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5 Ways To Optimize Mental Wellness During Stressful Family Gatherings, With Laura MacLeod.

With a background in social work and 2 decades of experience as a union worker, Laura MacLeod created From The Inside Out Project® to improve workplace relationships and increase worker confidence. Dubbed by the press as HR Guru, Laura has been quoted in Chicago Tribune, Bustle.com, Inc.com and appeared on the cover of Small Business […]

When you confront people clearly and directly, all the cards are on the table. This relieves stress, prevents miscommunication and allows you to let go.
When you confront people clearly and directly, all the cards are on the table. This relieves stress, prevents miscommunication and allows you to let go.

With a background in social work and 2 decades of experience as a union worker, Laura MacLeod created From The Inside Out Project® to improve workplace relationships and increase worker confidence. Dubbed by the press as HR Guru, Laura has been quoted in Chicago Tribune, Bustle.com, Inc.com and appeared on the cover of Small Business Digest. Laura leads training sessions and staff support groups at Housing Works in New York City, and speaks on conflict resolution, problem solving and listening skills at conferences across the country.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?

Thank you for inviting me. I came to New York City after college and had a great career as a professional dancer and actress. When roles got scarce, I regrouped, bartended to pay the bills and eventually found my way to social work school. I got my Masters and license (LMSW) and I now specialize in group work. I train and consult with professionals around effective leadership- teams, meetings, trainings, support/therapeutic groups. I also work directly with clients- I facilitate a shopping addiction group, several staff support groups and I teach group work in a Masters program in New York City. My company: From the Inside Out Project focuses on workplace groups/teams and empowering workers.

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?

Difficult means it’s just an annoyance; something that may be unpleasant, but doesn’t affect you strongly. Your aunt monopolizes and repeats stories; your grandmother critiques what you or others are wearing; your uncle drinks too much and gets loud and obnoxious. Not fun, but you know this is coming, so not a big deal.

Unhealthy dynamics have stronger affects on your spirit, mood, physical and emotional well being. Bullying may be in your family: your brother openly questions and ridicules your job and financial situation (When are you going to make some real money? Stop taking handouts from Dad) This is a personal assault in front of a family audience which is stressful and unhealthy for all. Nobody wants to hear it, but nobody knows how to make it stop.

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?

Do your best to stick with the ‘champions for wellness.’ 

Here there is safety in numbers. Think about and discuss potential strategies for managing difficult situations. There is great comfort and support in talking through these scenarios, sharing your feelings and hearing from others. Together you may find a way to alleviate stress and steer clear of rough encounters.

As far as those who trip triggers, the best strategy is to NOT engage. This means you smile and state what you see: “Wow. That’s a personal question. I don’t think this is the time or place.” Then move on to something else or excuse yourself. Point here: Don’t take the bait. You never win when you engage and go at it with a negative or bullying person.

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?

Absolutely. Unhealthy is fairly common and manageable. Lots of people are not in the best health mentally and emotionally and may not be aware. An unhealthy relative will critique your hair color and give you the name of her hairstylist in the middle of family dinner. Insensitive and unhealthy, but probably not traumatic.

Toxic is full head-on trauma inducing and can cause extreme physical and/or emotional pain. This person is nasty, persistently cruel and/or mocking or chronically depressed and negative. You’ll know the difference if you pay attention to how you feel. If possible, avoid this person at all costs: step away from conversations, use any excuse to sit at another table at dinner, seek out support (others who can help steer you away), and leave early. Basically focus on saving yourself. Do all this with a SMILE- just paste it on. This deflects and confuses the toxic person (you seem perfectly pleasant) and eases your exit. If you can’t get away, always use the SMILE when responding to the toxic person. Make observations and be direct: “That was really depressing.” “Pretty aggressive — not sure Jane appreciates that. I know I don’t.” “Let’s change the subject. That’s embarrassing.” “Think we could find something better to talk about?”

Two points to consider with this: 1- People can be oblivious and may be totally unaware of their offensive words or behavior. When you point it out objectively, they see. 2- Bullies and overtly offensive people gain power because they are not challenged. They thrive on humiliating, pushing people to shut down or fight back and lose control. When you calmly confront the bully, you change the game and recover the power. This puts the bully off balance.

Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?

A close friend of mine used to visit her elderly aunt once a month to help with shopping and house chores. My friend came home after every trip and went straight to the local bar. I pointed this out (she had not realized this pattern) and we took a look together at what the need for a drink signified. The aunt was toxic and pushing my friend’s buttons-leading her to unhealthy behavior and potential self destruction. We brainstormed ways to cut visits short, prepare for and manage the aunt’s behavior and eventually my friend was able to healthfully visit less often and not end up at the bar afterwards.

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?

1- PREPARE- Physically and emotionally. Get ready. Eat well, rest, meditate, read a novel. Whatever makes you feel good about yourself- Do it. Be your best most confident self.

2- PROTECT- Protect yourself at every turn. You may need to avoid, excuse yourself, reject invitations(sit here, have a drink), leave early. Whatever you need to do to stay healthy- Do it. Your health is the priority- always

3-SUPPORT- Seek out allies and support systems. Great to know ahead of time who will be at the event and contact those who you know will help you. If not possible, scan the room immediately when you get there to connect with those you trust. Reach out for support.

4- SMILE- Use your smile to deflect and confuse difficult people and to help you make it through. Tough to find fault with someone who smiles. Smiling and a deep breath help you stay calm.

5- REWARD- Plan for a reward when you get home. When this event is over, you’ll go home and read a book, listen to music, eat a favorite food, or call a best friend. Whatever you love to do, plan it and do it once the event is over. It’s always great to have something to look forward 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?

Let the person know you are there to support. Ask “what do you need and how can I help?” Then if/when the person is put on the spot, bullied or offended- make the observation: “WOW. That was harsh.” Confront it head on; this helps all and takes the offender off balance.

What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?

Two quotes come to mind:

1- Direct approach is always the best approach

When you confront people clearly and directly, all the cards are on the table. This relieves stress, prevents miscommunication and allows you to let go.

2- From the 12 Step program: One day at a time. In rough situations, this can become one hour, one minute at a time. Stay present and deal ONLY with what’s in front of your right now. Very effective way to manage intense feelings and prevent getting overwhelmed and feeling defeated.

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

Empathy needs to be taught and practiced. We all need to connect to feelings that are universal. So if I don’t share your experience I can find a way to treat you fairly because I can relate to how you may be feeling. This promotes mental health for all.

With greater connection we are less likely to dismiss, bully, or judge unfairly. We will validate and be validated. I see a need for empathy in the workplace, families, friends, groups in all settings. The best way to help with this is to practice and model empathy. Connect to feelings, not just the facts, and what you see on the surface. When you tune into feelings in others, you see so much more and it often resonates with you.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

Facebook page: Laura MacLeod’s From The Inside Out Project

Linked in: Laura MacLeod

Twitter: FTIOProject

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