Eliana is the first in our Meet the Authors series on our new site.

I met Eliana Gil in the mid-90s at an APSAC conference. She was looking through our selection of books, and asked how I knew so much about the children’s books we were displaying. That conversation led to a friendship that has spanned over three decades.

Throughout our friendship, I have been truly impressed by how grounded she is. Eliana has delivered thousands of presentations, written for numerous publications, and received accolades and awards of every kind. To this day, she remains one of the most humble, compassionate and kind people, I am fortunate to know.

Eliana saddened many of us when she announced she was semi-retired. However, despite her newfound passion for tennis, line-dancing, and the gym, she still remains a partner in a thriving group private practice and also provides trainings through Starbright Training Institute. This in addition to putting on a yearly conference. As a matter of fact, Eliana will be at Gil Institute doing a training and participating in the Annual Conference in Crystal City. So you can still see Eliana (and the rest of the incredible Gil Institute therapists) at the Gil Institute for Trauma Recovery and Education Open House and Training the week of April 5th.

Eliana will be sharing her pearls of wisdom at the Mid-Atlantic Third Annual Play Therapy Training Institute on April 10-12, 2015 along with other well-known play therapy experts who share a passion for using expressive therapies in the treatment of trauma.

-Deanne Gruenberg

You may find our selection of Eliana's work here.

You may find our selection of Eliana’s work here.

1.) How did you first become interested in the field of child abuse and neglect?

I had two secretarial jobs when I left high school. One was in the Georgetown Psychiatry department with Dr. Murray Bowen and the other was at the SF Child Abuse Council. I think both these jobs ignited an interest in helping parents with children. I had a young baby myself at 20 so I was always curious about how other parents managed all their responsibilities. At the Child Abuse Council, I was left alone a lot of the time while the director and co-director attended meetings. I began to field questions about parenting, prevention of child abuse, community resources, and before I knew it, I seemed to become the “go to” person.

At this point, I returned to school, wanting to know more about how to talk to parents so they would listen. One of my jobs was to be a volunteer at a “hotline” and I remember often taking the midnight to 7 AM shift and getting many desperate calls from lonely, depressed, or anxious parents. I really enjoyed talking with them and learned as much from them as they seemed to learn from me. I also had the experience of being a co-therapist (with a formerly abusive parent) for a group of moms who physically abused their children. It was amazing to find empathy and connection with parents who found themselves becoming violent with their children.

These were amazing learning experiences but I recognized that I needed a better foundation and I sought out more education and training. However, the interest in prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect began very early for me and it has remained a life-long commitment.

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2.) You have authored so many books; do you have a favorite?

One of the earliest professional challenges I undertook was being a group leader for a group for adults abused as children in San Francisco. This was an eye-opening experience, in particular, because of the amazing resiliency that I found among adult women who had suffered physical and sexual abuse and neglect, at the hands of their parents. They turned to each other with remarkable trust and shared their stories and the many ways abuse had affected their relationships, their ability to trust, and the choices they had made in their lives (often feeling undeserving of positive attention or positive outcomes).

I found myself repeating the same messages, quickly learning that people needed to hear things over and over and it took time to integrate new ideas about how their coping strategies had been designed to keep them safe when there was danger, and were not needed any more. I wanted to offer the group members something more concrete, a way they could remind themselves about the ideas they were learning, and I wrote Outgrowing the Pain.

For many reasons, putting that first little book together was something I could not have imagined. Decades later, I still get letters from survivors of childhood abuse, who find its message relevant and more importantly, causes them to reflect and gain insights that help move them forward. I don’t think any other book has been so rewarding as this one, written in the context of trying to be of service to women who had suffered deep injuries, in order to validate their experiences and help them take small steps forward.

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3.) Would you like to share some of your favorite recommended readings?

I love books! I appreciate how people organize and share that which they find important and useful. Having said that, the books I appreciate the most are those that suggest “what to do.” After I read something, I usually ask myself the question: “Now that I know this new thing, what effect does it cause in what I do?” It’s not enough to simply store new information, the interesting part to me is how to apply it, what change it causes in my work so that a more positive outcome can occur. I love making improvements to what I do. I love entertaining new ideas and incorporating those theories and approaches that truly help our clients.

I remember that someone at APT put together a list of classics in the field of play therapy. I remember agreeing with that list. However, when responding to that question in February 2015, I would have to say the following books are on the top of my list:

Play Therapy: The Art of The Relationship by Gary Landreth
The Boy who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry
Understanding Children’s Drawings by Cathy Malchiodi
Advanced Play Therapy by Dee Ray
Anything by Dan Siegel, including No Drama Discipline, Brainstorm, Developing Mind, Parenting from the Inside Out, Mindful Therapist, Mindful Brain, Whole Brain Child
Trauma & Recovery by Judith Herman
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
Filial Play Therapy: Strengthening Parent-Child Relationships Through Play by Rise VanFleet
Group Filial Therapy by Louise Guerney
Theraplay: Helping Parents and Children Build Better Relationships Through Attachment Based Play by Phyllis Booth, Ann Jernberg

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Eliana Gil with hat

4.) Do you have any advice to offer any other new professionals entering the field?

Probably the most relevant advice I can offer is to get good preparation through practice. I think oftentimes clinicians learn by reading and doing homework and having discussions. What is missing sometimes is experiential work: the doing, feeling part. It’s one thing to see clients doing therapeutic art, it’s another to take a stab at doing the art-work yourself. From my point of view, we therapists should never ask clients to do any activities that we haven’t already tried (and processed ourselves).

In addition, as we maneuver through our professional journeys, I think it’s imperative to have a strong support system as well as ample attention to self-care. In other words, good external and internal resources. We therapists tend to be devoted to others. We were attracted to the profession from a place of giving and giving is a noble thing to do. However, we need to make sure that as we give, we also replenish.

My replenishing evolved through my professional career and included walks in the woods with my dog, going to the water, playing tennis, learning yoga, and doing art. It also included time with friends and family. The hardest part was achieving a balance and it may never be perfectly even but definitely needs to be constantly reviewed and calibrated. I suggest that new clinicians focus on themselves almost as much as they do their clients. I often thought to myself that if I followed all the advice I dolled out to others, I would be doing great!

Our careers are a source of great pride and dedication. When all is said and done, you want to look back and smile, knowing that you grew in confidence and skill, remained open to research findings and personal experience, and took care of you and your family in the midst of attending to others the best you could. It should be a broad smile of great satisfaction with what you’ve contributed to enhance and support others’ lives.

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5.) We know you are a very creative and artistic individual, did you ever consider a different profession?

Well, there’s still time for a new profession. I’ve been considering musical theater. I know that my roles would be limited to parental figures (Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother is a great example), but I would love to be part of a “cast” and have an audience applauding for more than a lecture! I also love to paint although I know how difficult it is to have a career as an artist. I think it goes without saying that a career in tennis would have been awesome as well: In this arena I considered being a sports psychologist, a tournament director, or a line’s person or referee. (Did you know that my secret client “wish list” had John McEnroe on the top of the list?)

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6.) What are your plans for this next stage of your career?

Judy Rubin, art therapist extraordinaire is one of my heroes. I have watched her make great efforts to “chronicle” the field of art therapy by creating video tapes of people doing art therapy (as a legacy for the next generation). This has renewed my interest in providing educational materials that chronicle play and sand therapies for generations to come. Sometimes we are in the midst of a movement that is advancing approaches, by reviewing and revising, as well as creating. I have an interest in developing webinars, continuing to consult and mentor new therapists, and continue to promote integrated approaches to treatment.

These are the things that currently call to me, in addition to the tennis court and the swimming pool. My life going forward will be about BALANCE, keeping my feet on the ground (literally‚Ķ no more traveling the globe), and discovering what myriad things can “light my fire.” I am also eager to see more of my work and play friends, breathe fresh air (no more long commutes), and see more of my family.

Thank you Deanne, for asking me to write a little about me-self. One of my greatest joys has been to know you over these many decades and to have made a playful and loyal friend so we can have a mutual admiration society and a soul sister!

-Eliana