Therapy

Therapeutic Baking: An Interview with Sara Barthol

Baking pie can satisfy a sweet tooth, but it can also do so much more.

Posted Nov 19, 2014

I’ve known Sara Barthol for many years. In fact, she once worked as a primary counselor at the Sexual Recovery Institute, the Los Angeles clinic I founded nearly 20 years ago. Since leaving SRI in the late 2000s, Sara has continued to impress on many levels, including with her latest venture, pie therapy, cooked up with co-therapist Stacie Cox. Yes, you read that correctly: pie therapy. Sara and Stacie describe this course as “a simple, fun and yummy introduction to baking with a therapeutic twist.” When I heard about pie therapy I was immediately intrigued and knew that I had to learn more, and that I wanted to share this idea with others. To that end, I had a very enjoyable conversation with Sara, printed below.

What was the impetus for pie therapy?

As you know, I have a background in sex therapy, sexual addiction, other addictions and education. I’ve been in the field for 20-plus years, and during that time I’ve worked in a number of places where I’ve provided group therapy to a varied population. That’s a passion of mine, and I’m always exploring new ideas for it. Stacie has been in the field almost as long, working with addictions, eating disorders, trauma and various other issues. She does a lot of mindfulness-related work, along with hypnotherapy, EMDR, NLP, life coaching and Reiki. She too is always exploring new ideas and techniques.

Now cut to the fact that neither of us are bakers or cooks. In fact, we’re both pretty kitchen-avoidant. But last year I got this surge of energy and decided I wanted to take a pie class at the Gourmandise School. I convinced Stacie to do the class with me. Neither of us had ever baked a pie, so this was completely foreign and new. Well, we did the class, and both of us had a lot of very strong feelings, thoughts and opinions about the different things that were going on in the class in relation to the other people and the food itself. During the class Stacie told me that there were feelings emerging that had also emerged for her during a recent equine therapy class she’d done. I could totally relate to that, as I was also reflecting on an equine therapy class I had done a while back. I said to Stacie, “This is so interesting. This pie baking experience is therapeutic in so many ways. It feels almost like we took a pie therapy class, not just a pie baking class!” And she looked at me and said, “Oh my God, I love it. That’s a brilliant idea – pie therapy!” We immediately had this vision of how the class could translate into therapy, so we pitched it to Clémence, one of the owners of the cooking school, and she fell in love with it. She’d been exposed to therapy and was somewhat savvy, and she picked up on our idea right away.

So is this just a class, or is there a formalized therapy component that happens while people are making their pies?

It’s both. It’s a pie class with therapeutic aspects. The class begins and everybody checks in: Why are they there? What are they hoping to get out of the class? Basically, we check in the same way we might do a group therapy check-in. Most of the time we hear things like, “I’m here because I think it will be interesting to see what comes up for me that might translate to different situations in my life, like work or home or school or whenever I’m around other people.” The students come in with all kinds of different reasons. Some are more extreme than others, but nobody is a complete wreck. This isn’t the venue for that.

After checking in, Clémence talks about the baking of the pie. The students get the recipe and she explains how the crust will be made. She gives them the option of making the dough with a food processor or with their hands, and you can do a lot of interpretation from even a simple choice like that. Someone might choose the food processor because they’re more of a perfectionist, or they want to keep things clean, or they’re anxious about messing up. Another person might want to make the dough by hand because they feel like they’re more in control that way, or because they’re very tactile, or any number of things.

Once the dough is made, we pause and we talk about the different things that came up for people. We hear things like, “I was really stressed and I was comparing myself to other people,” and then we can look into that, exploring where else that shows up in the person’s life. And then we hear something like, “Well, I tend to compare myself to other people all the time. I had five siblings growing up and I never felt good enough.” So we explore the feelings that came up and how those feelings play out in ways that are debilitating and hold the person back.

After this processing, there’s a break. Then we come back together and Clémence talks about the filling. It’s usually whatever fruit is in season. She gives her instructions on the fruit, and then we split the class into pairs. And they have to pair up with someone they don’t know. That’s intentional, to potentially make people feel uncomfortable. Then we get to explore how people work in a pair. Are they deferential? Are they codependent? Are they controlling? And how do they cut the apples? Are they doing it the way they were told, or their own way? Then we have them talk amongst themselves about how that process was for them, creating the filling with a stranger, and then they bring that into the larger group and we process it.

So you get to see people working individually and in a team, and they get to process after both?

Yes. That’s really pretty neat because some people don’t do so well when working with another person, while others are actually better in pairs. To watch the dynamic and the energy is really interesting. Plus, we get to see what happens during the partnering process. Are you someone who goes and gets the partner, or are you passive, waiting for someone else to pick you? And if there’s an odd number, someone is alone, even though the chef works with that person as needed. What comes up for that person? Are they feeling rejected, or are they happy? Was there some intentionality in being left alone? We also see gender issues. We had one class where there was one man, and we got to explore what that meant for him, being the only man in a room full of women.

Do you process when the pies are done?

Yes, definitely. The group sits around and we eat some of the pies and talk about different things that came up. A lot of the making of a pie is messy and imperfect, and that’s why we like the pie rather than other food options, because people have to deal with things not being orderly and perfect. That can be really hard for people. We also talk about getting one’s needs met. We find that some people have a hard time sticking up for themselves or their partner, and some people need constant validation from the chef and the therapists and if they don’t get it then they have a lot of negative self-talk. Whatever it is that comes up, we process it as a group. We look at the ways in which the issues are connected to their lives in areas that might warrant some improvement. A lot of it is about letting go and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Hopefully at the end of the class the participants walk out feeling as if: a) they’ve made a damn good pie; and b) they’ve gained some new insight into their psychology, or some aspect of what they already knew about their psychology that needs more work.

How long is the class? And who signs up?

It’s four hours, ten to twelve people. In terms of a typical client, the people who are going to get the most out of this are people who want to look at their imperfections and their anxiety, who are also comfortable and motivated to talk in a group of strangers because they see there could be great value in that for them. So we’re looking for people who are interested in other people’s stories and the ways in which those stories might be relatable. The target audiences(s) are groups of people from different types of rehabilitation facilities or corporations and companies who want to enhance work relationships.

This is not like EMDR, though, where people are bringing up deep trauma.

No, it’s not, although it could be if handled properly. I think that for people who have, in particular, trauma related to addiction, food, body image or abuse this could be a beautiful way to explore those issues. Of course, the person would have to have some sense of their limits and have done a bit of work on that. For somebody completely green, I wouldn’t recommend it. But for somebody who has been through trauma and processed it a bit, this could be a wonderful experience. And there are things we can do to make the room feel safer. For instance, we sometimes do a mindfulness or self-reflection exercise as part of the check-in, to ground people, and we can repeat that as needed during the class and at the end. But we try to get a sense of the room before we do that. Sometimes you get a group that’s engrossed and much more invested in doing those sorts of things, and sometimes you get a group that’s a little more cut-off from their emotions or less self-aware.

Have you thought about bringing in an existing therapy group, like if Stacie had a group for women with eating disorders?

Yes, that’s something we’ve talked about, especially in regard to eating disorders. We feel like this class could work as an adjunct therapy service, much like equine therapy is often used. Part of what’s so great about equine therapy is that it’s very different, so it taps into a different part of the person’s psyche and experience. There’s such value to that. We see pie therapy the same way. Usually with traditional therapy groups people get a bit stuck. They fall into a certain role in the group. That’s human nature, and it’s not at all unusual. People go to the same seats, and even their check-ins start sound the same every week. Taking things to a different venue, like equine therapy or pie therapy, changes it up and opens it up in unexpected ways.

How often are you offering these classes, and when are the next ones?

We’ve been doing them about every other month. It's based on need and desire. We have dates available right now in December and January. When we have a group who would like to sign up, we work with that group to find the date that can fit. People can contact me or Stacie through our professional websites. Mine is sarabarthol.com and Stacie’s is staciecoxempowerment.com.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He has provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.