Interview with Ken Benau, PhD by the Neuropsychotherapist
Ken Benau, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with 27 years’ experience. He has a private practice in psychotherapy, consultation and training in Kensington, CA, located in the San Francisco Bay area. For many years, Ken worked in school settings and outpatient psychotherapy with children, teens and young adults with special psychosocial and learning needs, including those living with learning differences, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now he sees primarily adults in individual and couple therapy, and over the last 15 years has enjoyed working with early relational trauma survivors and their loved ones. Ken’s approach to psychotherapy can best be described as ecumenical and striving toward integration. Having been in the mental health field for almost 40 years, and as an avid student of the history of psychotherapy, Ken is most comfortable with approaches that are experiential, constructivist, psychodynamic, relational and attachment-based, emotion-focused, neurobiologically informed, systemic, narrative-/solution-oriented, and more broadly, strength-based. Congruent with his non-pathologizing stance, he has a special interest and expertise in working with shame and authentic pride in psychotherapy. The therapeutic approaches Ken currently draws from most include coherence therapy, accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP), sensorimotor psychotherapy and related somatic approaches, self-state/parts work, the developmental needs meeting strategy (DNMS), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy that incorporates intra-relational resourcing. Regardless of which “brand” of therapy he accesses, Ken seeks to bring his true self forward and invites his patients to do the same. Ken’s true self embodies plenty of playfulness and humor, especially when the topic is serious.
NPT: Can you tell us a little about the theories and philosophies that have most impacted your work?
KB: Some of my preferred ways of working are mentioned in the accompanying bio. It has become cliché to say that I try to meet each person–patient where they are, but I do . . . and more and more as I mature. At my best, I don’t enter into the psychotherapy space with a preordained plan or approach. My philosophy includes what Salvador Minuchin, MD, called trained spontaneity. Being well-versed in a variety of psychotherapeutic theories and techniques, I trust in the moment that the appropriate clinical wisdom will be available to me in a “jazz-improvisational” way if I remain open enough to the patient, to myself, and our relationship. My philosophy in life and therapy includes my being real, honest, transparent (as much as the patient and therapy can benefit at that moment in time), kind, and human (the latter incorporating all of the above), and accepting the person across from me as “more human than otherwise” (in the words of Harry Stack Sullivan) rather than a diagnostic mess.
Most importantly, I believe it is vital I delight in discovering the person I am with. This latter point is foundational to my work, and follows directly from my idiosyncratic definition of authentic (non-hubristic) pride: Delight in being my truer self delighting in you being your truer self. To the extent to which I convey my genuine interest, positive regard—and indeed joy—in being with another human being, I have faith they will in time learn to experience themselves as delightful, too. There is no better antidote to shame, which lies at the root of most psychopathology, than “me delighting in me delighting in you being you”!
To value thinking and working systemically does not mean always doing family therapy. Rather, I recognize that everything and everyone is part of a larger system, and that each level of analysis and way of working are interrelated as parts of a dynamic system that encompasses biology and neurobiology, intra-relations and psychodynamics, interpersonal relations and family/social systems and beyond to societal, cultural and even global influences. Always seeking to keep my hubris in check, I don’t assume I am going to change the world, although I may help a patient (depending upon their goals) shift their relationship with worldwide forces such as climate change, xenophobia, racism, sexism, disability-ism and “isms” of all kinds.
Finally, I consider psychotherapy more about the art of relating than science. Said another way, psychotherapy comes alive in the world of metaphor and meaning, and science is but one of many ways of representing experience that illuminates the world we live in.
NPT: What are you working on currently?
KB: Apart from my private practice in psychotherapy, consultation and sometimes training, I am writing a book about working with shame and pride from an integrative perspective. While shame has been in and out of vogue throughout the history of psychotherapy (more “in” in the 1980s, and more “in” again these last few years), I intend to describe my own way of thinking about and working with shame that is uniquely personal and equally informed by the professional literature: I know much about shame both from the inside out (as a human being) and the outside in (as a student of all things shame-related). While in my opinion one can never say enough about shame in psychotherapy, given that shame lies at the heart of self, other, and relationship, very little has been said about how one works with healthy, adaptive pride in psychotherapy. I want to correct that absence because pride or “delighting in me being me delighting in you being you” is, I believe, the essence of what psychotherapy and life are all about.
NPT: If there was one thing you would like to impart to a new psychotherapist what would it be?
KB: Be yourself, and invite your patients to do the same with you (first) and then others . . . . Easier said than done, mind you! Toward that end, keep an open mind, explore as many approaches to psychotherapy and more broadly transformative practices (e.g., religion, spirituality, art, etc.) as interest you, and when you are ready, dive deep into one of those until you are sufficiently immersed and ready to resurface, and then dive deep again into another approach, if that suits you. If one brand does it for you, fine—but don’t fool yourself into believing your brand is best, or that it works with all people and all life challenges.
NPT: In your experience, how has an understanding of neurobiology helped you in your practice?
KB: In my practice, neurobiology and the relationship between different structures and functions of the brain and the relationship between the brain and the body (never forget that the body and brain are not separate!) help me in many ways. In no particular order of importance, neuroscience provides a heuristic and psychoeducational tool to help me show my patients that they are not crazy but rather very human. For example, if a trauma survivor can’t speak and is frozen in fear, I help them understand how their speech centers have shut down (there’s no point in talking when a saber-toothed tiger is about to eat you) and their bodies are frozen because they cannot see any path toward safety. In addition to keeping up with the latest in interpersonal neurobiology (Dan Siegel and colleagues), I value greatly the work of Stephen Porges and his polyvagal theory (very brain/body savvy). Finally, often underrated and under-recognized in the field of neurobiology is the work on memory reconsolidation. The best source for this is Ecker, Ticic and Hulley’s Unlocking the Emotional Brain (Routledge, 2012)—my review at Amazon.com gives a taste of my own early enthusiasm for that book.
I also use my training in neuropsychological testing to appreciate individual differences in cognitive and emotional processing, which in turn helps me work with patients living with learning differences, ADHD, and various neuro-atypicalities. Neuropsychological perspectives actually help me understand all patients, as there isn’t a human being I have met who did not have both relative neurocognitive strengths and challenges—and I have worked with folks who were moderately developmentally delayed and others who were intellectually and/or creatively gifted.
I also find it helpful to think about the brain/mind in terms of multiple states of mind, a model of mind I use in my work with patients who are structurally dissociated, but also with others who are not. I believe we all are “multiple” in the sense that we have different ways of being our selves, and are relatively aware or unaware of these different versions of self. (See Frank Putnam’s book The Way We Are: How States of Mind Influence Our Identities, Personality and Potential for Change [International Psychoanalytic Books, 2016] for the most comprehensive description of states of mind.)
Finally, the more I “get” how a person organizes their world and sense of self, other, and relationship, the more I am able to work with their preferred processing modalities (visual, verbal, somatic, metaphoric, etc.) to help them access and actualize their best selves.
Keywords; psychotherapeutic techniques, shame, pride.