I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooke Sprowl, LCSW a UCLA-trained psychotherapist and author of the upcoming book Why You Should Date Emotionally Unavailable Men: Use Your Unhealthy Relationships to Transform Yourself and Your Love Life.
With over 10 years of experience as an individual, couples, and family therapist, she specializes in anxiety, depression, relationships, codependency, abuse, LGBTQ issues, and narcissism. As the Founder, CEO, and Clinical Director of My LA Therapy she trains and oversees an elite team of therapists to navigate the complex and fascinating terrain of clinical psychotherapy.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
As someone who has reckoned with my own mental health issues, I blend my academic and theoretical training with deep experiential knowledge of the territory, uniting the head, the heart, and the body in my clinical work. I was trained as a psychotherapist at UCLA and hold bachelor’s degrees in Neuroscience and Spanish from USC. Integrating my knowledge of the brain, biology, and evolutionary psychology, I help people navigate communication, relationships, and mental health concerns.
As the Founder, CEO, and Clinical Director of My LA Therapy, I provide a wide range of counseling services for individuals, families, and couples, with a primary focus on anxiety, depression, and relationships/couples. In addition to providing psychotherapy to my own clients, I train and oversee a team of therapists with office locations in Los Angeles. We also offer phone and video therapy sessions for those located outside of the LA area. In my spare time, I enjoy playing beach volleyball, listening to science and philosophy podcasts, writing poetry, biking, surfing, singing, songwriting, non-fiction writing, and storytelling.
My upcoming book, Why You SHOULD Date Emotionally Unavailable Men: Use Your Unhealthy Relationships to Transform Yourself and Your Love Lifehas been a passion project of mine for awhile that is finally materializing and I’m so excited to share it with the world. I hope to change the damaging cultural narratives directed toward women that sabotage their relationships. As someone who used to “drink the kool-aid” of these harmful ideas, I have seen first hand how they destroy relationships and stunt our individual growth. Through my own personal therapy, I’ve sifted through the rubble of the cultural messages that were destroying my love life and have encountered a new way of being in relationships. I hope my book will help others do the same.
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?
Often family members experience tension as a result of their temperamental differences and unresolved past experiences. These difficult dynamics can be true even in normal families. However, the way that unhealthy families deal with these issues is often to trample one another’s boundaries, dismiss each other’s feelings, and passive aggressively communicate rather than stating their needs directly.
Unhealthy families tend to engage in what I call “misdirection,” meaning when they have grievances with one family member, they will talk about it to someone else in the family, rather than confronting the person with whom they are having a problem directly.
This prevents problems from being resolved and true intimacy and security from developing in relationships. Successful conflict resolution and direct communication of needs and feelings are vital parts of developing deep and secure relational attachments.
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?
The most important way to deal with a triggering family is to make sure to stay grounded and take the time to regulate your anxiety. Often you’ll need to create some space to do so, even if that just means going in the other room and breathing for a few minutes. Grounding exercises, such as feeling the texture of an object or going for a walk can help decrease anxiety by getting you out of your head and into your body. Deep breathing and grounding exercises can help regulate your nervous system and decrease your stress hormones, which will help you be more calm and resilient when facing stressors. When your body is calm, it’s much easier to view situations in balanced ways and to respond compassionately rather than defensively.
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?
“Unhealthy” relationships are on a spectrum and toxic relationships are one extreme of that spectrum, characterized by extremely unhealthy and abusive interactions. We tend to think of “healthy” and “unhealthy” relationships in too binary a way. In reality, every relationship has some aspects that are healthy and unhealthy, whereas toxic relationships are primarily permeated with unhealthy, abusive dynamics and usually have few redeeming, healthy aspects to them.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
Every day! Most people who come to therapy have unresolved conflicts with their families of origin and these issues tend to show up in their current relationships until faced and resolved. One of the most important skills I teach clients is to recognize when a family member is abusive or manipulative and to learn to disengage from conversations wherein the other person is not endeavoring to fight fairly. When someone is abusive or deeply manipulative, there’s no way to have a productive conversation with them because they’re not interested in the truth, they just want to win so they’ll find a way to twist your words to make sure they come out on top. No matter how perfectly you communicate with someone like this, they’ll find a way to make you feel like you’re in the wrong. In this way, they can avoid facing their shortcomings and changing. Learning to identify when a conversation has ventured into unproductive territory and removing yourself from the situation are a vital skills when dealing with challenging family members.
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?
- Take a time out. Remove yourself from the situation and breathe so your anxiety doesn’t get the better of you and stoke the flames of conflict in your family.
- Find a therapist. If your family provokes a great deal of anxiety and mental distress, that’s a sign that you’ve got some work to do on yourself.
- Set and enforce healthy boundaries. Make sure not only to tell your family your boundaries, but also to enforce those boundaries by removing yourself from a situation in which your family does not honor what you’ve asked.
- Stay in a separate dwelling. If your family will not respect your boundaries when staying with them, I recommend getting a hotel or another place to stay so that you can leave if necessary and you can limit yourself to a manageable amount of time with them.
- Use the CBT Thought Log. When you’re experiencing extreme anxiety, it tends to generate distorted and irrational thoughts. Using the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Thought Log, you can decrease your anxiety and rewire your neural pathways by creating more balanced ways of thinking about triggering situations.
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?
Avoid the temptation to go along with misdirection.
If a family member is struggling with other family members, encourage that person to address the issue with the person directly rather than talking behind their back.
Misdirection only perpetuates damaging dynamics by failing to deal with the root cause of the problems and enabling the person with grievances to not express their needs and feelings directly and resolve conflicts.
I’m excited to hear about your book. Can you tell us a little more about it and why you wrote it?
The “dump-the-jerk” mentality simply isn’t working.Our current climate of scapegoating so-called “emotionally unavailable men” for the problems in relationships is leaving women confused, alone, and hungry for a new message. Even when they walk away, women find themselves either getting back together soon after or repeating the same patterns with the next guy because ending relationships prematurely deprives women of the opportunity to heal their destructive unconscious patterns.
The wrongheaded concepts surrounding the “emotionally unavailable man” have turned relationships into war zones by scapegoating men as the sole culprits for the problems in relationships and abdicating women of all responsibility for their contributions. Branding men as emotionally unavailable and exonerating women from accountability disempowers women. By letting women off the hook for their roles in creating the emotional climate in relationships, they not only push their partners further away but also render themselves powerless to change their partnerships, discover their blind spots, and heal.
Why You SHOULD Date Emotionally Unavailable Men debunks the damaging myths that prevent women from developing healthy partnerships, such as the Myth of the Emotionally Unavailable Man, the Myth of the Strong Woman, and the Myth of the Rules. Offering a practical toolkit of relational skills and inner healing exercises in tandem, the book redefines what it means to be a strong woman and offers insight into how to take responsibility for how we are co-creating emotionally unavailable relationships and how to shed our narcissistic tactics and manipulative games in order to make real intimacy possible. Please sign up to be notified of the book release at mylatherapy.com/unavailable and get 20% off when you use the promo code THRIVE.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
J. K. Rowling said, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” As I write in the introduction to my book:
“Your darkest, most hopeless moment is the one in which you are finally willing to make life-altering changes. In desperation you say, “I’ve finally had enough. There is no choice but to do something different.”
When the pain of avoiding your greatest fears outweighs the pain of facing them, a profound transformation begins.
At this juncture, you see two paths: One is the path of perpetual avoidance, in which you spin your wheels without gaining traction. But to avoid your pain only prolongs it; it gradually accumulates, becoming increasingly unbearable.
The second path is also painful, but it’s the kind of pain that results in healing — like setting a broken bone. Not setting it allows you to avoid the sharp, acute pain of that forceful blow, but in the long run, you never heal and the infirmity becomes chronic.
Terrifying as that may be, when you face the immediate pain necessary for healing, you can finally find hope. When you deal with pain in this way, it moves you forward and is gradually offset by growth, change, and peace.
Your pain is trying to teach you something. It’s trying to tell you to pay attention.
We’re not taught to deal with pain — we’re taught to avoid, deny, and cover it up. We don’t have many role models for dealing with pain in a healthy way; our parents, friends, and partners are usually just as clueless as we are. Our culture teaches us to paste a smile over our wounds. We learn that pain is weakness, and if we just have enough willpower and do the right things in the right order, we can make it go away.
What a wasted gift pain then becomes! All its precious wisdom and power fall by the wayside as we frantically try to run from it. By contrast, when we listen to it, pain has an incredible way of pointing out precisely what we are doing that is ineffective. Pain has unparalleled power to imprint its lessons on our psyches in ways that are not quickly or easily forgotten.
Through my job counseling individuals, couples, and families, as well as through my own journey in therapy, I’ve processed a great deal pain. How we face pain is one of the single greatest determinants of the quality of our lives. It affects every aspect of them, large and small. It determines who we marry, how we spend our time, and how we feel about ourselves on a moment-by-moment basis. It affects everything from the way we raise children to the way we deal with problems at work. So the question is: How do you deal with your pain?”
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
My mission is to help people change the way they relate to their pain so they can transform anxiety, depression, and loneliness into joy, freedom, and connectedness. Our relationships are a wonderful mirror of what we are experiencing inwardly, reflecting back our blind spots and exactly how we need to heal. I call this “the Reflection Principle.” My book discusses this concept at length and provides pragmatic steps and exercises to use our relationships as tools for self-realization, self-discovery, and transformation.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
Thank you this was so inspiring!