Greg Dy, LMFT is currently working at Foresight, set to begin as a therapist in the next few months in our Walnut Creek office. He wanted to share from his intern experience working at a domestic violence program, SAVE: Safe Alternative to Violent Environments. He was the first male therapist they hired.
Chay: I'm curious what your take is on the unique perspective you bring to working with domestic violence (DV) in clients, especially females who may not trust a male figure.
Greg: Yeah, at first there were a lot of stigma I had to work through, as many of the clients who I did see were women and they had many core negative beliefs around men. But I really had to focus on improving my reflective listening, a lot of the healing started there.
Chay: Oh definitely. Okay, so tell me a little bit about what you did with SAVE.
Greg: So my supervisor, she was great - she held really good boundaries but also challenged me to do things that I didn’t think I could do. She assigned me to co-lead a group with another woman, and she was adamant that it wasn’t right to have a male lead with her. She said, “Men can’t understand what DV is.” We actually became best friends after that! I remember that people were hesitant to meet me in group. They said things like, “Sorry, you seem like a nice person, but I can’t trust you because you’re male.”
I spent the first month basically quiet. I didn’t talk much. I pretty much only said at the beginning, “Really, I’m just here to understand your story.” I worked hard to ask only respectful and/or clarifying questions. I would consciously be aware of how I was speaking and try my best to not speak while others were speaking. I would honor their stories by having the mindset that they were the expert on their own story. I was there to first make sure they are being seen and heard in the way they want to be seen and heard.
We started the group with mindfulness meditation. I think it was really important because many of them were coming from their homes, many of them were still in the environment of DV on a daily basis. So we did that every time.
Chay: I can see how healing that is , recognizing that they have agency in their lives - and that a man and a woman leading the group together could be a positive experience.
Greg: Yeah, we also taught them skills, like we talked about “flooding” and how that contributes to the overwhelm in the heat of the moment of an argument. We talked about how to reduce those reactions in the body with mindfulness and other thought pattern skills. Another client, someone I saw individually, she didn’t wanna see me at first. She also didn’t trust me because I am male, and so after building some level of trust with her - I was able to talk to her about gaslighting, like had she ever heard of it, and whether she’d seen this in her relationship. And she felt validated, she felt seen. And it was important for her… and for me too, to have that experience with a man as a contrast to what she believed about “all” men.
Chay: How did you get into all of this? Did you always want to work with DV or was this something different, something challenging as your internship?
Greg: So, I knew I wanted to do couples therapy. I always liked Gottman, and I wanted to work with relationships. Actually so I started a healthy relationship group - based off Gottman’s group model. It was a 9 week class, and I think it was really interesting for the women to see a man talking about healthy relationships. We covered things like communication, sex, the four horsemen of unhealthy relationships and their antidotes, typical abuse styles of communication, what is DV, love languages, and relationship theories. I really enjoyed it and they did too.
Chay: That sounds really helpful in so many ways, and the message seemed to come across differently because it was, like you said, a contrasted message from ones they had seen before. What did you learn from the people you worked with?
Greg: People might not realize this if they haven’t worked with people in the DV cycle before, or been abused themselves, but I would hear over and over again that financial and emotional abuse is far more damaging than physical abuse. I mean, people only call for help when someone gets hit or has bruises or injuries. But really, the clients I worked with, the physical can look bad on the outside, but it is much harder to heal those negative core beliefs. And it’s so hard to escape the financial cycle of abuse.
Chay: What were your takeaways as a clinician, then, things you carry with you as you work with people who have experienced DV… as well as just good practice?
Greg: Something I had to learn was… sometimes people make ‘bad’ decisions. It’s part of the process. Take the decision apart, recognize it’s part of their journey toward empowerment. Giving them the perspective of “Do you think that choice is leading you toward a life worth living?” really helped, because then we could talk about the barriers instead of focusing what’s “good” and what’s “bad”.
Another thing was vulnerability. I had to have good rapport with people, because these were challenging topics and we had to address them head on. The deeper stuff is below the surface, so as the therapist we need to be able to help them navigate toward their inner truth. In order to be vulnerable, I had to choose when to self-disclose (tell clients information about myself); it’s definitely a skill. You have to think of what you’re saying carefully from your client’s perspective. Being a model of setting good boundaries, taking the time to be respectful while also keeping things private, that is something I’ll carry with me.
Chay: Do you have any suggestions or resources for people who are experiencing DV now or have friends or family who are in crisis?
Greg: Therapy is a good start. It helps identify what’s healthy and what’s not, helps identify what DV is and what it isn’t. There are a good number of hotlines for domestic violence that you can google (we’ve included some below). The organization I worked with was great, “SAVE” in Fremont. They have wrap-around services, both in-home and also on site, case managers and everything. You need support. Taking the first step can make all the difference.
Special thank you to Greg Dy for giving us a wealth of information today!
Call 911 if you are in immediate danger.