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A Commitment to Faith, Hope, and Courage: An Interview with Dr. Seth Kadish

Dr. Seth Kadish

“You can observe a lot just by watching”

~ Yogi Berra

Sitting in the corner at a local coffeehouse a few blocks from PCH Treatment Center, the mental health facility where he serves as director of group therapies and conducts both group and individual therapy sessions, Seth Kadish appears every bit the observer one might expect from a man who’s spent two decades exploring the inner workings of the human mind.

His website bio states: “I am from Brooklyn, New York, and can best be described as straightforward and no-nonsense.  My clients find me warm, empathic, and caring, a blend of firmness, strength, and compassion.”

The warmth his clients experience comes through during the course of the interview, given in the coffeehouse where Kadish begins each workday morning preparing for the group sessions he conducts at both PCH and in his private practice.  Though he seems every bit the natural counselor, it wasn’t his original career choice.  And it was that career choice that brought him 2500 miles west.

Moving to Southern California in his early 30’s to pursue screenwriting, Kadish achieved modest success writing and producing plays but found little of the fulfillment he had hoped for.  After dealing with a number of personal issues and getting involved with the 12 Step program at the behest of a friend (though he’s never had problems with substance abuse), he went back to school, eventually earning his master’s and doctorate in psychology.

His career in the mental health profession has taken him to Penny Lane (where he was a therapist and was named Clinician of the Year in 2001), Milestones Ranch Malibu (clinical director), Promises Malibu (group facilitator), and—most interestingly—California State Prison-Los Angeles County.

It was while working at Milestones that the clinic’s executive director asked him what he called his brand of therapy, to which he jokingly responded “Brooklyn Therapy.”  After giving the question more thought, he settled on the name “Patterns.”

Patterns exercises involve identifying thoughts and behaviors that come up repeatedly, both good and bad.  He then encourages his clients to build on the positive patterns they identify in themselves while learning how to minimize those that cause anxiety, induce anger, and lead to self-destructive choices.  The exercise was expanded to a book published in April 2011, titled Pop Your Patterns: The No-Nonsense Way to Change Your Life, and a 90-minute weekly group he heads in West Los Angeles each Tuesday afternoon from 3:00 to 4:30.

His bread and butter, however, remains his work as a therapist.

According to Kadish, therapists ought to be “self-critical without being self-damaging” and open to criticism from clients, as willing to put themselves under scrutiny as their clients.  When leading group sessions, he participates in most of the activities he assigns his clients and tries to be as candid and reflective as he asks them to be.

Kadish believes group therapy has been under-emphasized in modern therapy.  “How you are within the group situation is how you are in the world.  So, if you’re being a wiseguy, or being timid, or being aggressive or monopolizing, now you understand what’s happening with you in your relationships.  You can’t see that one-on-one.”

Regardless of the archetype, an underlying issue for most clients he works with is anger.

“I talk about anger a lot.  You would think that most people would struggle with anger that is explosive and problematic in that direction, but I find the opposite to be true.  More people suffer from suppressed anger.  That, to me, is extremely problematic and it doesn’t get addressed often enough because we either accept that a person is passive, mild, or sweet-natured.  And if we don’t push them enough to release those feelings of anger, that historically leads to depression and anxiety.  It’s bottled up energy.”

Kadish has identified four sets of emotions that lie beneath anger.

“The first is fear and anxiety,” he says.  “An example of this is if you corner an animal—a cat, a mouse, or a dog—they have survival fear.  They’re threatened with loss of life.  So that fear turns into rage.

“The second is disrespect and humiliation.  If I shame you, that’s a direct assault on your self-importance and ego.”  In prison, for example, “If I can tease you, then I’ll take it a step further next time and maybe I can push or shove you.

“The third thing is hurt and betrayal.  When I look at what’s underneath somebody’s anger, it’s not just pain or hurt, it’s almost always somebody the person was close to – their spouse, their sibling, their parent.  If a total stranger walks over and disrespects you, you’re angry.  If it’s your brother and you give him all your money and he takes off with it and goes to The Bahamas, you’re going to be rageful.

“The fourth thing is, on the cognitive level, what I call values differences.  That could be as simple as I say, ‘I’m a Democrat, you’re a Republican,’ and then we start arguing about it.  That’s a pattern of self-righteousness.  ‘How dare you disagree with me!’

“I’m sure there are more,” he says.  “But those are the ones I see.”

Addressing one’s anger often means addressing one’s immaturity, and the two are invariably linked.  Kadish was once asked what his definition of maturity was.  After considering the question a few days he came up with his response: Seeing the world as it really is.

Once maturity is acquired, can it be lost?  “Nope,” says Kadish.  Pausing briefly, he reconsidered his answer.  “I would say that you can’t lose maturity but you can regress with the aid of distractions and compulsions, including drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and so forth.”

It was a lack of maturity that Kadish saw as the common factor connecting the various inmates he counseled during the five years he served as a prison psychologist at the maximum security California State Prison-Los Angeles County, where he counseled murderers, drug dealers, hit men, thugs, and armed robbers.  An interaction he had with a career criminal from Central California illustrated this point.

The middle-aged man told him he would have no problem walking into Kadish’s home, taking whatever he wanted, and shooting him dead if need be.  Kadish asked him, “What if I shoot you first?”  The man responded, “Fair enough.”  His mentality was that of a child: If he wanted something, it was there for the taking.  It’s that impulsivity that drives most people toward destructive behavioral patterns.

Kadish says immaturity as the most common trait among the criminal population.

“Criminals have very childish senses of themselves, and if there were a phrase that would be applicable to the vast majority of criminals, it’s ‘instant gratification.’

“One of the stories I used to hear all the time is what I call the ‘fourth guy in the car’ story.  I’ve heard so many variations of it, but it goes like this: The guy is sitting in front of you, you’ve read his file, his mental and emotional history, and you’ve got a pretty good sense of who the guy is.  And when you ask him, “Why are you in prison?” the story is “Well, I was 19, I was with my three buddies, I was at work driving the car and we were stopping to get some liquor and I was waiting in the car.  The next thing I hear is ‘pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,’ they come running back in the car, and I ask them ‘What did you guys do?’  They respond ‘Well, we robbed a liquor store and I find out they shot the guy in the head.  I got arrested with them and how unfair is it that I’m in prison?’

“The first time you hear that you go, ‘God, that’s terrible.  Poor guy.’  But by the fourth time you go, ‘He’s bullshitting me here.  You didn’t know that your three friends were going to go in there and rob the store, and how is that you were sitting in the car, and were you really in the car?’  Anyway, you get the point.”

Nonetheless, most of the inmates he worked with possessed redeeming qualities.

“How can a guy be in prison for murder and still be a good guy?  The best example I can give is a guy I met who was Samoan.  Samoans are gigantic, and he was one of the smaller ones I’d seen – maybe 6-2 or 6-3.  He was just a wonderful guy, a great artist, and I remember reading his biography, and it was kind of what I expected to find in a Samoan guy.

“The Samoan guys in prison I came into contact with were always in for gang murders.  They’re gangsters.  And when you know your way around gangsters, many of them are decent guys who, if they weren’t in prison, would be carpenters, teachers, and attorneys.  He was prototypical in that way.”

While he found many of those he worked with in prison to be basically good people, he also counseled those at the other end of the spectrum.

“What really scares the hell out of me is people for whom other people don’t matter to them.  And that means they’re either disconnected, or traumatized, or sociopathic.”

Of all the people he in prison, none left a colder impression on him than the sociopaths he counseled. “If I’m sitting across from a guy and I’m not feeling anything, that’s the time that I’m getting a little scared.”

His experiences in the prison system confirmed beliefs he had long held about himself and people in general.  “I had always been a pretty nonjudgmental person, so it reaffirmed something I had always thought, which is that, essentially, people are good, noble, worthwhile.  I saw so much good there, particularly from people you would not expect that from.”

Goodness does not necessarily translate to improved mental health, particularly among those who have become entrenched in self-defeating thought and behavioral patterns.  The two attributes Kadish believes are most essential to success in therapy are commitment and courage.

“It takes a degree of courage to give up your old beliefs and behaviors. A big question that comes up is, ‘Who am I if I give up the pattern?’  And that’s a little scary.  ‘I know how to be a loser and I know how to be depressed, but I don’t know how to be happy or excited or vibrant.’”

Among the patterns most likely to trap clients in a cycle of negativity and stagnation is shame, a major theme running through clients he sees both in his private practice and the group sessions he heads at PCH, the Psychological Care and Healing Treatment Center, located in Mar Vista, California, where he serves as a therapist, educator, and instructor.  Few emotions inhibit personal growth or cause as much grief as shame.

“My new and favorite definition of shame is: an unwillingness or inability to accept our imperfections.  I see that as a running theme for folks dealing with shame issues – for example: poor self-esteem, negative self-talk, self-flagellation.

“People who have only a bit of shame, or shame as appropriate, are generally speaking okay with themselves.  They admit their faults, accept their good qualities, and keep improving.  People with a lot of shame dwell on their negative patterns and/or defects of character, do not give them up, and simultaneously beat themselves up for having these patterns or defects.

“How to work with shame?  To treat it lightly.  To laugh at it.  To share it with others and therefore take away its power when it is secreted or hidden away.  To accept our failings.”

Acceptance is one of the signature goals of therapy, regardless of the issues being addressed.  While it is often said that everyone can benefit from therapy, such a sweeping generalization might strike some as a cognitive error (“all-or-nothing thinking” comes to mind).  Are there people out there who do just fine without it?

“One in a million,” says Kadish.  “Most people need some kind of help or support, because we’ve all been affected or damaged by our childhoods or adolescences.  We all have distorted belief systems.  We all have misinterpretations of reality.  And that needs correcting.  It’s just a question of where you are on the continuum.

“The more I go along in my career the less I’m interested in diagnostic matters unless somebody is bipolar or schizophrenic, because those disorders really require medication.  But particularly people with depression, anxiety, and anger issues, I’m much more interested in the patterns, thoughts, and behaviors I see.”

Less reliance on diagnostics and medication is one change Dr. Kadish would like to see in the treatment of mental health.  Touching upon the intangibles of life is another.

“We’re in a very primitive place and we’re doing the best we can.  I personally would love to see more use of spirituality in the world of therapy, which is my own bent.  More awareness that we are spiritual beings.  Look at the stream, look at the sky, there’s a lot out there that’s bigger than you and that you have no control over.

“Therapy, to me—everything we talk about—it’s an art form.  It’s an art form masquerading as a science.  We pretend to dabble in scientific things and speak in scientific jargon and we write all these articles and prescribe medications, and good therapy is art.”

Helping people use that art as a building block for healthier, more productive lives is a pattern Dr. Seth Kadish hopes to continue for years to come.

 

Dr. Seth Kadish is a licensed California clinical psychologist who offers individual and group therapy in his private practice in West Los Angeles and Woodland Hills, and at the Psychological Care and Healing Treatment Center (PCH) in Mar Vista, California, where he is also the director of group therapy.  His book, Pop Your Patterns: The No-Nonsense Way to Change Your Life, was published in 2011, and he appears in the Ice-T- produced documentary Iceberg Slim, slated for release in 2013.

 

By Greg L.

 

 

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