We need to focus on ourselves rather than others. We need to stop comparing. The Comparison Trap — it’s very real, very constant, and very difficult. We’re each affected differently each day, depending on a variety of other factors going on in our lives, like how much sleep we got the night before, whether or not we’re getting along with our friends and family, how we did on a recent project, or how we’re getting along with our partners.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Melanie McNally.
Dr. Melanie McNally is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in helping teens and young adults reduce anxiety and build self-confidence. She lives in the forest of the upper peninsula of Michigan with her husband and three dogs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional home and struggled with anxiety most of the time. I worried about everything — grades, what others thought of me, my parent’s constant fighting, my future, money, swim meets, and softball games… you name it, I worried about it. I suffered from chronic stomach aches and problems, had trouble falling asleep, and felt irritable and grumpy a lot. And to make it worse, I was taught to hold in whatever I was feeling and that I should NEVER tell anyone what was going on inside me!
I ended up learning about psychology during my undergraduate studies and loved it; however, I wanted some life experience before I was going to do anything with it. As I told my mom at the age of 21, how could I help teens deal with life experiences if I had none myself? How could I help others with anxiety if I hadn’t yet learned how to deal with it on my own?
So off I went to San Francisco where I gathered enough life experience to fill a few lifetimes — I traveled the country and the world, I met people from all walks of life, and I worked lots of fun jobs. I also used that time to go to therapy to learn how to deal with my anxiety, to journal, to create boundaries within unhealthy relationships, and to just learn how to like myself. Eventually, I felt ready to return to school and begin my graduate training, first with a master’s degree in counseling and then a doctorate in clinical psychology.
I love working with teens and young adults because I get to give them the tools that I wish I would’ve had when I was younger. I get to be the support system that I so desperately needed. Nothing makes me happier than hearing a client change their negative self-talk, become less anxious, and learn to like themselves — flaws and all.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When helping others strengthen their mental wellness, there are always interesting days in the office! Because of confidentiality, I can’t share specifics, but I can say that over the years, I’ve learned that things usually aren’t what they seem. In psychology, we talk about “red herrings” a lot — the distraction from the actual problem. When I first started, I didn’t realize how important these red herrings were to my clients. Clients will focus on their anxiety symptoms, for example, when really the root of the issue isn’t anxiety at all. It may be a lack of purpose, discontentment with the life they’ve created, or feelings of low self-worth. But they’ll be so focused on anxiety management and dealing with the physical symptoms or peripheral problems that the anxiety causes that they’ll fight you on what the root cause is. It’s usually an unintentional and subconscious defense mechanism. It’s scary to face the core issue, so people will come up with all kinds of things to distract you from it, such as suddenly developing new symptoms, creating new problems, or self-sabotaging. It was confusing when I first started out, and I was taken on some wild goose chases helping clients put out fire after fire until I realized these fires were the red herrings. I now know how to quickly identify the red herrings, as well as how to help my clients see them for what they are — a distraction from the real issue.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Like many psychologists, I entered the field because I wanted to help others. But also like many psychologists, I was willing to do this at my own expense. I didn’t understand self-care or the necessity of boundaries when I first started. I worked extra hours, took calls when I shouldn’t have, went over the allotted time for a session, and worried about my clients when not working. While I was simultaneously completing my internship at a county health department and preparing to defend my dissertation, I didn’t engage in self-care at all. It wasn’t encouraged, I didn’t grasp it’s importance, and I didn’t have time for it. That is until my lack of it manifested into the world’s largest pimple. It was so big that I literally accepted it as a permanent part of my face. I thought, “this is just a part of me now. There’s no point in fighting it.” I had no understanding that this pimple was a direct result of my lack of sleep and chronic stress. It wasn’t until my husband and I took advantage of a three-day weekend and left town to celebrate my successful dissertation defense that I made the connection. This rare opportunity of relaxation made my enormous pimple disappear and a lightbulb went off inside my head. I realized how much I needed to care for my mental health in order to have good physical health. That lesson helped me learn how to prioritize self-care and to create boundaries so that I could have better work-life balance.
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? Can you share a story about that?
I think my biggest helpers have been the ones who were trying to hold me back. I’ve had a couple of supervisors who really didn’t want to see others in the field succeed. The two that come to mind seemed to want people to feel dependent on them and discouraged critical thinking, independence, and entrepreneurship. They were very old-school in their therapeutic approach and style, fostering client-therapist relationships that were co-dependent and unhealthy. Their discouragement and toxicity only motivated and inspired me to look for other ways to be a psychologist. I knew I didn’t want to be like them so I was inspired to look outside my field and to get creative in how I ran my own practice and in how I “administered” psychology. Because of them, I focused on educating others about mental wellness, went online to promote resources, and sought a community of like-minded psychologists doing the same.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Self-care, self-care, self-care. It’s an overused term for a reason. If I’m not caring for myself, how in the world can I be helpful to others? It’s impossible. Psychologists are so good at helping but often forget about the importance of taking care of themselves. I suggest having a daily self-care routine in place, setting boundaries for work versus recreational, and then sticking to it.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Create an open-minded environment that promotes learning and growth. Leaders often want to hear how great they and their ideas are, which creates a stifling environment where others aren’t free to share feedback, contribute their own ideas, or grow and evolve into a better worker. Successful work cultures include room for feedback to the leadership and the process, as well as room for others to explore, share, and advance their own ideas.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
The first step is getting daily exercise into your routine if it’s not there already. It helps us sleep better, which is a foundational part of mental wellness. I don’t know about you, but if I miss an hour of sleep, I’m a mess the next day. I’m more likely to be irritable and bothered by things that wouldn’t normally bug me as much. Exercise also causes a release of endorphins, which improve our mood, and helps to create new synaptic connections, which helps us adapt and learn. Do you need more proof of how important exercise is to mental wellness? Ok, how about knowing that it increases our energy and stamina, decreases fatigue, reduces stress, improves cognitive functioning, and helps boost our self-esteem?
Exercise is so crucial to mental wellness that it’s usually the very first intervention I use with my clients. I recommend that they start with whatever they can manage, whether it’s squeezing in a morning walk with their dog once a week to dancing around the kitchen while making dinner, and for those without an exercise routine in place, it’s the absolute number one thing that should be started to build mental wellness. Now please know, I’m talking about being rigid and having a strict routine, I’m not suggesting exercise for weight loss, and I’m not recommending an excessive amount of exercise. Instead, I’m suggesting adding daily movement to your life, or continuing it if you’re already doing it, as a way to improve and maintain mental wellness.
The next step is building a practice of gratitude. When we express gratitude, whether it’s for people in our life, careers, material objects, good fortune, the weather, a kind gesture, or a good meal, it helps us feel better. Gratitude changes everything. Whether we’re expressing gratitude for something huge, like getting that sought-after promotion, or something smaller, like someone holding open a door for us, we’re training our brain to notice the good in our lives. We’re focusing our attention on what’s going right instead of looking for what’s going wrong in the day. This is a key component of mental wellness.
If you’d like more gratitude in your life, the best thing you can do to strengthen the muscle is to keep a gratitude journal. Write down 3 to 5 things each night that you’re grateful for- they don’t need to be huge but should be different each day. Once we start this nightly practice, we begin to notice more things during the day. Our brain becomes trained to tune into the good moments. Practicing gratitude may be difficult at first, especially for those who are more used to complaining than thanking. However, it causes a positive shift in our thinking and focus, decreases overall anxiety, and helps us feel better about our situations, no matter the circumstances. If you’re not used to practicing gratitude, start with the journal and pay attention to the little things that go right during your day. With time, you’ll notice more and more moments to be grateful for, which shows that the muscle is getting stronger. I’ve had clients who initially could barely come up with one thing to write in their gratitude journal who eventually had too many things to write in it.
The third step in mental wellness is establishing and maintaining boundaries in relationships, which seems to be one of the most frequently talked about topics I deal with in therapy. People really struggle with this idea, and when setting boundaries is recommended and needed, they’re usually pretty resistant to doing it. I often hear excuses like, “But she’s my mom, I have to just deal with it,” or “But he’s old, he won’t change,” or “But she’s my boss, I can’t say that to her.” What people usually fail to understand is that we have a choice in our relationships. We get to choose how to respond to others, and we get to choose what we’re okay with or not.
Now I’m not saying that there aren’t consequences for setting boundaries with others because there ARE. When we set boundaries with friends, family members, colleagues, bosses, neighbors, or whoever, there are likely going to be consequences. In fact, you should probably count on it. If we’re setting a boundary with a family member or friend when we’ve allowed certain unhealthy things to go on for years, they’re going to likely freak out. People generally don’t like it when we set boundaries with them. Furthermore, the people who we’re setting boundaries with are usually pretty unhealthy themselves, so they’re likely to lack the self-awareness necessary to understand their role in the dynamic. They might blame you for being sensitive or dramatic or cold or aloof. They may fight back and become even more passive-aggressive or rude or whatever it is that caused you to create the boundary to begin with. They may distance themselves from you because they can’t handle the new dynamic or shift in the relationship.
It’s really important to recognize why you’re setting the boundary to begin with as a way to help keep you focused on maintaining it. Once you’ve identified the need, get specific on how you’ll create and maintain the boundary, but also be prepared for the backlash. Please know this- when we’re setting boundaries with others, we’re potentially putting a cascade of events into motion that could result in significant life changes. Almost like a ripple effect. The good news is that when we set positive boundaries, the changes that come about are also positive, so enjoy them.
Another key step in mental wellness is going outside of our comfort zones. Imagine if we waited for 100% certainty to do anything big in our lives. Nothing would ever be accomplished. I know I wouldn’t have gone back to school for my doctorate in my 30s or started my own private practice or moved from our city home to the country and then to the forest. Most of the wonderful things in my life wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t gone outside my comfort zone.
Think about it — if we’re super comfortable and confident with whatever movement we’re making, are we going outside our comfort zone? No, it’s a sure thing. So many of us (myself included) try to avoid discomfort at all costs — we avoid situations and people that make us feel any at all. Tolerating discomfort, though, can help us grow.
Think of a comfort zone as a bubble that we’re constantly trying to make a bit bigger. We’re not trying to pop it, just gently inflate it each day. We can do this in small ways (like trying new foods, recipes, or routes to work) and big ways (like signing up for a new activity, speaking up in uncomfortable situations, or volunteering for a project that’s outside our scope of expertise). Balance out making your comfort zone bubble bigger with small and big things so it’s not overwhelming, and let others know what you’re doing so they can support and challenge you. We’re more likely to follow through on the hard stuff when we’re accountable to a friend, plus it feels good to have a cheerleader in our corner, noticing how hard we’re working and encouraging us to keep going.
Finally, we need to focus on ourselves rather than others. We need to stop comparing. The Comparison Trap — it’s very real, very constant, and very difficult. We’re each affected differently each day, depending on a variety of other factors going on in our lives, like how much sleep we got the night before, whether or not we’re getting along with our friends and family, how we did on a recent project, or how we’re getting along with our partners.
So just to be clear, The Comparison Trap is when we get caught in a trap of comparing ourselves to others, and we just can’t seem to get out of it. We’re so focused on what others are doing and how it compares to our own lives, we’re not thinking about what’s best for ourselves. We want to make choices that are based on our own individual lives and what’s going to help us progress and evolve. While a friend may benefit greatly from getting up at 5AM and meditating, we may have been up several times during the night with a youngster and need the extra sleep in the morning much more than a meditation session.
There are things we can do to stay out of The Trap and focused on our own lives. First, pay attention to when you’re more prone to falling into The Trap. Practice paying attention to when you feel it and make a mental note of “hey, I’m feeling pretty crappy about myself right now,” so you can see if any patterns emerge. Second, stay away from the stuff that makes you feel like crap. Whether it’s someone’s social media account or the gossipy colleague, take a break so you can decide why it’s having such an impact on you and what to do about it. Third, remind yourself that there’s no right or wrong way to look, think, or live in the world. Tell yourself that everyone has different skills, abilities, qualities, personality traits, looks, strengths, and weaknesses, and that this is what makes us all unique. Finally, focus on the things you like about yourself, the stuff you’re good at, and the things that go right each day.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Research has shown how important purpose is and that doesn’t change after retirement. I encourage anyone approaching or already in retirement to find a purpose. That purpose might be family, volunteer work, taking courses, or learning a new skill. I would encourage those approaching retirement to come up with a plan prior to retiring and to get some things in place to make the transition smooth. We want there to be specifics so that there are steps to guide and a clear path to follow. Sometimes people wait until after retirement, thinking they just want to relax a bit and then figure it out; however, in my experience, it’s a bit harder for people to get back into a routine once out of it. It’s much easier to have the plan in place so that once they retire, they can ease right into the new routine.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Most of the teens and tweens I work with are already pretty active so getting exercise into the daily routine isn’t as important. However, tweens and teens usually aren’t getting as much sleep as they should, so I focus on that aspect instead. Additionally, the other steps of helping them practice gratitude, create boundaries, get outside their comfort zone, and avoid The Comparison Trap are essential steps for tween and teen mental wellness. The teaching and implementation of the steps is quite different from adults though.
When addressing sleep hygiene, I teach tweens and teens about melatonin, the sleep hormone, and how our brains release it at different times depending on our age. For them, melatonin isn’t released until around 1AM, making it a little harder for them to fall asleep when they likely should. Additionally, the use of devices can push back melatonin release even further, meaning that most teens aren’t getting the 9–10 hours of sleep they need each night. When we lack sleep, we’re more likely to feel irritable, moody, and to act impulsively. I like to help teens come up with a sleep routine that works for their schedule, which includes shutting down devices 60–90 minutes before bed and keeping a fairly consistent sleep and wake time. I tell tweens and teens that it’s hard for us to figure out what’s causing their anxiety or moodiness until we have sleep under control, which usually motivates them to make changes.
Teaching tweens and teens the practice of gratitude is a bit different when compared to adults. Instead of having them keep a journal and write 3–5 things each night, I have them pay attention to “slices of joy” throughout the day. This is an idea created and taught by Chade-Meng Tan, a former Google engineer who became known as The Happiness Guru. These slices of joy are just little moments of happiness that occur in our day, from curling up in a bed with a ton of pillows to tasting that first bite of a warm brownie. We take a moment to identify the feeling of joy and make a mental note. I then ask them to think of all their slices of joy from the day as they fall asleep at night.
Creating boundaries for tweens and teens also looks a bit different than for adults and involves building self-awareness much more so. Tweens and teens often don’t yet have the insight to know when relationships are unhealthy and first need to develop this skill. I encourage them to notice how they feel when around friends and family members, as well as when scrolling through social media. I have them ask questions about what it is about the person or post that makes them feel uncomfortable so they learn to recognize when it’s from others’ actions versus internal feelings of low self-confidence. Once they learn this skill, they can decide if they need to create some sort of boundary and if so, what that boundary will look like. Additionally, because tween and teen friend worlds intersect so much, it’s important for them to understand how a boundary with one person may impact relationships with others. It’s important to talk it through so they have a plan in place on how to handle those sticky situations. Once they have some insight, skills, and a plan, they’ll be much more likely to follow through on creating healthy boundaries.
When teaching tweens and teens the importance of going outside their comfort zone, I frame it as an important aspect of self-confidence. We’re most likely going to feel self-doubt when trying new things so I teach them how to get comfortable with being a beginner. They need to practice being a newbie as much as possible, whether it’s trying out a new sport, learning a new language, or joining a new friend group. Sometimes this means starting off with baby steps and working our way up to the harder thing. For example, someone may need to start off with baby steps of speaking up in class more often, doing the morning announcements, and completing a class presentation before they’re ready to audition for the school play. With each step, we’re encouraging them to practice a relaxation tool and to engage in helpful self-talk.
Lastly, we have The Comparison Trap. I’ve never met a tween or teen who doesn’t know about it and doesn’t struggle with it. Since the digital lives of tweens and teens is sometimes more important than in-person life, especially during the pandemic, I focus on teaching them how social media posts are highlight reels and likely an inaccurate reflection of someone’s real life. I teach them to pay attention to how they feel before, during, and after their time scrolling to develop insight into how and when and why they may fall into The Trap. It’s important for them to have skills to get out of The Trap, including taking a break from social media, having real life conversations with friends and family, working on a positive activity or hobby, and engaging in positive self-talk. It’s also helpful for them to have a variety of diverse and positive role models so they have real life examples of how there’s no one way to live or be in the world.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I’m an avid reader so this is a tough question for me. One book that saved me as a young kid though was The Real Me by Betty Miles. As I mentioned previously, I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional home and there was a lot of fighting and constant tension. I created a fort under a coffee table where I was tucked away in the corner of the living room. There, I was hidden by the blankets I hung from the table and super cozy with all the pillows I used to fill it. I would hide out in there and read. It felt safe. I read The Real Me so many times that I still remember it quite well. Even though the main character had a loving and supportive home, she wasn’t fully understood by her peers or society. She wanted to do “boy things’’ and others didn’t think she should. Instead of getting beat down by it, she rose to the challenge by going outside her comfort zone and speaking up about the needed changes. She created petitions and wrote to the local paper. She was a little social justice warrior long before that was even a term. She had to find her voice as she faced those who disagreed with her. I was so inspired by her courage and I drew on her bravery when I confronted challenges over the years.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I probably would have given a very different answer five years ago but today, it seems like the thing that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people is a movement in critical thinking skills. We’re in a new age of misinformation where people choose to believe one source or person rather than to look critically at multiple sources. This is damaging to us on both an individual and a societal level. It’s damaging on an individual level because when we lack critical thinking skills, we’re handing over our personal power to someone else. We’re allowing this one source or one person to have complete authority over how and what we think. It’s damaging as a society because when we’re unable to take in a variety of sources and think critically about each, we’re prey to authoritarian leadership and cults. Schools and parents need to take this issue head on and teach kids how to check their sources, gather and investigate information, ask questions, think critically, and form educated opinions. Perhaps most importantly, adults need to be held accountable for spreading misinformation and outright lies.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.” I started my career in community mental health where I ran a program for homeless adults with severe mental illness. My program was just a small part of a much larger mental health agency and there was a lot of bureaucracy that got in the way of providing quality mental health care to adults truly in need. I had a supervisor who said that life lesson quote to me and encouraged me to do what I thought was best for my program and its clients, rather than to wait for permission from the organizational leaders. He said that as long as I’m doing what’s best for the clients, it’ll be hard for anyone to be angry later. You know what? He was totally right. I got so much more accomplished than many of my colleagues, who would wait to go through numerous meetings and countless forms, and I never was reprimanded or fired for my actions.
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On Instagram @drmelaniemcnally, https://www.instagram.com/drmelaniemcnally/
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!