Dr. Lisa Larsen: “What you see in front of you is not the whole story”

What you see in front of you is not the whole story. You may think that someone is completely healthy when they have an invisible or hidden illness. Conversely, you might assume that someone is very unhealthy if they’re in a wheelchair. The assumptions that you make limit your ability to know this human being […]

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What you see in front of you is not the whole story. You may think that someone is completely healthy when they have an invisible or hidden illness. Conversely, you might assume that someone is very unhealthy if they’re in a wheelchair. The assumptions that you make limit your ability to know this human being fully. Try to keep your assumptions and biases in mind when you see anyone, but especially people with disabilities.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD.

Dr. Lisa Larsen is a licensed psychologist in private practice, helping trauma survivors and grievers find joy and meaning in the present moment, since 2004. She obtained her education and training in the San Francisco Bay Area and had a private practice there until she moved to Lancaster California in 2009. Before that, she worked in community mental health and substance abuse facilities, as well as a homeless shelter. You can learn more about her practice at

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Thank you for this opportunity to share my story with you. I’m not sure if this is exactly what you’re looking for, but I’ll give it my best shot. I grew up in Berkeley, California as an only child in a middle-class family. I had some trouble with socializing and feeling worthwhile, and I made some unfortunate mistakes in high school and college. I was learning how to find my voice and I regret to say that I didn’t always use it for good. My self-esteem suffered and I became less aware of my body, so I didn’t care for it the way I should have. As is so often the case, I got away with it when I was young but as a middle-age person, I can’t get away with it anymore. Therefore, I am having to inhabit my body differently now and learn from my past mistakes. Luckily, I had the means and wherewithal to do that.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

I lived in places where the pollution and mold toxicity affected my tendons and connective tissues. It also led to certain sensitivities and allergies. As mentioned above, I was not always careful about how I treated my body. I had a period of substance abuse for a while that also affected my organs of elimination, and probably did not help mentally either.

Of course, I am sober now. Additionally, I’m happy to say that while my body may not be perfectly healthy, I am striving to be the best version of me I can be emotionally and spiritually. There were points last year when I felt somewhat desperate, but I had a sense of duty to my family and clients, to be a good example of fortitude and perseverance. I also decided that I liked living and that the period of darkness I was going through was temporary. It would not last forever and it certainly was not the worst suffering in the history of humanity. I thought about Martin Seligman’s work regarding depression and learned helplessness. I remember that helpless, depressed people tend to think of suffering as permanent, personal and pervasive. I knew I didn’t want to fall into that trap, because it is a difficult trap from which to extricate oneself.

They say you teach which you need to learn. I often encourage my clients to treat themselves as though they love themselves, even before they can admit it. By reclaiming my body and mind from despair, I learned it to re-inhabit my body in a purposeful, loving way in order to not continue to be sick. It has taken a lot of effort, but I can’t think of a more meaningful use of my energy and resources.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness?

I have received a doctorate degree in clinical psychology, obtained my license as a psychologist, and worked in various settings. I built a successful private practice in the Bay Area, which I then had to rebuild when I relocated to Lancaster. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about humanity and how to be kind and helpful to a variety of people. I think that my difficulties with my health and my body have forced me to be more mindful and compassionate. In a way, even though it’s very difficult at times, my illness has been a blessing. If I can learn to be truly loving to everybody, including myself, I will have you considered my life a success.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

I would advise people to allow themselves to grieve what they can’t do, but focus more on what they can do. Everyone is here on this earth for a reason. We all have something to contribute, and while we may be discouraged sometimes, it is much more empowering to remember our strengths than our disabilities. When people are rude or narrowminded, do not give them the power to define you or to take away your love for yourself. Anyone who is marginalized in our culture can be insulted, degraded, or mistreated externally. However, we must prevent that from affecting how we treat ourselves. We must always love ourselves despite our surroundings or what we have been told by individuals or the culture at large.

Also, remember that you have just as much right to be here as anyone else. Sometimes, cruel or fearful people treat us as though we had nothing to contribute. They see our physical limitations as giving them license to treat us like burdensome creatures who impede progress. One of my favorite heroes, Dr. Milton H Erickson, had polio and was in a wheelchair. However, he was powerfully persuasive and he actually used his disability as a catalyst for his clinical creativity. The spiritual leader, Ram Dass, suffered a massive stroke and had to be rehabilitated in order to speak, yet he maintained a loving and wise presence until he left his body last year. We are temporarily in these bodies, and we can use them as instruments of learning or we can curse them and be angry at them. It is much more peaceful and empowering to see how our limitations can help us grow emotionally and spiritually.

I would also encourage people to take your healing into your own hands as much as possible. If a doctor tells you there is no cure for what you have or that you only have so long to live, be a rebel with a cause. Try to find ways to take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually that work for you. Doctors can only do so much for us. We are our own best advocates and healers. Don’t give up just because someone else says that you don’t fit their medical understanding. I’m not saying to ignore doctors altogether, but with chronic illnesses especially, we have to tailor what we learn from others to suit our unique needs.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

It’s very hard to list just one person. The person who comes to mind immediately is my husband, Glen. He put me through graduate school, believed in me, and has helped me tremendously when I have been sick or injured. We’ve been there for each other, that I am eternally grateful to him. I am also grateful for all the people on my healing team and the people I admire.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I like to think that my psychotherapy practice has influenced parents to be kinder to their children, brothers and sisters to be more patient to their siblings, partners to be gentler to each other, and individual clients to be more loving towards themselves and others. I hope that I can have an even greater impact in the future, helping more people on a greater scale. For the time being, however, I try to help people transform their suffering into something instructive that motivates them to change in a positive direction. From that, hopefully there is a ripple effect that affects their families, communities, and even larger circles of influence.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.

First, what you see in front of you is not the whole story. You may think that someone is completely healthy when they have an invisible or hidden illness. Conversely, you might assume that someone is very unhealthy if they’re in a wheelchair. The assumptions that you make limit your ability to know this human being fully. Try to keep your assumptions and biases in mind when you see anyone, but especially people with disabilities.

Second, not everyone who has a disability that is visible wants to be asked about it. Certainly, there are ways of asking about it that are more respectful than others. I’ve had people come out and say things like, “what’s wrong with you?” I often reply to them, “I’d rather talk about what’s right with me.” Some people don’t mind talking about how they became disabled or what illness they have. Personally, it’s not my favorite topic. I’m guessing that most of us would rather not have that be the only thing that you ask about or talk to us about. There is so much more interesting about us than our physical limitation. There is our heart, soul, mind, interests, preferences, political views, in addition to the body you see before you.

Third, please don’t give me medical advice for which I didn’t ask. I’ve had people come up to me and recommend things that are completely off-the-wall. It’s a very personal thing, one’s health regimen. Often, I know people are coming from a good place but sometimes it just adds to the frustration of being ill or disabled when someone randomly comes up and tells me I need to pray more or drink castor oil. Just because you’re walking and I’m not, does not mean that you get to dictate to me what I should or should not be doing. My diet and my lifestyle might be 10 times healthier than yours. I’m sorry if this comes across as a little angry, but it’s very strange to get unsolicited medical advice on the train or on the street. Please, just don’t.

However, if you want to open the door for me, I would not object. Fourth, please just treat me like a human being who deserves your respect and kindness like any other human being. There are some things I can’t do for myself and I appreciate help, but please ask me if I need help and don’t assume that I’m helpless.

Fifth, we are not all the same. We don’t have the same mobility problems, illnesses, limitations, etc., any more than every white person or person of color is the same. Please don’t lump us all together and think that you know us because you are familiar with one type of disability or illness. In a way, it’s like being culturally sensitive to people from diverse backgrounds. Respect and dignity are good things to cultivate regardless of the person with whom you are interacting. We all deserve that, don’t you think?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

I like what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “if I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” This is important for me to remember because I’m terribly ambitious and I have to remember to do my small part in whatever dignified, thorough way I can.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

The person who came to mind immediately was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I know that’s a long shot, but I would truly love that. I admire someone who can laugh so easily, forgive so profoundly, and love so completely. I think we would have a great time giggling together at life and each other. Yet there are many other people that I would love to meet too, such as Barack and Michelle Obama, Jack Kornfield, Krishna Das, or Sharon Salzberg. In closing, thank you very much for this opportunity. I hope that your readers can derive something useful from this.

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