened to me quietly and attentively in a way that I found surprisingly helpful. That period was also when the AIDS epidemic began to escalate in full force, and my worries and misunderstandings about being gay were fueled by the nightmare that was decimating gay and other vulnerable communities around the world. Having a therapist who could bear witness to this personal and community wide devastation and help me navigate a way ahead was a gift. If I had ended up with a therapist who did not understand gay identity or the reality of AIDS, who may have judged me or cast aspersions upon the gay community –yes, this did and still does happen– I might easily have been injured by the therapy itself. These early experiences as a psychotherapy client along with my sensitization to unrelenting racism, misogyny, economic and environmental injustice brought to light through grassroots community work and professional training helped to mobilize my own interests in cultivating diversity consciousness along with an intentionally LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) affirmative stance in my professional work both clinically and academically.

Depth psychology is the psychology of the unconscious and is based on some of the key principles put forward by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung almost a century ago. I personally have resonated and responded most to therapies which included specific focus on linking past relationship patterns to the present. Less than a trip down memory lane, this form of therapy helps to access living, presently felt memories still operating, even if unconsciously, from the formative stages of life, or from even older intergenerational or ancestral memories. Unchecked disturbing memories may impair current ability to function in certain areas, and tending to these unresolved issues can help to reduce their disturbance and interference in the present. Furthermore, energy that has been siphoned off into coping with the past can be freed up and put to use in one’s life more creatively and efficiently.

The psychoanalytic (depth) movement developed partly as a response to the growing epidemic of violence witnessed in Europe through the World Wars. Freud wondered why individuals and nations may be compelled to repeat behaviors that are harmful and self-defeating. (A hundred years later this question still hangs in the air!) He theorized early in his career that mental health problems could be linked to trauma, such as “combat fatigue” (what we call PTSD today), and significantly he also saw that sexual abuse in childhood often led to emotional fragility in his adult patients. Freud saw that his patients were improving through the “cure” of being able to talk through these difficult memories. Though Freud later changed his theory of sexual trauma coming under fire from his medical colleagues for implying that sexual abuse was so prevalent, he can still be credited with bringing the epidemic of sexual trauma into the public arena.

Carl Jung’s significant contribution to Freud’s legacy includes the premise that the personality is organized around a spiritual center. This spiritual center, according to a Jungian view, is very personal, yet also contains tribal, cultural, and global levels. Being in an active relationship to this dimension of oneself enhances a sense of being aligned with one’s life purpose, the unique meaning and sacredness of one’s life journey, and furthermore the significance of all life. Disconnection from this center can lead to self-alienation, dis-ease, and social unrest. Many wisdom traditions point to the importance of the awareness of our basic inter-connectedness, however, Jung may have been among the first within the realm of modern science to highlight the psychological value of this ancient wisdom. In fact Jung was ridiculed for taking this position, and spent most of his career trying to validate his claim that spiritual health was intrinsic to mental health.

I should note that depth oriented therapy since its inception has evolved in its understanding of LGBTQ identities. Thanks in part to the heroic efforts of pioneering psychoanalysts like Richard Isay, who wrote Being Homosexual in 1989, the field is arguably one of the frontiers of the LGBTQ liberation movement. LGBTQ affirming depth oriented therapy can help to dismantle toxic and maladaptive explanations of gender and sexual diversity opening the way to more life sustaining, timeless, and empowering insights into one’s evolving nature. Furthermore, there have been advances toward a multicultural depth informed psychology–naming and moving beyond problematic White/European-based cultural biases in the theory and research. This movement is particularly critical as a way of directing attention to systems of oppression beyond the narrower framework of childhood and the nuclear family. For example, I am very appreciative of the groundbreaking work of Dr. Joy DeGruy. She has identified a “post-traumatic slave syndrome” helping to identify and address the cumulative impact of generations of institutionalized slavery and racism on the psychological health of many African Americans.

Applied Mindfulness–During the heart of the AIDS epidemic when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and frightened (and living in Los Angeles at this point), I found my way up to Zen Mountain Center in Idyllwild, California, where a kindly monk taught me about Zen meditation. Almost immediately, I felt a reduction of my anxiety and a heightened sensitivity to the environment such as the angle of the sunlight in the room, the hissing of the wind in the trees. Feeling more at peace, I noticed that this quality could be cultivated for longer periods of time through continued meditation. In fact, the effect of well-being grew stronger with time. I sought out formal training in Zen. I also started formally learning Tai Chi Chuan, a martial art, about this same time. Tai Chi, as moving Zen, helped me embody and energize my meditation practice. Eventually, I also studied a clinical formulation of classical meditation along with elements of modern cognitive behavioral therapy called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, which I now use regularly in my clinical work.

Even within the last fifteen years since I have been formally studying applied mindfulness, research and popular interest in this area has been skyrocketing. Along with that increased interest has also come wide ranging ideas about what exactly mindfulness is. Does it mean to quietly relax or check out? The classical use of this term within Buddhist tradition refers to the act of remembering, however it has a specific context, namely in attending both in a focused and spacious manner to the moment to moment experiences of one’s mental life including thoughts, feelings, and various physical sensations. Mindfulness also refers to techniques of discerning adaptive and maladaptive mental processes. Within a Buddhist context the practice of mindfulness, while understood as having health benefits, is a means to “enlightenment,” a gradual or sudden realization of the intrinsic oneness or non-dual nature of the universe. This level of mindfulness is normally beyond the scope of secular clinical psychology, however, my work can help support those with a formal meditation practice by helping to resolve hindrances that can arise along the way. Mindfulness, as it is used for mental health, may also focus on symptom reduction, namely in the benefits that come with building up the “muscle” of attention to more effectively notice what the mind is focusing on in any given moment. For example, in the face of anxiety, the mind may be focusing on frightening thoughts about the future and the body may tense up quite habitually, eventually this mental (mind/body) habit can be recognized, and attention can be continually redirected toward present time experiences that are neutral or pleasant, such as focusing on the breath. Recent research is showing that applying mindfulness in combination with cognitive therapy can help reduce depression, anxiety, and relapse to addictions.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
In a way my training as a psychologist has been very conventional. I completed my degree programs, internships, and board exams in a relatively smooth way. However, my path on the journey of self-discovery through inner work, research, and various forms of psychotherapy has naturally been long and winding, and, I admit I felt at times frustrated, confused, and hopeless. I was (and still am) continually challenged to face and come to know myself more fully. Along the way self-knowledge can be felt as jarring, surprising, and disorienting. Carl Jung speaks of this “confrontation with the unconscious” as a necessary and inevitable step (or series of phases) in the process of becoming a more fully developed person, i.e. of becoming “individuated.” This experience of facing the vast abyss within oneself, the seemingly endless labyrinth of hidden problems, the wildness of the psyche, is rarely a smooth or predictable ride; certainly it was not for me. Eventually for anyone who seeks out the journey of depth oriented therapy it is best to be prepared to meet their own “shadow.” The Sufi poet, Rumi, offers the best advice for facing this shadow or the hidden aspects of ourselves: “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” (From Guest House)

Personally, one of the more difficult aspects of my own shadow I have faced may be the shame and aftereffects of my early life in the closet. The ghost of this closeted past life haunted me throughout my training, and yet the gift in meeting this “demon” included learning about LGBTQ history, culture, and psychology, which ended up being life changing, empowering, and helped to shape the direction of my professional work.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Integrative Psychology West Hollywood – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
For about eight years (2003-2011) I worked on an interdisciplinary team at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Hospital. During that time, I had a kind of conversion experience, professionally speaking, in part based on my work with a veteran psychiatric nurse. I began to more fully realize the extent to which psychological trauma often underscores a wide spectrum of issues–depression, anxiety, insomnia, addiction, family problems, oppression illness, and of course post-traumatic stress disorders. Perhaps I was circling back to Freud’s trauma theory discovering its validity for myself. Since Freud there have also been quantum leaps in our understanding of trauma (work by Judith Hermann, Peter Levine, and Bessel Van Der Kolk are great resources). Increasingly, my clinical work has become trauma informed, and I have been motivated to learn about and integrate any form of therapy into my clinical work that would help me most effectively respond to what I and many see as an epidemic of psychological trauma.

Many people do not necessarily think of themselves as having been traumatized and do not want to, which is understandable. I think this is partly because there is stigma about admitting traumatic stress, which may be seen as a weakness. However, I prefer to speak about trauma as a way of normalizing the body and mind’s efforts to try to resolve past injury. Sometimes a car accident or a bad fight can just be shaken off. Sometimes the effects of a troubling event can last for months or years afterward. These aftereffects may take the form of coping methods that are put into place to help manage the distress. This may mean turning to one’s addiction of choice, trying to be the “best boy/girl in the world,” being highly self-critical, socially withdrawing, bullying, or emotionally shutting down. Any and all of these behaviors are actually clever forms of coping. As trauma expert, Dr. John Briere, states, “anyone who had experienced the same circumstances would behave similarly.” I believe that this attitude toward trauma and trauma recovery helps to build empathy and a deep well of understanding. Too often trauma survivors are further hurt by rampant misunderstanding of their post-traumatic syndromes. There are “T” Traumas, such as major life crises, childhood abuse, sexual abuse, oppression, a painful break up, and serious loss of health, and there are “t” traumas, such as daily hassles, stress, micro-aggressions (daily encounters with racism, transphobia, etc.). Whether large or small traumatic stress–any stress that leads to feeling chronically overwhelmed or disconnected, persistently ashamed, afraid, or angry–would normally be helped by remediation to prevent further injury in the form of retraumatization.

The integrative psychological approach that I offer is organized around the goals of stabilization, trauma recovery, and the fostering of the transformations that may occur through the phenomena of post-traumatic growth–such as insights, learning, and positive new directions. From an LGBTQ perspective it is critical to understand the cumulative effects of trauma that impact many of us and to de-link this traumatic material from the misguided suggestion that traumatic life events cause sexual or gender variance. If anything, my experience suggests that as traumatic material is resolved, sexual and gender expression are more fully liberated and mental health more fully restored.

Maybe it would be helpful to speak a little bit about what happens in an actual therapy session. Basically I see therapy as a workshop for clients to better understand their mental life and to learn about techniques that can help improve their quality of life. Clients normally set the agenda based on whatever is most pressing for them. Sometimes we focus upon present day coping, professional growth, sexuality or intimate relationships. Or we might explore night dreams, creative projects, social justice issues, or world events. At other times, we might focus on clearing out historic patterns that interfere with present day well-being. Sometimes we may just sit quietly for a few moments or meditate together. I draw from all of the perspectives I have been discussing based on what’s needed: depth psychology provides an excellent means of accessing historic personal and cultural trauma, cognitive therapy, applied mindfulness and other research based strategies such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing) can provide skills and methods of coping with and helping to resolve traumatic reactivation.

Thankfully, most of the people who have worked with me over time do report improvements in their lives including symptom reduction, increased self-appreciation, stabilized and enhanced relationships, strengthened addiction recovery, as well as professional and spiritual development (feeling more anchored in their life purpose). That said, sometimes I can’t be as helpful as I would like to be, and this continually presses me to keep expanding my tool kit and mindset. Clients may be assured that I will affirm and honor their cultural, gender, and sexual identities, and that I will acknowledge the harsh realities of growing up in a racist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic society. I also endeavor as best as I can to keep it real, remain flexible, own my own limitations and mistakes, to be of service, and to keep continually learning.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
Current frontiers in my work include the use of neurotherapy as an adjunctive treatment supporting optimal brain and cognitive performance. Neurotherapy includes neurofeedback, which is a form of biofeedback for the brain, as well as a separate technique utilizing very low levels of electrical stimulation applied to the brain. This physiologically based clinical psychology technique, which is incorporating advances in neuroscience, holds tremendous promise, and research is mounting supporting its benefits. At the moment, I am treating myself under supervision, as a step toward becoming certified in this area (see photo with coils on my head…). I am also nearing certification in EMDR therapy, as well as in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

In my teaching work I am joining forces with a handful of others who are adamant about moving depth psychology toward a 21st century multicultural paradigm. What this means is that, for example in light of systemic racism and aggression toward the earth itself, which is being so vividly portrayed in the present national political scene, depth psychology may be a helpful agent of change, bringing insight within the political arena (through psychotherapy as well as community forums, education, and consultation) to those intergenerational and largely unconscious factors that appear to compel the perpetuation of social oppression and ecological assault.

A final word about my dog… maybe the most surprising and unique training in being-present, spontaneous, loving, and playful, has come from my canine friend, a rescue dog who was found as a puppy in my neighborhood a few years ago (see pic). Since caring for this guy I have also gained appreciation for animal assisted therapy, which I may study more formally at some point. And while my dog is probably still a little too energetic to bring to work with me, several of my clients do bring their dogs with them into therapy. Dogs often brings a subtle healing quality of their own with a remarkable manner of steadily pointing to the present moment.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 8235 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 309, West Hollywood, CA 90046
  • Website: www.drmatthewsilverstein.com
  • Phone: 310-842-6124
  • Email: drmsilverstein@gmail.com

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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