TPN.Health Clinician Spotlight: Parker Sternbergh, LCSW

Her Integrated Approach to Life and Work

“You see my gardening hands…” said Parker Sternbergh as we stood in line at St. James Cheese Company. I did see them. There was some dirt underneath her fingernails.

Parker, once a business woman in health administration, serves today as the Director of The Porter Cason Institute for the Family at Tulane School of Social Work and TPN.Health Advisory Board Member, cheerleader, supporter and believer. She is a teacher, clinician, researcher, gardener, and forever surfer.

Parker’s life shifted upon the loss of a child years ago. She describes the loss as, “a grenade in my life.” What she faced was unsupported relationships and a sense of not being able to see or feel anything. What did this mean for her life? For Parker, it meant she had to “choose life or fall apart.” There simply was nothing else to do than to address this choice. This manifested and still today manifests in Parker’s professional life and in the work of daily living.

Her work in healthcare administration before the loss of her son no longer seemed relevant to her life — to what she needed — upon the fallout of that tragedy. So, she pursued work, professionally and personally, that could address the need to feel again and develop a sustainable way to live.

She went back to school at Tulane to pursue a degree in social work and to be able put together for people an experience different from the disillusionment she encountered in living with the grief that accompanies losing a child.

While in school, she took the opportunity to go to India for spiritual immersion, as the Tulane School of Social work had and still has a working relationship with the Dali Lama. This affords students the opportunity to do projects with Indian refugees. While in India, she lived and worked alongside the lamas and was immersed in their spiritual practice of Buddhism along with the Hindu culture of India and Episcopalianism (left over from English colonialism). She notes that leaving the western environment for the first time and getting away from the framework of life in New Orleans was a necessary piece in her healing and the cultivation of a new perspective.

Today Parker’s faith, an Episcopalian/ Buddhist approach, and the insight she gained through her time in India informs her life and work practices. She says of faith in her life, “Faith is the most luxurious cashmere blanket. I tell my children, ‘To have a faith or believe in something bigger than yourself and to be able to relax into that bigger picture is about as luxurious a position you can have in life.’ ”

She also remembers and incorporates into her practice the lessons of the lamas on the nature of human suffering and attachment. This invigorates the perspective she is actively building in clinical life, one where people can actually become more at peace with themselves:

“I am very well trained clinically, but I believe that it’s more than changing behavior that we’re looking for. We want to bring peace to people — for a person to fit in their relationships and in their community without feeling badly, without shame and to feel whole. This is what I bring from those practices.” 

Also essential to how Parker moved and is moving forward was her work at the Ackerman Institute for the Family with Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Couples and Family Therapy (EFT). It was there that Parker found another missing piece to healing that she could not find in New Orleans. The focus in EFT is looking at attachment: positive versus negative, attachment injury, and attachment needs — how people mask these needs as a result of chemical processes in the amygdala and how people can begin to actually address the needs through taking certain steps in present relationships, with self and others.

After Hurricane Katrina and the BP Oil Spill, Parker and colleagues saw a drastic need to address the overflow of issues, such as divorce and addiction, that they saw in clinical encounters with families and individuals. So Parker, with important figures like Sue Johnson, brought EFT to New Orleans for the first time, training clinicians in the practice, which years of peer-reviewed research supports. Still today, the community of EFT is alive and growing in New Orleans and surrounding areas.

Parker’s creation of new life for herself and the community she serves has largely involved bringing in the new in the form of cutting edge modalities or spiritual practices from different faith traditions. There is, however, a certain constant that integral to Parker’s story — the water. Parker grew up in a coastal town in California and has been a water-creature all her life. She began to surf at the age of ten and still does. In her life today, she’ll fly Southwest for a sunset surf in Cali and can be back the following day. “There’s a part of me that feels like a mermaid. If I’m out of the saltwater for too long, there’s a problem,” says Parker.

Woven into a particular experience of surfing for Parker was the “choosing life or falling apart” she met after the loss of her son. She describes an experience post-loss in which she paddled out with a group of prolific surfer friends in California. She kept getting creamed. She also kept paddling — getting wiped out in cold water and then laughing. She theoretically knew how to duck-dive and kept on with this thought. The “choosing life” actually manifested in the activity of surfing — she chose to paddle out each time and be in the community of her fellows alongside the condition of wiping out. She says of the experience, “It was my own version of EMDR before I was trained it.”

Also driving the experiences that transformed Parker’s loss was the realization that, “I was a human reaction and I knew it.” In “choosing life,” she was able to feel what it meant to become a human being — someone who really has the sense of being in their own skin, present to all the nuances that happen there — rather than a body caught up in scanning for the next alarm.

In Parker’s words, the real work for herself and other people is “becoming more of a human being and less of a human reaction.” This is central to Parker’s integrated approach to work and life — an approach that combines efficacious research in practice, spirituality, and personal experiences.

TPN is immensely grateful to have attracted a person like Parker Sternbergh who is forever seeking to support her fellow human.

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