I had the pleasure of interviewing Alicia Racine, LMHC and Clinical Therapist at CAST Centers in West Hollywood, CA. She received her Master’s degree from the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Boston University. Alicia is also the founder of “sexydelicioushealthy” and a performance artist.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
(Laughing) I think I’ve always wanted to be a Robin Williams movie character! The impact his characters have had on us as the spectator as well as the other characters in his films, is undeniable. Robin Williams imbued the English professor John Keating from “Dead Poets Society” and Dr. Sean Maguire from “Good Will Hunting” (not forgetting the Genie) with dynamic compassion. His out of the box strategies and ability to emotionally connect, have changed lives. Perhaps for me and because of him…I want to save lives.
With the holiday season almost over, many people have been visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?
A difficult dynamic exists when personalities slightly clash, values differ and there are differences in socioeconomic attitudes. A sister with “champagne taste” attends her low key brother’s holiday where the food is served in disposable containers. They both may have preconceived ideas and feel uncomfortable. We know this dynamic and it can be easily navigated with humor and distraction. There is no real conflict. Only a perceived one. Perhaps, there is always a conversation that is easy to engage in. Important note: there are no major scapegoats in this family dynamic.
Unhealthy dynamics are when there are repetitive patterns of conflict. Historically, there is a scapegoat in the family, (for example) that the mom enables, and the sister is jealous of…. There are secrets between family members and/or lots of resentments due to lack of boundaries. This family loves each other yet it wouldn’t be unusual to fight. Often, these families remain emotionally distant while interacting through fabricated personas. Note: some of your needs are still being satisfied.
Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. What advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?
Champions: Empower the champions.
Champions are always good to engage and align with to help create a sense of ease during tense moments.
Champions can finesse conversation that is often more inclusive. They can be aware of the elephant in the room and make light of it. They actively orient themselves from a place of gratitude.
Triggerers: Can snuff out the fire. With family members who are triggering, do not engage them in conflict. Instead try listening, validating, and then changing the subject if needed. There may be issues a triggerer will provoke but often are unconscious of their negative contribution. Instead of taking it personally, pivot.
Note: A triggerer may trigger you and no one else in the family. This could be due to an unresolved resentment. Always remember your intention is to enjoy the holiday. It is helpful to plan time to discuss the resentment after the holiday, and metaphorically shelving it until then.
We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?
How do you feel about yourself when engaging with them? In a toxic relationship, your needs are not being satisfied and you leave feeling drained, guilty, hopeless or angry. Note: you may need to be the one to change your expectations on what needs they fill.
A toxic family is abusive. It uses emotional starvation, punishment, threats, lies and criticism. In a toxic dynamic, there are perpetual victims that blame others for all of their problems. Note: It is important to notice this, because unhealthy family dynamics can share blame.
Untreated mental illness is often at the core of toxic relationships. Have compassion for both the person and yourself. Set your boundaries. If they are willing to work on the issues, use this time to seek help for yourself. If they are unwilling to acknowledge the toxicity, you might need to explore the possibility of severing ties to create distance (even if its temporary.)
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
Like Brene Brown and vulnerability, I couldn’t be speaking on a more personally difficult topic.
My anecdote is that I have no anecdote. I admit defeat. Defeat, reframed as acceptance. For you see, it may have taken me longer than most (possibly because of my career and impact on people) to accept that I cannot change some of my relatives. What I can do is to choose to love them for who they are. The trick is knowing, I will have to make that choice again and again. I will have to practice giving up my need for control.
I can change my expectations and not expect them to fulfill certain needs.
I can utilize conversations with them that are effective and loving. I can have levity. I can shelve my resentments until the right time and in the meantime offer play and gratitude. I can have compassion for the both of us.
In my family, I have two very strong allies: my brother-in-law and the father of my daughter. You read that right, they are not blood related. Perhaps that’s why they can see through the dynamics most clearly. They know my family well and actively love the people that I love the most.
In my brother-in-law’s words, “go into this holiday season with no preconceived notions on how people will act or how the overall holiday experience will be, and you might be surprised by what you feel.” (mindfulness, acceptance, a sense of play)
In my daughter’s father’s words “Stop wasting your time and abandon the idea that they should change for you because they love you. Accept others for who they are. Enjoy some turkey with your pyromaniac uncle and call it a day.” (allies, acceptance, gratitude, taking responsibility)
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although gatherings are only a few times a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?
- This will be funny one day! David Sedaris shared this idea in an interview I heard last year and I’m running with it. Laugh at yourself and laugh at life, it’s absurd. This is the best reframe I’ve got. Find levity.
- Put yourself in the right mindset for the event. This includes talking to your therapist about dropping your expectations and using DBT’s (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) Radical Acceptance. Write up a gratitude list and blast your favorite song! Prepare to go in with a clear intention. What do you want to create this holiday? Be the playfulness you’ve so long craved. Be the warmth. You can always return to your intention with a deep breath.
- Engage. This a fantastic strategy I’ve learned from books on business, psychology and self-help. Don’t just do these in the office or at a networking event. Use people’s names, smile at them and get them to talk about themselves. Listen and validate. If they start to go downhill, you can pivot the subject by complimenting them or telling your best story. “Did I tell you that you look fantastic in that color?”
- Have a back up plan and a backup friend. Plan something perfect for after the event, like a bath or a funny movie. Have your best ally on text for when you need a place to dump some comical frustration. Also, self compassion! This may be a difficult event for you. You are your own best friend and it works to tell yourself “I know this is difficult, I’ve got your back.” (Yes, talk to yourself and breathe.)
- Change your temperature. If your heart starts to race, go outside or grab an icy glass from the freezer to hold and ground yourself.
What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?
Radical acceptance and boundaries. Not everyone understands mental health. It’s best to have compassion for the family member that doesn’t understand when trying to make an impact.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
“All sorts of things in this world behave like mirrors.” -Jacques Lacan
I was trained psychoanalytically and believe that we create our lives through our own internal projections. Much like Buddhist teachings, this quote offers us the insight to take responsibility for our world. Lacan asks, what view point with which are you observing? He then concludes, that we see our own reflection in that view point, revealing to us our own unconscious.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
A few years ago, I started a movement with a bunch of amazing women called “sexydelicioushealthy.” We are currently working on a therapeutic cookbook that is dedicated to changing our complicated relationships with food.
Two ways in which you can support:
2. At your next family gathering, commit yourself to not commenting on your or anyone else’s weight.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
The best way to connect with me on social media is via Instagram:
Thank you this was so inspiring!