I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist based in Santa Rosa, California. Dr. Manly’s work focuses on helping clients create joy-filled lives by reducing anxiety, stress, and depression. With an eye toward promoting self-care and wellness, Dr. Manly’s upcoming book, Joy from Fear, offers life-changing insights and easy-to-utilize tips.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
As a clinical psychologist and wellness expert, I am passionate about helping others find peace and joy in life. So many people struggle with chronic anxiety, depression, and heavy stress! It’s my goal to help shift this increasingly common pattern in our society.
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?
To put it simply, a difficult dynamic is one that feels challenging yet not emotionally or mentally destructive. An unhealthy dynamic is one that creates a sense of toxicity as a result of destructive behaviors.
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 best advice is simple: Adopt a peaceful attitude of detachment when with those who trigger you! Don’t emotionally engage with those who are destructive. Although this may sound easy to do, it can be quite difficult not to “take the bait” when a relative is accustomed to engaging in unhealthy ways. As an example, if a relative baits you by making negative comments on your appearance, simply smile and walk away. Take a time out to regroup and release the negative energy. When you practice this process over and over again, it will become your “new normal.”
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?
Yes, there surely can be a difference between a toxic family member and a family member who has unhealthy behaviors. For example, a relative may have an unhealthy pattern of closing down during certain conversations, yet this behavior may not be toxic in nature. Instead, it may simply bring up feelings of discomfort or even irritation. Another relative, however, may be highly aggressive and combative in nature. This person’s behavior may create constant drama and toxic interactions.
The best course to take depends upon the individual’s personality and the severity of the toxic behavior. If toxic behavior is low-level and the individual is receptive to open conversations, the impact of the behavior and future goals can be discussed privately. However, if an individual is not receptive to addressing personal issues, the family members may need to unite to request that the individual not attend family gatherings until the toxic behavior is shifted. Although this can be very difficult to do, the outcome can be wonderful.
Family gatherings can become much more cohesive and enjoyable when family members ultimately decide that they will not allow the behavior of toxic family members to “run the show.”
When families hold fast to their positive decisions and create firm boundaries, it’s a win-win situation. The family enjoys their time together more fully and safely, and the toxic person is given the opportunity to create lasting changes that will make him or her feel better in the long run.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
I have many wonderful success stories to share, yet this one is a favorite. A woman in her 50s, let’s call her Sarah, had remarried a man who had two children who lived out of town. Without children of her own, Sarah was terrifically excited to have “inherited” two daughters and three grandchildren. However, one of the daughters used the holidays as an opportunity to let her unsupervised children run through all areas of the house wildly.
Hoping that the children would grow out of the behavior, Sarah quietly cleaned up everything from crayon marks on the wall to broken vases and crumbled cookies left on the floor. She created distractions when the children taunted the family dog and poked at the cat. However, after another thoughtless incident that resulted in destroyed carpeting and ruined curtains, Sarah and her husband had a series of unusually angry discussions that left the marriage on shaky ground.
As Sarah told me, “He wants me to accept the behavior because he doesn’t want to risk upsetting his daughter or even losing her.” Sarah’s husband agreed; he didn’t like confrontation and was fearful of angering his daughter by addressing the issue. After a few sessions, Sarah and her husband realized that it was wise to set clear boundaries for their daughter and their grandchildren. A few wise rules were set like eating only in the kitchen, taking shoes off when coming inside, off-limit areas such as Sarah’s office, etc. Further, an honest, direct phone call with the daughter took place. Although the offending daughter was miffed for several weeks, she ultimately digested the discussion and apologized. As an added bonus, this daughter realized that she had been a poor role model for her children, and she took the situation as an opportunity to create overall healthier rules and boundaries for her children.
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days 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?
When faced with unhealthy family dynamics, the following five strategies are incredibly helpful:
1) Maintain a positive attitude (i.e., don’t let an unhealthy dynamic ruin YOUR day).
2) Acknowledge and prepare for certain unhealthy dynamics rather than pretending that the problem doesn’t exist. For example, if a relative is very demanding and invasive, it is wise to quietly acknowledge this truth. This allows you to not be blind-sided by the behaviors that are sure to occur and allows you to be prepared for them.
3) Don’t get caught up in unhealthy dynamics. Many individuals engage in unhealthy dynamics as a way to get attention, feel powerful, or take control. When family members refuse to engage with the person’s unhealthy behavior, the effects can be minimized.
4) Take time outs. If you’re feeling pent up, stressed, or on the verge of an unhealthy outburst, learn to take a quick time out. Whether you take a walk, make a quick call to a friend, or retreat to the bathroom to breathe, a few minutes alone can do a world of good
5) Engage in good self-care. When you are well rested and feeling at your best, you are far less likely to be negatively impacted by the ups and downs of family 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?
When a family member is struggling with a mental illness, it is vital that family members be supportive at all times, particularly during gatherings. As with other important family issues, it is important that family members talk openly and honestly about mental health concerns before the holidays arrive.
Friction can be reduced and even eliminated when a family adopts a cohesive, supportive, compassionate attitude and game plan.
For example, if a family member is suffering from severe anxiety, low-key strategies can be set in place to minimize stresses without making the affected relative feel “defective” or problematic.
What is your favorite mental health quote?
Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is my favorite.
Why do you find it so impactful?
Because it places the responsibility on the self. It reminds us that we each have the power and responsibility to live our lives in accord with our hopes and beliefs. What could be more compelling than this foundational and empowering mindset?
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be?
I would love to help people move through their fears to create the changes they want. I would inspire others to learn how to love themselves, forgive, hold true to integrity, live with compassion, and strive for kindness. It is from these tenets that true joy and serenity arise.
How can people support you in this mission?
Try every day — just a little bit — to live with self-love, forgiveness, integrity, kindness, and compassion. The more you try this path, the more joyful your life becomes. Learn to see your fears — what holds you back in life — and move in the direction of fulfilling change.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
My website is drcarlamanly.com and you can connect with me on social media at:
• Twitter: twitter.com/drcarlamanly
• Youtube: Dr. Carla Marie Manly
• Facebook: facebook.com/drcarlamanly
Thank you this was so inspiring!