I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie L. Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, psychotherapist and Eating Disorder Specialist. Stephanie works with adults and adolescents in her private practice in New York City.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
I am a psychotherapist is New York City working with adults and adolescents in my private practice. I work with people who are looking to navigate relationship challenges, transitions in life, general depression and anxiety. I am also an Eating Disorder Specialist and see many people who are battling an Eating Disorder, looking to change their relationship to food and their body.
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?
An unhealthy family dynamic can be defined as one that changes how people behave and when they feel in ways that they feel are out of their control. They may do or say things that they wish they didn’t and have a hard time “feeling like themselves.” Unhealthy family dynamics may also play out in people’s behaviors; are they eating or drinking in order to escape feeling what they are feeling when they are with their family? A difficult dynamic is one that may be challenging, but leaves a person still feeling “like themselves” and not needing to escape.
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 same way you would grab an umbrella if there is rain in the forecast, you should have a plan to protect yourself from the inevitable storm of the holidays and/or your relatives that are triggers for you.
Have some self care ideas lined up, friends you can call, a private room to go into to get a few minutes alone, perhaps you can take a walk outside and spend a few minutes with yourself or disengage by looking at something on your phone that makes you happy. If there is one family member you can rely on to be your safe person, it is useful to set up a plan with them that you can use if you need an escape. Maybe you want to run out and buy some extra ice cream or wine, just when you feel you can’t take any more. Utilize the relatives that are “champions of wellness” and don’t be afraid to ask for whatever kind of support you need. Often times people don’t know what you need and it is ok to tell them.
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?
Avoid the toxic family member as best you can. Make a plan to sit next to other family members that you feel comfortable and safe with. Have a way to engage just enough with the toxic family member that they don’t follow you for conversation. Remember that a toxic person can also be triggering so be aware when your body is alerting you that you need to leave the conversation and if need be, excuse yourself to the restroom and disengage.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
When the holidays are approaching I often make plans with people to help them feel prepared and as though they have choices. It can be most difficult when people feel forced into conversations and they don’t feel they have a way out. One strategy that often works is to have a signal with a family member who understands your dynamics and they can rescue you from a conversation. I also think it is important to feel as though you can get away. There is nothing wrong with going outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air. I encourage people to practice doing that before they feel trapped.
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?
- Have a few ideas of topics of conversations that are neutral and feel safe to talk about. Be prepared to pivot conversations to these topics when you feel you are stuck talking about things you find upsetting, triggering, etc.
- Come up with a plan to leave on your own terms, if possible drive separately and let everyone know you might be leaving early.
- Don’t be afraid to excuse yourself for a few minutes, if you need to catch your breath in the bathroom, that is OK.
- Have a few mantras written on a note in your phone or handwritten in your pocket that you connect with and repeat to yourself when feeling stuck.
- Plan a nice way to unwind after the event or for the next day, feeling in control of your own plans and use of time is important to not feel trapped in the dynamics.
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?
The advice I would give to allies of someone struggling is to talk to them beforehand and ask how they would like to be supported. It might be that they want you to sit next to them in order for them to avoid someone else, or they may just need you to check in sometimes. It’s important to listen and let people tell you what they need.
If you are an ally and you hear someone making comments that are unhelpful or could be triggering, intervene and advocate.
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 quote, although the source is debated, is “wherever you go there you are.” People often want to wait to do something until something in their current life changes, or they believe moving will help their current struggles. Changes do help us, but the quote “wherever you go there you are” can be a reminder to live in the present, not to wait until something changes to begin living your life. You can make changes now!
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
Thank you this was so inspiring!