Family Systems Therapy: In Conversation with Catriona

March 7, 2024 | Blog, My Story, Wellbeing

Offering family systems therapy online, Catriona O’Curry is an experienced therapist offering coaching for individuals, couples and families. One half of BobCat Integrative Consulting, she works alongside her husband Bob Harris. They are based in Catalunya, Spain.

Catriona focuses on holistic healing tailored to each client’s emotional needs, working with different techniques for the best possible fit. She also facilitates women’s circles and retreats and offers coaching to empower individuals on their journey to a more meaningful career and life.

Here Catriona shares her story, her insights into therapy and how she developed her current practice. 


Family Systems Therapist – Catriona O’Curry

Where are you originally from? Can you tell us a little about your background?

I was born in New York in the 1960s to Irish parents. We moved to Paris in 1968 when students were rioting  – that’s where and when my anarchist brother was born! We then moved to the UK where my sister came along before moving back to Paris, where my youngest sibling was born. 

Then in 1978, we moved to Ireland where I finished my high school years. After that, I spent a year in Paris at the Sorbonne and finished my B.A. in Spanish and French at UCD in Ireland. When I graduated I worked for a Swiss Advertising Agency in London as a New Business Coordinator for one year, then moved to Seattle with my first husband. I lived there for nearly two decades and got my Masters in Applied Behavioural Sciences, with an emphasis on Family Systems Counselling and Psychotherapy in 1995.

Since then I’ve continued to be a lifelong learner, taking courses in Holistic Psychotherapy and developing a somatic and trauma-informed psychotherapy based on the body therapies. I earned diplomas in Cranio-Sacral Therapy, Reiki, a 4-year degree in Energy Medicine, spent 7 years in a Western Occult Mystery School and more. 

We moved to Canada with my second husband in 2004 and lived on an Island for 4 ½ years, before moving back to the US. We lived in Tucson, Arizona for 10 years before I persuaded Bob, now my husband of 23 years to move with me to Ireland, where we lived for almost 6 years. I’m so glad I’ve returned to Europe. Living in Ireland was a necessary stop on my journey and also for my husband, to connect and reconnect with my roots and family.

 

Family therapy from Catriona and her husband

 

You are currently based in Catalunya, what first brought you here?

I’ve loved Spain since I was 7 when we first travelled as a family to Gandia, Valencia, where my uncle is from. His family adopted me and I became a part of their Valenciano tribe growing up.

Coming from Paris, it was easy to come by train or car, so we were at our home in the mountains at least 3 times a year for weeks at a time. I did my DNA testing about 10 years ago and it turns out I have a drop of blood from the Iberian Peninsula!

My father now lives here, between Barcelona and Girona. Speaking fluent French and Spanish, and understanding Catalan thanks to listening to Valenciano for years and coming to Girona Province for visits, it wasn’t long before my husband Bob and I decided we missed the sunnier weather (but not the hot desert sun). We are more naturally suited to the culture, climate, people, food, and architecture here. 

So last October we packed up and moved here to be near my ageing father and to move our Private Practice 100% online. We’ve no regrets whatsoever!

 

home sweet home catalunya

 

How did you come to study behavioural science (and for those that may not know, what does it involve)?

As a child, I was always a helper and a healer, and come from generations of therapists, nurses, doctors, psychologists, consultants and teachers. But I was rather squeamish and was daunted by the idea of taking responsibility for people’s lives, so I resisted doing mainstream Psychology.

When I was in my early twenties, living in Seattle and far from home, I joined a women’s therapy support group. My facilitator/therapist tried to convince me to go to her graduate school to become a therapist but I didn’t feel ready. 

As I approached my thirties I was searching for more meaningful work (at the time I worked as a translator for a big corporation) and decided to take the leap to go to LIOS (the Leadership Institute of Seattle), affiliated with Bastyr University.  

Bastyr is famous for putting alternative medicine on the world map. They’ve received huge private and government grants to research natural treatments for Cancer and other diseases. I was excited about the holistic implications of learning at this place, but also by LIOS itself because it was a place that taught from the inside out, experientially as well as academically. 

Our professors were trained at the likes of Duke University, but they valued holistic learning and teaching and community building as a necessary foundation for creating optimal learning environments. I’d been afraid to just learn from books and this was the perfect solution to my concerns because I knew I’d be supported and challenged as a maturing human, as well as guided and tested on my professional skills.

Most importantly, there was an ethical piece they required for graduation, around a level of self-awareness required for progressing through their 2 year Masters and ultimately for graduation, that meant all the difference to me.

I’ve always felt that if you take on the role of healer or therapist, you’d better be committed to learning and your own ongoing personal growth. So LIOS/Bastyr felt like coming home. I’m still connected to many folks from those days – it changed my life. 

 

Therapy in the sunshine

 

How would you describe your approach to therapy?

I use a Systems Lens, which means I view each client in terms of all of their relationships. The other humans in our lives as well as the ecosystem, extended community, culture and even physical environment, all form the context of our experience. Looking at a client in terms of the dynamics of all their relationships makes so much sense to me. Today, this view is increasingly popular, and this gives me real hope for humanity. 

I also have my Energy Medicine training which is perhaps a topic for another day, but it is integrated into my work… People working with me might not notice anything. I don’t “Do” anything differently. Perhaps it mostly is something about how I am, and my ability to be present that people feel. 

I have so many techniques, developed over the past 30 years, but I never know what will be useful. I just get to know the person in front of me (as in Person Centred Counselling) and my intuition is pretty strong. At 60 years old now, I’ve gained some wisdom about my fellow humans, so I connect and listen on many levels. 

Do your own life experiences inform the way you work with clients?

I’ve moved around a lot and met people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds. Learning different languages and being exposed to different cultures expands your understanding of humans and their experiences. I’ve been through the loss and the grief of leaving places and people and being the new kid in town, learning to adapt.

My personal growth, which has always been a priority, means I have become more of who I really am over the decades; dropping the masks and defences and becoming increasingly “Bien dans ma peau”, as the French say. So I’m pretty transparent and most people find me genuine, which puts them at ease. This is especially true with young people who could spot an incongruent therapist from a mile away. My insides generally match my appearance and this brings more ease, which is what I can model for and teach my clients.

 

 

What are the challenges you encounter when working with families or couples? 

I’m very uncomfortable with contempt. On a few occasions, I’ve told couples that being with them feels corrosive and that I’m not willing to work with them unless they stop the bitterness – at least when they’re with me for an hour. This has only happened a handful of times, but I literally feel an acidity in my stomach. You can be sure that if I’m feeling it, so are they.

Two of those times, my taking care of myself in this way prompted a positive change with the couple. In those cases they worked on their relationship, the other one facilitated a more amicable break-up for the sake of the kids (who of course pick up on this acidity and can develop somatic symptoms as a result). 

The other challenge, which happens much more frequently, is that I am engaged by a parent or parents to work with a young person, teenager or child, only to discover that it is the parents who can benefit their kids the most if they were to consult with and be supported by me.

 

Therpay session notebook

 

What can someone expect from their first Family Systems Therapist session?

In the first session, I go over about three pages of general questions with new clients and include a Genogram, so I can get a visual picture of relationships and significant events on the family tree and flag anything that stands out to me or to them. I often show them the tree with my notes on it after a while, as a sort of a mirror for them. These two items usually take us into more depth as to how I can help them, though, of course, we’ve discussed what they want help with before we book our first session. 

One of the questions my husband and I have both added to our intake forms over the years is one about the client’s spiritual health, however, they wish to define it. This is not about religion or morals or any judgment on our part. It’s more to get a sense of the belief systems or framework that they operate within. 

It was Einstein, I believe, who said that people either have a pessimistic or an optimistic view of the world and this determines their experiences. I think it helps to have some kind of positive outlook about a benign world, even when things look awful and desperate in our immediate and greater surroundings. Studies have shown that this bodes for better outcomes from therapy work.

You also work alongside your husband Bob. How do your approaches differ and does this help you to compliment one another as a team?

Being online now, it is still possible but in person, it’s certainly powerful. We used to see a lot more families and couples together, like a mom-and-pop team, or pilot and co-pilot. There is an age gap between us and some cultural diversity too, as well as personality and gender differences. 

Between us, we can usually cover a wider range of people, in terms of who they relate to and we can tag-team who connects where and facilitates which part. This approach models cooperation and collaboration, too, which doesn’t hurt! Nowadays, we can each see a member of a couple or a family and then come together, or one of us could see the parents and the other the kids, or various combinations.

One of the things about Family Systems Therapy is that you have to develop what is called “multi-directed partiality”, which is the skill of seeing things from all the perspectives present in the session or room. So we are not loyal to one person but to the health of the whole family or both parties of the couple (and their kids, even if not present) at the expense of no one’s health.

What would you say to someone nervous about beginning systems therapy? 

Just have a chat with me (or whoever you think you might like to work with) and notice how you feel when you’re with them. I always offer a free 10-15 minute video chat to see if we both feel like there’s a connection that can be useful and healing. Anyone starting therapy can ask their prospective therapist for this opportunity to make what is a very personal decision.

 

 

What inspired your first leadership events? 

I facilitated women’s empowerment groups for almost 25 years and I loved doing this! I have just written a new proposal for a new women’s group and I’m excited to be able to offer this again. 

I love empowering women in their wisdom and their intuition and in a nutshell, this is Leadership Development. I have to mention here that I work with a lot of men too, of all ages, on developing their leadership skills, from the inside out.

How would you define “personal power”? 

Personal power is personal authority, personal authorship, writing your own story, adventure and life path. This is something that is felt in your whole being – a sense of being at home in yourself. This includes being relatively comfortable with your feelings, not creating too many defences and being able to be vulnerable. This is real strength and it’s within our humanness that we can tap into our true power.

How do you help clients take steps towards building a meaningful career?

I get to know them and  I use my intuition. I help them to become aware of their own somatic experience, to develop a perception of sensations in their bodies of what signals good and bad feelings. I coach them to follow the pleasant ones, to be curious about their uncomfortable feelings, and to begin to identify them and develop a language that is useful to them for navigating the world while paying attention to their inner terrain. Then they can choose the life they want from their truest place inside, not from their minds or any outside influence or culture. Sometimes we go back to what they loved to do as kids or if it is a kid I’m working with, then we look at when they were younger, or when and where in their lives they feel most joyful.

What do you love the most about what you do?

I get to witness change. Breakthroughs to what can be very pure, beautiful, bountiful, and hopeful places within people. It is SUCH a privilege and it brings me great joy to help people find a more authentic way to lead their lives and to watch them master their own destinies. I find this so moving and exciting and such an honour to witness this kind of courage. It’s a hero’s or heroine’s journey – truly inspiring!


Find out more about Catriona’s services on her website. To work with Catriona or find out more about how she can support you contact catrionaocurry@gmail.com.

Read more inspiring relocation stories and interviews with leading experts on the MumAbroad blog.

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