5 Ways To Optimize Mental Wellness During Stressful Family Gatherings, With Tess Brigham

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tess Brigham, a licensed psychotherapist and Board Certified Coach who specializes in helping 20-Somethings/Millennials navigate this exciting but overwhelming time in their lives. Tess wants all young adults to be able to enter their 30s, 40s and 50s with confidence and clarity. For over 10 years, Tess has worked […]

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In a healthy relationship both people feel respected and heard by the other even if there are moments when they disagree or have different viewpoints.
In a healthy relationship both people feel respected and heard by the other even if there are moments when they disagree or have different viewpoints.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tess Brigham, a licensed psychotherapist and Board Certified Coach who specializes in helping 20-Somethings/Millennials navigate this exciting but overwhelming time in their lives. Tess wants all young adults to be able to enter their 30s, 40s and 50s with confidence and clarity. For over 10 years, Tess has worked with men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds, each with a desire to change something (sometimes everything) about their lives!

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

I was born in small town 100 miles north of San Francisco called Ukiah. I moved to Berkeley, CA at the age of 10. So when I think about “where I grew up,” I always think about my life in the SF Bay Area.

I went to Boston University and majored in Film, determined to make it “big” in Hollywood. At age 22 I thought this was my path in life. By age 27 I was lost, confused, broke, single, unemployed and living with my mother. It took me a few years but I realized one thing I really liked was helping people solve their personal problems. I wondered, could I be a therapist?

After I became a licensed therapist, I opened my own private practice and I soon had a practice full of 20-somethings/Millennials struggling with young adulthood. It was through my work with these clients that I realized the significance of the twenty-something years; These are the years we need guidance, support, direction and reassurance the most.

During my work with young adults it occurred to me that therapy wasn’t enough. My clients needed more than insight into their problems, they needed a plan of action. This is when I started studying both life and business coaching. It felt like I finally found the final piece of the puzzle for me professionally. My interest in coaching led me to becoming a Board Certified Coach and to start my coaching practice which focuses on young adults.

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?

We all experience difficult dynamics in every relationship whether it be family or a friend or partner. While you may have a difficult dynamic with your father, you also both love and respect each other and you may not always agree on various aspects of life.

In a healthy relationship both people feel respected and heard by the other even if there are moments when they disagree or have different viewpoints.

An unhealthy relationship is defined as a relationship where there is the presence of physical, emotional, verbal, and/or sexual abuse. An unhealthy relationship leaves you feeling poorly about yourself and makes you question what you say, how you feel and any and all decisions you’ve made or plan to make.

If you and your family have a difficult dynamic when it comes to politics you can make the conscious decision to not talk about politics and still have a happy and healthy gathering together. In an unhealthy relationship you have no idea what will make the other person unhappy so you’re unable to set a boundary because there are no boundaries in this type of relationship.

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?

It’s always nice to have a family member who supports you and your overall mental health and I would make it a point to set aside time to spend with these family members. It’s important to maintain these kinds of relationships, make it a point to be present during your conversations, and to make sure they know you appreciate them and their support.

If you know you’re going to be interacting with a relative who may trigger you, then it’s important to have a plan of action. Many people think because “it’s family” they have to sit and endure whatever their family throws at them, literally and figuratively. Not true. Give yourself permission to get up and leave if necessary. This doesn’t mean you have to leave the house and never come back but if things with your family start getting tense, sometimes the best thing is to take some space. This could mean walking around the block a few times, running errands for your mother, or even going to your room to call a friend. It’s good to have at least one or two friends on standby to help calm you down and give you much needed perspective and support.

Some questions to consider are: knowing your family and knowing your specific situation, what’s your plan of action if things get tense? What’s your plan if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries? What if you feel like you’re in danger or your feel you might do or say something you regret?

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?

I think it all depends on how you define the word “toxic.” Some see toxic as situational, meaning that two healthy people have a toxic relationship because some dynamic between the two of them just doesn’t work and creates tension, frustration and sadness.

Personally I see toxic as the same as unhealthy because we avoid and actively stay away from things that are toxic. Toxins make you sick and are unhealthy and should be avoided. If you have a toxic family member, remember that you can’t change other people, only yourself. This person’s toxicity isn’t about you, it’s their “stuff.”

One way of dealing with a toxic family member is to detach yourself from them by physically staying away from them and not engaging in any conversations. If that’s not possible see yourself as an anthropologist who is researching toxic people. Try and separate yourself and to not focus on whether what they are saying or doing is “right” or “wrong.” Instead, focus on why they may be acting this way and how you can find a level of empathy for them and their inability to be an authentic person.

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

There was a young woman I worked with several years ago who loved her mother very much but her mother seemed to be going through something very serious. My client didn’t know if her mother was abusing substances or if she was struggling with a mental health issue or if she was maybe going through a midlife crisis and/or menopause. My client was struggling because she wanted her “old” mother back. She’d had multiple conversations with her mother about what was possibly going on but her mother kept denying anything was wrong.

While my client was apprehensive about going home for the holidays, she wanted to spend time with her family. We worked on expectations and tried to prevent focusing on trying to fix her mother. Instead, we worked on focusing on what she wanted to do and see during her holiday break. We talked about what was in her control and what was out of her control. We worked on not trying to solve or diagnose her mother’s issues but to be aware of what behaviors she could and could not tolerate while she was at home.

We worked on a plan for her to leave one day early so she could have a day to herself between the holiday and returning to work. That day became her own self-care day to recover and energize herself in order to return to work.

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?

In order to maintain good mental health I recommend:

  1. First create a vision for yourself of how you want to “show up” during gatherings. Determine how you ideally want to behave when you’re around your family and what behavior from your family you’re willing and not willing to tolerate. This means you can’t just show up and expect people to know how to treat you and then get upset when they can’t read your mind. You have to first figure out what you need and want from your family and from yourself.
  2. Once you have this vision I would then determine your personal boundaries. Boundaries are the rules and limits we set for ourselves in relationships and we determine these boundaries based on your own beliefs and experiences. Your boundaries ultimately tell other people how they can treat you. If your mother always questions your choices and you always get defensive, are you showing up as someone who is confident in their choices? No. Boundaries are about how you choose to react to other people’s behavior. You can’t control what your mother thinks about your decisions but you can control how you react to the questions.
  3. As I mentioned earlier, prior to the holiday, I would have a plan of action. How will you respond if someone crosses your boundaries? What kind of response can you give that makes your needs clear but also aligns with your original vision of how you want to show up with your family? Give yourself permission to leave the house if needed and have a friend on standby if things get too heated.
  4. Again, see yourself as an explorer or anthropologist who is studying difficult families. See yourself as an outsider who is not concerned with whether or not your dad is “right” about his version of your childhood but as an observer who is trying to figure out why your dad holds onto his version of events and can’t see any other side.
  5. When the gathering is over make sure to find time for self-care. Maybe it’s scheduling a massage or having a ½ day at work or booking a session with your therapist. Think about what recharges you and makes you feel good about yourself and allows you to boost your confidence.

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 best way to support someone who is struggling with mental illness is to simply listen. For someone who is struggling with depression, anxiety or another mental health issue, know they’ve been living in their heads, going in circles about why they’re feeling this way and what they should or should not do about this issue.

This person doesn’t need more advice or to be told they should exercise or get outside more. They need someone to allow them to vent and listen without judgement. This doesn’t mean you have to be their therapist but you can give them 10–15 minutes of uninterrupted time with no phones or technology to show you’re really listening.

You can support strong mental health by simply showing up as a strong mentally healthy person.

This means you’re not trying to get anyone to see your side and you’re not trying to make people see the value of the things you do for your mental health. You have a clear vision of what is in and what is out of your control. You know you can’t control other people so you only focus on how you react to other people. You don’t indulge in other people’s bad behavior and when you feel like your boundaries have been violated you express what you need and if someone can’t respect it then you remove yourself from the situation.

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

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist who spent over 4 years in a concentration camp during World War II. He survived and later wrote a book called, Man’s Search for Meaning about his time being a prisoner and how creating meaning for himself helped him survive and stay hopeful.

Frankl survived something horrendous and he was in a situation where he had absolutely no control but he realized the one thing he had complete control over were his thoughts and how he chose to see his situation.

These words are not only true but incredibly impactful when you understand Frankl and his life story. We all face situations both big and small where we feel powerless and hopeless but the one thing you have complete control over is your mindset and how you decide to see yourself and the world around you.

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

I truly believe the 20-something years are transformational years for both men and women and would love to see everyone embrace these years as a time of discovery and exploration vs. a time to decide on every single aspect of your life by age 30 or you’ve completely failed. This is why I work with young people and I’ve been working on developing free and low-cost ways to give the proper tools and techniques young people need to manage their lives and gain the confidence they need to move into the next phase of their lives.

Please support me by reaching out to a young person in your life that seems a little lost and unsure of where to go and what to do. Help them advocate for themselves and encourage them to keep trying new things and not to fear failure. In a world where we’re all staring down at our phones, we need human connection and we need to talk to each other and share our human experiences which can be so valuable for someone just starting out in life.

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

Find me on Instagram and Facebook or join my private FB group: Master Your Millennial Mindset

Thank you this was so inspiring!

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