My Story

Hello, I'm Michelle. I work with therapists and clients who are hungry for something a little different.

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“Writers as diverse as Wordsworth and Freud, as Blake and Dickens have all hypothesized that the turbulence and intensity we feel as young children are what ultimately give us our life force as adults. Without this first madness, without being able to sustain this emotional lifeline to our childhoods--to our most passionate selves--our lives can begin to feel futile.” 
― Adam Phillips 

Like you, I've always had an eye toward growth...

From a young age, I have been captivated by watching things grow. Under what circumstances does something thrive and under what conditions does life cease to expand?

Its amazing to me that you can put a few seeds in the ground and with fairly minimal attention, a little water, sun and soil, something grows-at least in Southern California. That said, I’ve learned over time that intentionality makes all the difference. Care to the spacing, conditions, and nutrients needed directly effects the yield and quality of fruit.

People are like that too. Really, with fairly minimal effort, you develop. With attendance to the basics, some amount of safety, shelter, water, food, and a bit of engagement: a person emerges. But those are only the basics. If you think about it, really think about it, our greatest achievement as a species, along evolutionary lines, is that we have learned to harness our vulnerability and social connection to grow a mind and a self.  By that I mean, while there are innumerable threats to an infant that is born into this world, our brand of evolution has chosen love and bond rather than a system entirely reliant on fear to protect the infant. The reward, when it works, is wholly miraculous. We get the unique privilege of moving through this world, not only experiencing its wonders but reflecting on that experience and sharing it with others. Why? Because when you came into this world, someone recognized you. They used their mind and intention to lovingly say. “Oh, its you.” And they kept saying that in implicit and explicit ways until you said, “Oh, it’s me.”

Growing my clinical self

Retrospectively, it is no surprise that the earliest stages of my career as a marriage and family therapist were spent intensively studying infant mental health and parent/child dynamics through two models: DIR/Floortime and The Neuro-Relational Framework. Both of these models seek to harness the parent/child relationship to promote optimal growth conditions for children with severe developmental constrictions. This season of learning had a profound effect on my clinical thinking. It taught me there is always time to wonder, recognition is a basic and powerful human need, and that the deepest meaning is found in the miracle of slow change. 

Over time my specialization expanded to include working with parents of children with significant disruptions in early-life caregiving. I also embarked on my own journey in becoming a parent through adoption. These experiences brought me to the edge of my knowledge and capacity. I was spending a lot of my time hanging out on the frontier of this dialogue between parent and child, the intersection of a present moment where hope and history battle it out. I became more finely attuned to the vulnerability of parenting (my own included), how so much of our early life experiences and expectations get evoked and acted out in the role of parenting. I noticed how intimately the interior life of the parent impacted the child. Like I say, 'parenting is like pouring miracle grow on your pain points, the trigger-happy tender spots that cause us to blame, lash out or even worse, detach.'  But also I think these places are tender because more then fear, they represent our deepest longings, our hopes. I realized that my training was insufficient to work as a translator in these pain exchanges.

In pursuing my doctorate in contemporary psychoanalysis, I think what I have learned first and foremost is to hold the complexity that exists in the dance of these early-life dialogues, how it shapes us and then eventually becomes part of us. It gave me a deep sensitivity to how we continue to live out our tension of what we hope for and what we deeply fear: powerful feelings that can eventually lead to emotional stalemates and ruptures. In the face of this, I think life has a way of conditioning us towards the unreal, to mask what feels most vulnerable, risky. Whether I am working with a parent and child in the playroom or an adult on the analytic couch, I am listening for what I believe to be one of our most innate human desires: the hunger to be authentic. To be authentic is to be and be experienced as real contrasted with the fear of the pain that is often required to get us there. My goal is to help myself and others live into this surprising truth: authenticity is not a destination we arrive at but who we become in the process. It is the byproduct of living a courageous and vulnerable life.

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Growing my business

What started as a one woman venture has grown to a a practice of ten strong women and counting with a second location which, in many ways, is still surprising to me. Here's my journey thus far:

In 2011, I started a private practice in Eagle Rock with the idea I wanted my clinical practice to be rooted in a place I love to be, in a neighborhood and in a context that inspires me. Over the next few years, I continued cultivating my professional identity and expertise. But by 2014, I was yearning to have a larger impact on my field and desired to shape younger clinical minds with theory and practice. That year I invited three vivacious and dynamic women to join the practice. I noticed a turn in my business when I really started to highlight the unique characteristics of each of my clinicians. The splendor of seeing someone access their inner genius is thrilling. I want to help my staff become more of themselves and help them be in dialogue with possibilities.

I'm proud that our team has grown in size and that we have expanded our reach to provide quality care to the neighborhoods in Northeast Los Angeles. And yet, these facts pale in comparison to this: I am so proud to have cultivated a team of smart, caring therapists who are as committed to their own personal and professional growth as they are to their clients'.

At the core, I credit my success in staying connected to the things that light me up and investing in relationships. I see entrepreneurial endeavors as an expression of creativity. Tending to a business is dynamic and moving. My business is a living piece of my life. It's always becoming...just as I am in continual process as a human being.

-Michelle Harwell PsyD, LMFT (50732)