Even as a child, Apfelbaum sensed "that people can change, that people want to change but they need help. People experience emotional hurt, and I was interested in helping them heal." (Photo by Louise E. Wright)

Even as a child, Apfelbaum sensed “that people can change, that people want to change but they need help. People experience emotional hurt, and I was interested in helping them heal.” (Photo by Louise E. Wright)

by Louise E. Wright

“When I Say ‘No,’ I Feel Guilty,” Claudia Apfelbaum’s upcoming workshop at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree, focuses not only on saying “no” or, for that matter, on saying “yes.” Rather it aims to help individuals offer their opinions and express themselves without fear of giving offense. In the preferred phrase of the Germantown-based psychotherapist, it deals with learning “to speak one’s truth.”

“With many clients and in my own life,” Apfelbaum, 61, observes, “to know one’s truth is a challenge, to be able to say it and to hear and listen for the other person’s truth.” The ability to exchange these truths serves as the basis for human relationships.

“Speaking one’s truth” presents challenges, in part, because of our upbringing. “We have barriers,” Apfelbaum explains, “because of our socialization, our training.” In addition, “speaking one’s truth” requires two seemingly contradictory qualities: confidence and vulnerability. “We are much more vulnerable when we speak the truth,” she points out. In order to do so, we must feel secure enough to reveal ourselves.

A Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Apfelbaum earned a Master of Social Service degree from the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research in 1981. Not until 2004, however, did she set up her own practice, the aptly named “Claudia Listens.”

“My effort,” she explains, “is to attune myself to the other person, which sometimes means listening to things that are not being said explicitly and opening that up.” She strives to help clients “undo the repressed emotions that originate in childhood. I really believe,” she emphasizes, “those stuck places inside us need to be aired, and once they are, it frees us to be who we are.”

Despite the late start, Apfelbaum knew at a young age that she wanted to engage in this kind of work. Even as a child, she sensed “that people can change, that people want to change but they need help. People experience emotional hurt, and I was interested in helping them heal.”

Apfelbaum’s determination stemmed from her own family background. “It has to do,” she reveals, “with my mother and my parents, and I say it like that because, of the two, I felt my mom was more hurt by her own childhood experiences, which made things difficult for all of us and made her interactions with my father more difficult.” She recalls: “As a kid, I was always trying to help my parents feel better, heal better.”

A native of Massachusetts, Apfelbaum grew up in Springfield. As a teenager, she moved with her family to India, where her father’s job took them. Her two-year stay there prompted her to create her own major, Indian Studies, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and she returned to India for her junior year. With the exception of these two trips abroad, Apfelbaum had spent her entire life in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, therefore, she wanted to leave the state.

While both California and Wisconsin came under consideration, she wound up in Philadelphia because a friend of a friend lived here. “I never thought I’d stay 39 years,” she marvels.

Apfelbaum arrived in the fall of 1975 with her belongings in a green backpack and no job prospects in sight. She became involved with the Movement for a New Society, participating in its training program for social activists and moving into one of the Life Center Association’s communal houses in West Philadelphia. Fellow residents ranged in age from six to 66 and included Quaker activists Lillian Willoughby, founder of “Take Back the Night,” and her husband George.

In time, the training the Movement provided combined with a knowledge of herself convinced Apfelbaum to abandon social activism, and she began to question, “What am I doing with my life?”

In 1979, she enrolled in graduate school but, on receiving her M.S.S., she “sidestepped,” as she puts it. Instead of working as a counselor, she became a manager, and for most of the next 20 years, filled administrative positions. “I always felt behind the scenes,” she says. “I always felt I was a therapist, but I wasn’t doing it.”

Even behind the scenes, however, Apfelbaum honed her listening skills. She recalls, for example, that, as the manager of student volunteers at the University of Pennsylvania, “I was always really listening to hear who they were and what they wanted.”

Apfelbaum’s final administrative job made her career decision. As program manager for Family Support Services, she supervised those engaged in “direct service work,” in other words, those who worked directly with clients, and she realized that was where her strength lay. “My love and my skills were with being a therapist,” she declares.

Having made up her mind to “retool” herself, Apfelbaum began post-Master’s training in marriage and family therapy at the Council for Relationships in West Philadelphia. Three years later, she finally ventured down the path that had attracted her as a child.

Although Apfelbaum has often worked with women, she does not do so exclusively. Nor does she focus on a particular age group. Instead, she seeks to work with individuals who are “trying to figure out who they are and where they’re going,” who are seeking “a place where they can talk openly about themselves” and, in so doing, build confidence.

“When I Say ‘No,’ I Feel Guilty” is the third class Apfelbaum will have taught at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree. The organization’s “broad reach” appeals to her, enabling her to get the word out that she has something to offer the community while at the same time actually doing so.

The class, which Apfelbaum feels will prove useful to both men and women, meets Wednesday, March 19, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the MALT Office, 6601 Greene St. For more information or to register, call 215-843-6333 or log onto www.mtairylearningtree.org. Or visit www.claudialistens.me.