Zoom out. This is a phrase I say to myself whenever I notice I’m feeling activated (angry, sad, shocked, etc. This works with all emotions). It’s a reminder to take a breath (never underestimate the power of the breath), let the context sink in, look at it from other perspectives, and ask myself, “am I going to be upset by this 1 year from now? 1 month from now? 1 day from now? Probably not? Then why am I letting it upset me now?”
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie Beltrán. Valerie is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in trauma (using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), with a private practice in the CA East Bay. Valerie is a part-time trainer and consultant with WestEd, facilitating trainings on trauma-informed practices to early childcare providers. In her therapy practice, Valerie integrates Western psychological methods with Eastern and Indigenous traditions, along with cutting-edge research on the mind-body connection. Valerie was formerly the Chief of Staff for eco-tech entrepreneur, Josh Whiton, and Head of Operations for the conscious technology startup Consciousness Hacking. In addition to therapy, Valerie currently does web design and marketing for other therapists. Having grown up with two ethnic backgrounds while living on the border between two countries, Valerie has become adept at metaphorically walking between worlds, seeing from multiple perspectives, and creating bridges between people and ideas. Valerie has a warm, yet direct approach that allows for vulnerability and accountability when discussing sensitive topics.
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?
Ever fascinated by people and their stories, from an early age, it seemed that a career as a therapist chose me. I was always the friend to whom others would turn when they wanted a shoulder to lean on. I was innately curious, quiet, and a good listener.
Having grown up with two ethnic backgrounds (Mexican & American) while living on the border between two countries (Mexico & U.S.A), I have become adept at metaphorically walking between worlds, seeing from multiple perspectives, and creating bridges between people and ideas. I’ve struggled with my bi-cultural identity, and have worked hard to have pride in all of my identities.
As part of this journey, I am now learning to incorporate my Native American heritage by learning to use plant medicines in psychotherapy. I am currently enrolled in a Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy Training program, in anticipation of the expected legalization of Psilocybin and MDMA for psychotherapeutic use in the very near future.
I also specialize in:
l Trauma (I use a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
l Children & Adolescents
l Polyamory and Couples
In my practice, I integrate Western psychological methods with Eastern and Indigenous traditions, along with cutting-edge research on the mind-body connection. My approach is compassionate, direct, collaborative, and research-based.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Before getting licensed, I was an intern at Head Start, (a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health & mental health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and families) working with preschool-aged children and their families. One child (we’ll call him Mario, although that isn’t his real name) had witnessed his uncle shot and killed in front of his house because of gang violence, resulting in an obsessive fear of guns and death. Mario talked incessantly about death, asking if he would die or if his friend would die, or if that person over there would die; with me, and in the classroom, he constantly wanted to pretend he was shooting ‘bad guys’ or getting shot himself. Although this kind of play is common with this age group, the way Mario obsessed about death and dying, I could see that he was trying to make sense of his uncle’s violent death. Before meeting with Mario, when I’d talked to his mother, I found that she was too devastated herself (it was her brother who’d been murdered) to talk to Mario about what he’d witnessed.
In our play therapy session one day, I asked Mario questions about what happens when someone dies, “Has anyone ever talked to you about death?” “Have you been to a funeral?” He knew nothing about death except the horror he had seen; and, without any understanding, it played on a loop in his mind, causing anxious behaviors (hyperactivity, inability to focus or relax, aggressive outbursts, etc). When I started to explain funerals, I saw him settle down a little, paying great attention to what I was saying. Suddenly, he leapt up with a brilliant idea and said, “Let’s pretend we’re shooting bad guys, and they shoot me, and then you have a funeral for me.” I was hesitant what this could stir up for him, but eager to help him process in any way I could, so I agreed.
We began the scenario with his usual hyperactivity and intensity, but as soon as he ‘died,’ he lay down on the floor, arms crossed on his chest, lying perfectly still while he waited for me to start the funeral. “Say nice things about me, Miss Valerina (the children at Head Start called me Valerina the Ballerina),” he directed, as I’d told him that’s what happens at funerals. I knelt over him, saying nice things about him, while he lay there, more calm and still than I’d ever seen him before. I felt the energy shift in the room, as if something deep and transformative were happening. I kept talking, sharing genuine, heartfelt messages of how I admired this young boy, all the while feeling the intensity in the room building, and trusting the process.
Finally, I came to a gentle stop, unsure what to do next. Mario opened his eyes, jumped up, and said, “That was cool. Now let’s play grocery store.” I was confused at the abrupt shift, unsure if the ‘funeral’ had had any impact. But I trusted the process, played grocery store, and let it go. The next week, I talked to his mom and teachers. His mom asked what I’d done because Mario was no longer obsessing over death, no longer as anxious, and was sleeping without nightmares. Teachers reported that he was more calm, and less aggressive with other children. In future sessions, Mario still played shooting games with ‘bad guys,’ but he no longer obsessed about death.
I can’t explain what happened in the room that day. What I suspect is that by having some understanding of death, a ritual to give closure, and a safe space to fully explore his feelings, Mario resolved the trauma he’d witnessed. I’ve never again ‘had a funeral’ for a client, and I certainly didn’t get that training in grad school, but I’ll never forget the transformation I witnessed that day.
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?
I’m sure I’m not the only therapist who suffers from Impostor Syndrome (a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”) when first starting. After four years of grad school, I still didn’t feel ready to actually sit in front of people and tell them how to make their lives better (who the heck was I to do that??). At my first therapy site, Head Start, I began doing observations of children to determine who might benefit from mental health services. I observed throughout the day, noting children who had a difficult time with transitions, conflicts with other children, etc. It was important also to observe lunch; but, as is often the case with children, it’s hard to observe and not get involved. At lunch, the children begged me to sit next to them, encouraging me to take a plate so they could serve me food. The teachers allowed it, and I began eating lunch with them (I wanted the children to feel comfortable with me instead of like I was just observing their behavior; and, let’s face it, I was hungry).
One day, I was slurping down my spaghetti, laughing and talking with the children and teachers, when I saw a group of adults enter. They were site supervisors, making their rounds to check in on the classrooms. I froze, petrified that lI would appear unprofessional, and watched their movement out of the corner of my eye. I could see them eyeing me, and heard them ask a teacher who I was. They walked around slowly, finally coming up to me, while I frantically fiddled with my pen and notebook, pretending I was hard at work. They introduced themselves and asked to speak with me outside. This is it, I thought, this is how my therapy career ends. Fired over spaghetti.
Once outside, they’d hardly shut the door when I was nervously starting to explain what I was doing. They said they were aware I was the onsite therapist and started asking me what I’d been observing. At first, I thought they were testing me, but as I shared my observations, I thought I was picking up on nervous behavior on their part. They asked if I saw any problems with the classroom environment, or if I had any suggestions on what they could do to improve. At this question, I was sure I noticed some nervousness on their part. Then, it hit me — in their eyes, I wasn’t the 27 year old, slurping down spaghetti when I should’ve been working; in their eyes, I was the mental health professional who was there to observe their classroom. They were trying to impress me! I sighed a deep sigh of relief, gave my ‘expert’ opinion, and they left. I laughed it off, memorializing this moment as the moment ‘Valerie the Imposter’ died, and ‘Valerie the Mental Health Professional’ was born.
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?
Growing up, I was painfully shy, and despite getting good grades, I didn’t have the best self-esteem. In high school, I was always checked out or distracted, doing the bare minimum to get by, and often manipulating my way out of doing things. I had three teachers during this time period who helped me realize my self-worth, and pushed me out of these unhealthy patterns.
First, was Chad Berryman, a young grad student who was teaching Health (a reputedly-easy elective) for the first time. I goofed off in his class, but was actually quite engaged with his out-of-the-box assignments, and asked to be his teacher’s aide for the next semester. One day, he tasked me with some repairs to his computer, including both hardware and software installation. I didn’t even attempt to do these seemingly-impossible tasks myself; instead, I walked down the hall, pulled my boyfriend out of his class, and brought him back to do it for me. Knowing my tendencies, Berryman had waited outside the classroom for me to try to elicit outside help. When he caught me trying to get my boyfriend to do it, he told my boyfriend to go back to class, and told me he knew I could do it myself. I told him there was no way, I wasn’t good with computers. He said, “how do you know if you’ve never worked on computers?” I ignored his irritatingly-accurate logic, knowing I couldn’t win with him. I sat down, defeated and helpless, looking at this daunting task before me. Mind you, this was before smartphones and the ubiquity of Google, so I had only my own whits and a paper (yes paper) instruction manual. I wanted to cry. Instead, I read step 1. Alright, easy enough, done. Step 2, also easy, done. Step 3, trickier, but done. And so on, until suddenly, an hour or so later, I looked at my Everest, and behold! Before me, sat a perfectly repaired and installed computer. Dammit, Berryman had been right. He came back to see it complete, celebrating my skill and effort in his cool-guy way, and I actually let some pride sink in. This was the beginning of starting to believe in myself.
Phyllis Wright, a veteran English teacher, then stepped in to continue my self-esteem journey. Although I rarely paid attention in her class, she noticed that I wasn’t disruptive like the other kids, but that I was always quietly writing in my journal. One day, she told me to see her after school for something. I walked into her room after school, and saw a fellow student passionately reciting a poem. “This is the spoken word poetry team,” she explained, “I want you to join it.” Sharing my most vulnerable feelings in front of my peers?! Umm, welcome to my worst nightmare. “No way,” and I tried to walk out. She stopped me and said, “You don’t have to join, but at least stay til the end of practice.” I don’t remember what happened that day, I’m quite convinced she put a spell on me, but somehow, by the end of practice, she’d convinced me to join. It was exactly the nightmarish experience I expected it to be: I shared my deepest, darkest secrets in elementary rhyme scheme, tearing up in front of strangers, knees knocking, mind going blank while trying to remember my words, and even at times facing ridicule from rival poets. Yet somehow, I couldn’t get enough. It gave me the outlet and courage I never knew I needed, and I even ended up starting my own spoken word poetry team at my college.
After I’d been on the spoken word team for a year, Ms. Wright found out that during my senior year, I’d registered for the basic English class instead of Honors. Knowing I was more than equipped to do the Honors class and was falling back into my pattern of doing the bare minimum, she marched me down to the office and ‘strongly encouraged’ me to switch to Honors. Then, to make sure I wouldn’t just switch back, she marched me to the Honors English teacher, and told him I was joining his class. Bob Wofford was a brilliant, no-nonsense teacher who, upon hearing I’d be joining his class already two weeks after the start of the semester, lobbed assignments into my hands with no mercy. He gave me a weekend to complete an entire summer of pre-reading, and two weeks worth of in-class essays (what he was most known-for). I immediately hated him. I skipped his class everyday that we didn’t have a mandatory in-class essay, but he was also the teacher who led Amnesty International. A budding activist, I never missed an Amnesty meeting, even when I’d skipped his class just hours prior. One day, I was spaced out in class, and I looked up to see everyone staring at me, Wofford waiting for me to respond to a question I obviously didn’t think was important enough even to hear. He repeated, “You know you’re competitive, right? (Blank stare from me). Stay after class.” What the **** just happened? Did I just get in trouble?
After school, he explained that there was a scholarship at the college I planned to attend that only admitted 12 students per year. He told me I was ‘competitive.’ I didn’t know what he meant. I wasn’t even planning to apply for it because it was extra work I’d have to do for something I was never going to get. He told me I had to apply. “Everyone or just me?!” I railed at the thought of being singled out, completely missing the fact that he was actually trying to acknowledge my intelligence and writing skills. To make up for my absences, he said I had to meet with him before Amnesty International every week and he’d review my application and help me with my essay. I was furious, but I always liked writing, so I did it. At the end of the year, I applied for the scholarship, and, by God, I got it. He also awarded me with the Outstanding Excellence in English award (I got $50 for that and was quite pleased). I was happy, but still a rebellious little punk, so I didn’t quite appreciate everything he’d done for me. It took a full year of college, and meeting the other scholarship recipients, to realize I actually was quite intelligent, and I never would’ve realized it if it hadn’t been for Bob Wofford, Phyllis Wright, and Chad Berryman. I went back to my high school one day, and humbly thanked them in person, sharing how much they’d changed my life, and how they triple-handedly gave me my self-esteem.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
My father’s from Mexico and is mostly indigenous. As a child, he instilled in me a deep spirituality and a sense of karmic justice: that there’s a reason things happen — not that everything that happens is good, but that it’s an essential part of one’s life path and is something that will ultimately make us grow as human beings, as spiritual beings. When something happens that makes me feel out of control, what restores my sense of control is knowing that there’s a larger picture at play. It makes me feel like I don’t have to be personally in control of everything because there is something larger that I believe in.
That belief has gotten me through all of the trauma that I have heard and witnessed working as a trauma specialist. It has also helped me with the feeling that I’m not going to be a good enough therapist to heal everybody. Obviously, I’m not going to be able to take care of everybody; but, as a therapist, as a healer, I sometimes feel that pressure — a need to heal everybody and fix everything. That’s what often leads to burnout is realizing we can’t heal everybody. What keeps me from reaching that burnout is that I trust in this larger sense of control in the world and know that I personally don’t have to have control over everything. That enables me to breathe, do what I can, and feel like it’s enough.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Trust your team. Communicate often, but only when necessary. Set clear boundaries.
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.
1. Zoom out. This is a phrase I say to myself whenever I notice I’m feeling activated (angry, sad, shocked, etc. This works with all emotions). It’s a reminder to take a breath (never underestimate the power of the breath), let the context sink in, look at it from other perspectives, and ask myself, “am I going to be upset by this 1 year from now? 1 month from now? 1 day from now? Probably not? Then why am I letting it upset me now?”
2. Find what gives your life meaning. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who wrote about the horrific suffering he witnessed while interned at a WWII concentration camp. Frankl found that even in the most grim of circumstances, meaning can be found, and meaning is what makes life. Frankl often refers to Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” Find your why — find what gives your life meaning.
3. Make time for what nourishes you. When I don’t get enough sleep, healthy food, time in nature, talks with friends/loved ones, introvert time, I go from 0–60 on the irritable scale. Never underestimate the power of our basic resources.
4. Unplug and reflect. In this age of technology and distractions, our attention is almost always divided among a plethora of notifications battling for our time. Why do you have some of your best ideas, thoughts, reminders in the shower? Because you’re not reaching for your phone the second it dings (or hopefully not). This frees up your mind to expand beyond just the immediate moment. When we spend most of our time answering notifications (messages, email, slack, etc), it’s like we’re in a triage situation, tending to what’s most immediate or easiest to get out of the way, planning to get to the bigger stuff later. But the constancy of these notifications makes it so that later never comes. We’re perpetually in this triage mode, putting out fires, and dealing with what’s being thrust into our hands. We don’t step back to think about where we should be putting our hands in the first place. But, in the shower, when our hands can’t be on a keyboard, our minds are liberated from this triage mentality, and we naturally drift to what’s most important. Ideas spring up, plans effortlessly take shape, and creative solutions organically appear as if there all along, and we had only to take our eyes off the screen long enough to notice them.
5. Let yourself be bored and learn to tolerate discomfort. I never went to summer camps as a child, so when spending so much time at my house, my mother had one rule: never say “I’m bored.” We had a big backyard and friends who lived in the neighborhood. “If you’re bored, then find something to do,” she said. I used to get angry when she’d say that, as if I had an endless imagination and could make anything interesting if I just tried…until I realized that were true. I now attribute my incredible patience, vivid imagination, and unique sense of humor to this rule. These days, people never let themselves be bored; instead, seeking distraction from devices (see #4). Similarly, discomfort is equally avoided or lobbed onto others as if anyone could be responsible for our feelings other than ourselves. For more on tolerating discomfort, I talk about relationships and communication and how to learn to take responsibility for our own feelings instead of blaming partners or other people in this podcast.
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.
Look back at your life and identify the things that make you the most proud, the biggest game-changers, and the moments that really made you who you are. Find what gives your life meaning now that you’re no longer working to earn a living. Deepen into your family life, and take every opportunity to seize the day — tell people what they mean to you, do what brings you the most joy, and live like there’s no tomorrow.
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?
Don’t let anyone else decide your identity or self-worth. Find out who you are before someone else determines that for you.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
An author who has given me great strength and inspiration is Corrie ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place, a Christian living in Amsterdam during WWII who, along with her family, successfully aided hundreds of Jews, including six who hid in her house behind a fake wall in their modest house. Her family was ultimately caught and sent to concentration camps, where her father and sister died. But Corrie survived to travel the world and tell their story.
I recently visited Amsterdam, and while there, I didn’t go to the Anne Frank museum, but I spent hours at the Corrie ten Boomhuis in Haarlem. Being in her house and walking the streets of Haarlem, I imagined what must’ve gone through her heart and mind to give her the courage and conviction to do what she did.
Being in the Ten Boomhuis, standing behind the fake wall that safely hid 6 Jews, everything was put in perspective, and a large part of my heart and faith were restored.
Corrie was Christian, and would’ve been unaffected by the Holocaust had she done nothing. Instead, her family gave their lives, and she risked hers alongside them to save the lives of others. I pray that I can be half as courageous as she was, and that I, too, will stand up for what I know is right, even in the face of the worst nightmare imaginable.
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 would start a movement to promote compassion. I believe that the ability to take another perspective, to feel with another person, is one of the most important skills we can develop to reduce the amount of suffering in the world. It’s an integral but insufficient first step in stopping suffering, and I believe we’re moving further away from it. Technology like virtual reality can play a unique role in helping to develop this skill. For more on how exactly how, read my blog for the Global Purpose Movement, Virtual Reality: from Engines of Empathy to Bias Eradicators.
Therapy with the use of virtual reality can provide clients the emotional and physical distance that could enable greater depths of therapy to be accessed, including making it possible for people in remote areas, people unable to come to a therapist’s office, or people intimidated by the process to participate. Virtual reality also makes the process easier for adolescents and teens who might not be as comfortable sitting in a room talking to someone, but are more than comfortable with modern technology and the use of avatars (a virtual depiction of oneself). With Thera VR, founded by Erin Bogdanski, clients are able to select their avatar and the avatar of their therapist, allowing both parties to meet virtually across any distance, while still able to “see each other.”
For another way virtual reality can be used to fight recurring nightmares, read this blog by Kat J. McAlpine.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts, then there is no hurt, only more love.” — Mother Theresa
Believe those who seek the truth. Doubt those who find it.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
For information on couples therapy and non-monogamy, check out this podcast with Valerie.
For my perspective on how virtual reality can be used to engender empathy be eradicating personal bias, check out this blog.
Valerie is also a catalyst for the publication, The NewModality. Check it out here.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the author:
Beau Henderson, editor of Rich Retirement Letter and CEO of RichLife Advisors LLC, is a best-selling author, national tv/radio resource, and retirement coach/advisor, with over 17 years’ experience. Beau is a pioneer in the strategy based new model of holistic retirement planning. He can be followed on Facebook here or on Instagram here