Beverly Schwartz and Mr. Rogers and The Importance of Self-Care

Beverly Schwartz and Mr. Rogers and the Importance of Self-Care

By Monica A. Ross, LPC

We had a great class last night. The energy of class flows better some nights than others. I smile a little as I look at the tired and weary faces of my colleagues and then glance at my own image on screen, also looking a little tired and weary. Many of us have full-time jobs in addition to attending class. It’s a lot we’re tackling here—this business of changing the world. 

Last night the discussion went from Beverly Schwartz to Mr. Rogers to seed funding. Beverly wrote a book called Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World. In one of her lectures, which we watched outside of class, she talks about the stickiness of past experience—“for each of these entrepreneurs there was something with their past that collided with their present and set their future in motion—the problem sought them out and stuck to them by virtue of their past experience.”
 
It’s the stickiness of past experience that has brought my colleagues and me here. For some of us that past experience starts in childhood. There was an influential event or an influential person in our lives that caused us to take the actions that we took that led us here today. We saw problems that made it easy for us to see because we’ve experienced them in some way ourselves.

I was thinking yesterday about choices—the choices we make in life. How we make choices based on values. True to my INFP nature, I put a high value on education and on meaning-making.

Different people, different choices. If I do a values-based exercise with a client, I’m truly wanting to know—what are your values and how will you make choices based on those values? I wouldn’t attempt to give guidance to someone else based on my own value system. 

There’s not a universal book on the laws of humanity that I’m going to pull down from any shelf and say “well actually according to law number, you should do this…” while others have tried. That book, if it existed, would be the book that my clients write. All of these psychological tools that are available are there to promote the free and responsible search for one’s own truth and meaning. 

There have been people I have come across who have commented on the commitment I’m making to student loan debt to complete this program. Yes, it’s quite a commitment. If I had put a higher value on other things in life they would have led to other choices, outside of an advanced education, no doubt.

Schwartz throws out another great quote, this one comes from a friend of hers—“When you invest in human value there are never any taxes and you come out richer no matter what happens and when you speak from your soul you speak from a universal language that everyone can understand.” I liked that one too. 

I have made a commitment to human value. I’m doing my best to speak from my soul. Mr. Rogers? He comes into play because there is the new documentary coming out soon. He spoke before the Senate in 1969 to defend federal funding of public programs like his own. In this clip of his testimony found here, he read the poem below.

The Mad that You Feel

What do you do with the mad that you feel? This thinking is very much in line with Viktor Frankl and with existential psychotherapy—stimulus versus response. Between every situation or every stimulus and every response, there is a space. That space is the power to choose. What I sometimes tell clients is that we can register our feelings about a situation very quickly—within milliseconds.

The limbic or primitive portion of our brain that is also connected to the amygdala, or our fear center, makes it hard sometimes not to react immediately, especially when registering an event as threatening in some way. This actually happened to me the other day at a social gathering. Ugh. It happens to us all, right?

We let some snarky comment get to us before we even know what happened. Snarky comments can feel threatening. And before you know it, you can get caught in a kind of back and forth tit for tat.

To be able to work on the ability to handle things tactfully when that happens is a real skill and so hard when our systems are down—when we’re stressed out to the max—and all the more reason to implement acts of self-care.

How I'm Currently Answering the Question: "What's the Book Going to Be About?"

by Monica Ross

Dorothea Lange-Migrant Mother

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I’ve run into people lately who know my intent of writing a book and they’ve been asking me, “Well what's it about?” I say that I have a loose sketch. There are several themes that I want to tie in together. The general themes are poverty, stigma, mental health, physical health, behavioral economics, and therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. 

I’ve thought about going back to school to advance my studies even further. And recently, I applied to a couple of doctoral programs. Both of these programs are online and shorter in length than a traditional PhD track program, which would be geared more towards someone who wants to end up conducting research and teaching in academia. The one doctoral program that I am looking at in particular would place the emphasis on clinical practice.

I don’t know whether or not I’ll get into my program of choice or whether or not having gained the acceptance I’ll sign the piece of paper that commits myself to even more student loan debt. But I thought I’d use this post to explain some of my background or reasoning for wanting to pursue the idea of writing a book.

I made some of the following statements in my personal statement submitted to the doctoral program that elucidate my intent a little bit more:

Extreme economic inequality is a public health problem. As a health care provider, I want to advance well-being practices geared towards overcoming the unique psychological barriers that economic inequality perpetuates in order to stimulate behavioral and economic change. The government focuses on prevention and early intervention for “at risk” youth, and this leaves out our adult population, an even larger demographic.

Some of the adults I have treated were not able to get early interventions and therefore find themselves struggling later in life. I am intrigued by the work of Eldar Shafir and Johannes Haushofer, both from Princeton University, who are leading the conversation linking poverty to psychology and tracing this linkage to its economic impact.

In my early years, in Texas, I saw the struggles my parents had with chronic health impairments and economic inequality. This influenced my decision to go into psychology and sociology as an undergraduate student and to focus my studies on resilience and well-being later in life.

I did not see the burden of my parents’ health and financial issues, or my own issues for that matter, as resting solely on our shoulders. Instead, I had some sense there were environmental and societal factors affecting our overall health and well-being. I am an advocate of personal agency and responsibility, while at the same time acknowledging that we, all of us, live in systems.

After graduation I spent many years working in California at corporate, government, nonprofit, and academic institutions. I chose this path of work because I chased after the financial security that these roles provided. In 2010 I made the decision to come back to Texas to be with family and I came up with a plan to pursue my calling—to return to the study of psychology and to become a psychotherapist.

By August of 2011, I was enrolled full-time in a counseling program at St. Edward’s University. By May of 2014, I finished my counseling program and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. With my master’s degree and LPC-intern license in hand, I made the decision to relocate to rural East Texas because of the experience it offered.

I began working at Burke, a Federally Qualified Health Center headquartered in Lufkin. It serves a 12-county region and houses services for people across the life span, from children to adults, with mental health and medical issues. At Burke, I worked initially with the most severely mentally ill in vivo as a caseworker.

In that role as an in vivo caseworker, I came face-to-face with the devastating effects of poverty in America and its relationship to mental health. After a year as a caseworker, I transitioned to the office and provided psychotherapy at the clinic for our clients that included 50- to 90-minute individual counseling, group therapy, and psychoeducational sessions.

I discovered a wellness self-management personal workbook from the New York State Office of Mental Health and used that as a tool to lead a 12-week series of group therapy sessions. I also drove once a week an hour outside of Lufkin to Crockett, a town of less than 7,000, in order to provide therapy to the neediest in that community. Crockett has a 39.1% poverty rate.

In some ways, I had escaped the financial and cultural struggles of my early years for an interlude while in working California only to willingly come back to my home state and face those same struggles again, but from a different perspective. Once I finished the licensure process, I moved back to Austin to embark upon my own private practice.

Throughout my experience as a counselor, I have continued to work with clients of all ages in all levels of socioeconomic status. I have clients who have been in and out of prison, who have had Child Protective Services (CPS) involvement in their lives, and who are struggling to maintain independent housing, access to proper nutrition, and transportation.

I have also worked with top executives of well-known companies who are somewhat more economically privileged, but often face similar mental health challenges and have had to overcome sometimes similar childhood trauma.

By addressing the unique psychological barriers that people coming from a place of extreme economic inequality face, we can more adequately advance long and productive lives. This may come through a process of creating social responses that include therapeutic techniques to adapt to the changing social environment.

The experiences that I have had throughout life, the witnessing of the effects of extreme inequality, which are influenced by both societal factors and internalized psychological barriers, have taken on new meaning for me. These experiences were not random occurrences, but instead have prepared me for the work that I currently do and for the legacy that I hope to one day leave.

 

Existential Psychotherapy

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I want to talk a little bit about existential psychotherapy since it is another modality I lay claim to operating within. For existential psychotherapists, a primary concern in working with clients isn’t so much about focusing on defects due to mental illness or flaws in character or personality. What existential psychotherapists want to get at in working with clients is to assist the client in uncovering where the client draws meaning and purpose in life and to encourage the pursuit of that meaning and purpose. Existential psychotherapy takes into account the fact that we all exist here on this earth and therefore have challenges in life to face as a result. But for each of us our existence precedes our essence.

That before each of these statements about a person comes the verb “are”—people “are.” We exist. That’s the starting point for all of us.

In a way, we are thrown into this existence.

And because we exist and because human life is finite, the task becomes then to make something of our existence despite all the things that may have been thrown upon us at birth. For example, we may have been born into poverty, we may have been born with a genetic defect, we may have been born male/female, etc.

Existential psychotherapy concerns itself with four dimensions of existence in particular—the physical, social, personal, and spiritual—and each of these dimensions has its own paradox. We break that down like this.

Physical

At some point we will physically die. If we deny that our existence is finite, we run the risk of wasting the life that we have. If however, we keep within our awareness the idea that we will one day cease to exist, we might be motivated to live our lives more fully.

Social

The paradox of the social realm is that we exist on this planet with others. Our option is to either live in conflict or cooperation with them. Because we are aware of our separateness, we can develop the capacity to relate and respect the separateness of others. At the same time we are individuals with a need to be part of a greater whole.

Personal

In the personal realm we discover that there are no hard and fast rules to life and that we all have vulnerabilities. Because of that, taking on personal responsibility becomes of way of creating rules for ourselves. If we deny our vulnerability and refuse personal responsibility we might lose the strength and stamina that come from the freedom to choose.

Spiritual

We develop our own value systems outside of the context of absolute truth and this is where we relate to that which is unknown. We make up our own ideas for the reasons for our being here on earth and determine for ourselves what we believe to be right or wrong. Here, too, is where we create meaning and where we find purpose in life. This is where we get our worldview.

This type of therapy is very future focused. It acknowledges that the past, though seemingly fixed, is in fact changing because our view of the past can change over time. In addition, life presents a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty and the goal often becomes developing the ability to tolerate the anxiety that this may produce.

For existential psychotherapists the mind and body are connected and not functionally distinct. In other words, it’s not so much that we have a body but that we are a body. We are also connected to the world we exist in so that how we think about ourselves is often a reflection of our experiences with our environment and how we interpret the outer world.

Because life is in constant flux and ever changing, the meaning that we make of our lives is also in flux, but to be able to make meaning of the life that we are in is an essential thing. The loss of a sense of meaning in life can lead to depression.

We are all born into the world with assumptions and biases that influence our actions. The first step is to become aware that we have biases. That having been said, it is possible to do reality checks to verify our assumptions. This fits very nicely with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which aims to look at evidence for and against negative core beliefs that we might have.

For more information on existential psychotherapy see Emmy van Deurzen’s work. Much of the information contained in this post comes from a class I took on existential psychotherapy with Skills in Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy by Emmy van Deurzen and Martin Adams as the text.

The following are existential authors taken from one of Emmy’s presentations.