I had the pleasure of interviewing Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. Dr. Vierra is a psychotherapist, speaker, and author who has been in private practice as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in San Diego, California for the past 30 years. In that time he has specialized in working with his psychologist wife doing conjoint relationship counseling with couples who struggle with understanding how their family backgrounds generate misunderstanding and mistrust in their current relationships. Besides being a relationship expert, Dr. Vierra has also specialized in working with individual adult men who struggle with how to create emotional intimacy with their loved ones. He is the author of the Amazon Best Selling Book: The TRUE HEART of a MAN: How Healthy Masculinity Will Transform Your Life, Your Relationships, and the World.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
I was raised as the middle of 3 sons of immigrant parents from the Hawaiian Islands in a 1950’s household that was tormented by the disease of alcoholism. This no doubt was an unconscious driving force in me to heal myself by obtaining an undergraduate pre-med degree at the University of California at San Diego, but alas, my lack of self-discipline and self-confidence sabotaged my academic aptitude. It also waylaid my ability to feel like I belonged in the medical field — especially since I struggled with that particular “hole in my soul” of not knowing where I belonged on the planet in the first place.
I reluctantly stayed in college to avoid being drafted and sent to the Vietnam War, but once I graduated from my scholarly anguish, I took the next 12 years to explore all the ways my confused and insecure childhood shaped my personality in that alcoholic environment. As I look back now, I can appreciate why I gravitated toward a career in psychology during that post-college chapter of self-examination because I benefited so much from being motivated to heal my own personal wounds. Consequently, I felt inspired to somehow give this gift back to whomever I could.
Working with men who were in identity crisis and working with couples felt like important segments of the population for me to turn my talents toward because they were both aspects of my personality that I had worked hard to get healthy. My life experiences also compelled me to write my book The TRUE HEART of a MAN. It is part personal memoir and part professional account of my three decades of clinical experience working with men and with couples.
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?
The challenge posed by the annual visit back to our family-of-origin during the holiday season is that there has been a passage of time since the original family system was up and running, and where all family members played a certain “role” in how the system operated. Examples of the roles that most family members play out are: the Enabler (the caretaker); the Hero (makes the family look normal); the Scapegoat (the problem child); the Lost Child (the quiet one); the Mascot (the cute one), just to name a few.
During this time period away from the family-of-origin, it is natural that a family member would “differentiate” themselves from the former “family dance” as he or she adapted and integrated into a new living environment. Coming back “home” automatically challenges all of us to a) remember what that role was that we each played in our family dance, b) notice how it contrasts with the updated version of who we have become, and c) figure out whether or not it is worth it to jump back into the old role as a way to not upset the holiday festivities.
This happens in every family!
An unhealthy family dynamic is one where there is zero tolerance for anyone to NOT jump back into the former role he or she played in the family system.
There is also zero compassion — not only for whatever possible benefit someone might feel for the change they have taken on in their new lives — but also for each other’s imperfections, mistakes, flaws, and insecurities. An unhealthy dynamic is one where the unresolved pain from the past is revisited as a current way of relating to each other, as if there has been no passage of time or circumstance. The wounds still feel raw and unhealed. The interactions still feel personal and toxic.
On the other hand, a difficult family dynamic is one where the change or evolution of any particular family member is not seen as a threat to the original family code. There are still the challenges of pain and mistrust, but after a challenging interaction, if there can at least be an acknowledgment that there has been some amount of emotional growth or maturation, then the difficult dynamic can morph into an opportunity to become a healed experience. It requires everyone in the family system to give each other the benefit of the doubt and the compassion to forgive.
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 thing any of us can do when we visit the environment that we were raised in but currently have difficulty relating to, is to do our best to maintain our current sense of identity while at the same time not being judgmental or condescending toward the people we grew up with. This means NOT trying to convince anyone about how our updated lifestyle is “so much better” than our former one, but by presenting ourselves as being grateful for the foundation that our family-of-origin gave us to become bigger and better versions of ourselves. The goal then becomes to learn to support each other’s personal attempt to heal and grow without taking it as some personal judgment or condemnation about the past. Communicating this personal ethos to family members who may have their triggers tripped is really the best way to handle this type of situation.
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?
No, there is no difference for me between a “toxic” family and an “unhealthy” one. Both descriptors reference the same issue, which is the lack of respectful behavior and communication toward each other. Both descriptors impose a similar toll onto the individuals in a family — which is to make the one environment in a person’s world that should feel safe and trusting — become exactly the opposite, i.e., unsafe, unwelcoming, judgmental, emotionally threatening, and even abusive.
Dealing with a toxic family member has absolutely NOTHING to do with trying to change that toxic person and EVERYTHING to do with better self-care of everyone else. It is no one else’s job or responsibility to compel or try to convince a toxic person to “see the light” of their unhealthy ways. It is more important for the people around the toxic person to no longer enable their bad behavior or disrespectful treatment by letting that toxic person know that the toxic person will no longer be privy to vulnerable information or important feelings from others until and unless there is progress made on rebuilding trust with that toxic person…but it is totally up to that toxic person to open up to a willingness to participate in that healing process. Without that willingness for the toxic person to hear how his or her bad behavior has caused other people pain and anger, then it won’t be possible to change the toxic/unhealthy dynamic.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
Just earlier this week one of my male clients told me he heard my voice in his head “reminding him” to restrain himself from being drawn into an argument with his wife that recycles on a daily basis and feels to him as being a way for her to punish him in order for her to feel good about herself….at his expense. He did not do what he usually does, which is to react to her with anger. He instead took a deep breath, listened to her, and then let her know that he felt sad that she was feeling so distraught. He didn’t try to fix her nor did he allow her to emotionally beat him up by her criticism. She did a double take and actually got quiet when she realized she could not get a reaction out of him. He said it was the first time in their 28 years of marriage that they did not regress back into the black hole of fight-or-flight where they would normally just spit criticism back and forth at each other.
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?
- Before you walk into that situation, lower your expectations that the upcoming unhealthy family dynamic will be anything other than what it always has been, i.e., a place where you feel unseen, unappreciated, and misunderstood.
- Resolve yourself to be less reactive to this family dance by becoming more of an observer of your family and the role you used to play in it, and by reminding yourself that you have grown/changed/evolved since you lived with them.
- See a bigger picture that the change you’ve arrived at in your life has actually occurred as a result of being in this family dynamic you were raised in.
- Be grateful for the progress you’ve made and the courage you have accessed to grow out of the dysfunction you are now observing.
- Forgive them and YOURSELF for all the pain inflicted back and forth in the past, because you all were doing the best you could at the time, given what you knew about yourselves and the information you had access to.
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?
It is really important for the family members of someone struggling with mental illness to a) not take their unhealthy behavior personally, b) not enable their unhealthy behavior by ignoring it, and c) show compassion toward that person by asking him or her what they might need in order to take better care of themselves in this gathering of family and friends.
To support strong mental health in a family ALWAYS requires courageous conversations among family members to not only care for whomever is afflicted with mental illness, but also to discuss what effect that person’s mental illness has on everyone else and what all other family members need in order for them to take better care of themselves around this person.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
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 favorite mental health quote is from author, professor, and feminist writer Bell Hooks, who has written extensively about patriarchal culture. In her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center she says:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead, patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
She sums up exactly what I have observed in real time in my clinical practice with men. I also know from personal experience what that feels like. The movement I have dedicated my professional life to helping create and support is to help men discover the high personal price we have all paid by taking on the toxic demand of traditional masculinity that we avoid and ignore our emotional world in order to “live up to” a very low bar when it comes to masculine identity. This “psychic self-mutilation” that we as men have carried out as good soldiers of the patriarchy is the cause of centuries worth of misogyny, sexism, racism, and homophobia all around the planet. It is how we as men kill off our authenticity, personal integrity, and self-respect. Rather than continue to play out this very toxic version of masculinity that seeks to exert power over others as an expression of self-worth, I am committed to being a voice that inspires men to seek the self-empowerment that comes from emotional maturity and emotional intelligence. I’m on a mission to help men identify and understand whatever ways they “drank the kool-aid” of toxic masculinity in order for them to begin to heal themselves, which ultimately is what will help heal the planet. Others can support this mission by helping the men they know seek information and assistance in “raising the bar” toward becoming bigger and better versions of themselves emotionally.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
Thank you this was so inspiring!