Engage in proactive self-assessment. The key to healthy mental wellness is prevention which can only be achieved by regular self-assessment and evaluation. It’s important to get in the habit of being attentive to your moods, feelings, thoughts, and behavior on a regular basis. This data can be useful in gauging the balance that you have in your life and the potential risks for mental health conditions. Early identification of red flags allows for early intervention.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Talal H. Alsaleem, PsyD, LMFT.
Award-winning marriage counselor and researcher, Dr. Talal H. Alsaleem is recognized as a leading expert in the field of infidelity recovery. He is the author of the acclaimed book, Infidelity: The Best Worst Thing that Could Happen to Your Marriage, and the founder of the Infidelity Counseling Center. His research interests and clinical work are focused on identifying the causes of infidelity and providing the best treatment for recovery from its impact. He developed Systematic Affair Recovery Therapy (SART) ™, a method of infidelity counseling that has helped hundreds of couples navigate the challenges of the healing journey from affairs. Dr. Alsaleem is an international lecturer and speaker. His engaging talks have helped many counselors broaden their understanding of infidelity and gain the necessary clinical tools to help their clients recover from affairs. Learn more at https://systematicaffairrecoverytherapy.com/
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I was born in Kuwait as the youngest of twelve siblings. My mother was a homemaker and my father was a self-made entrepreneur. Despite their limited education, they always emphasized the value of pursuing knowledge and encouraged me and my siblings to explore and pursue our academic interests.
I had a very happy childhood living in a busy household with siblings of different ages and personalities. Being the youngest gave me a unique opportunity for observation and social interaction which has helped me connect easily with others who happen to be different from me.
At an early age, I became aware of my fascination with people and learning about different cultures. I was an avid reader and interested in all different types of books. My favorites were the books about the different cultures and places that were not familiar to me and my homeland. I believe this fascination was ignited by my father’s story telling about his various travels and the people he encountered. His anecdotes and extensive knowledge of poetry and folklore nourished my imagination and sparked my curiosity about people and the human condition.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
As the founder of the Infidelity Counseling Center and the creator of Systematic Affair Recovery Therapy (SART) ™, my mission is to teach clients and counselors how to use the trauma of affairs to rediscover, establish, and maintain healthy relationships with oneself and others. Recent studies indicate that in 41% of marriages, one or both spouses admit to infidelity, either physical or emotional. A recent survey of American Marriage and Family Therapists revealed that 74% of the participants felt that their training program did not prepare them to deal with infidelity disclosure and treatment in clinical settings.
Infidelity is a cross cultural human behavior that has been in existence since the invention of the concept of committed relationships. From a clinical standpoint, infidelity is considered to be one of the most difficult issues to treat, and its impact is considered to be the most damaging to the wellbeing of the individual, their relationship with their significant other, and their family unit dynamics. However, despite its prevalence rate throughout history, understanding the causes of infidelity and the development of clear and effective methods to prevent it and treat it remained a mysterious and unattainable endeavor.
Prior to the creation of Systematic Affair Recovery Therapy, the construct of infidelity was a complicated puzzle that confounded the researchers who tried to study it and overwhelmed the clinicians who attempted to treat it. This is based on the fact that previous research efforts were fragmented, mono centric, and conducted by individuals who were either arm-chair researchers with limited clinical field experience or front-line clinicians who were lacking in research method experience.
SART ™ was developed to provide counselors of all levels with a strategic and adaptive treatment method for helping individuals and couples heal from the trauma of sexual and emotional affairs. The treatment method is based on extensive clinical work with clients dealing with infidelity and a comprehensive analysis of the existing body of literature about infidelity treatment and etiology. SART ™ is an innovative treatment method with practice-based evidence that integrates the best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values. My vision for the field of counseling is to see counselors have access to the tools they need to successfully treat such a prevalent and devastating issue as infidelity.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When I was a young intern, I promised myself that I would make it a point to pursue a well-rounded professional experience in the field of counseling, the primary goal being to have experiences that helped me learn more about myself as a clinician. I wanted to discover my strengths, my weaknesses, and my passions. To fulfil this promise, I had the privilege to work in almost all levels of care imaginable. I worked at inpatient, outpatient, voluntary, correctional, substance abuse, and everything in between. Each program I worked at served a different type of population with unique clinical issues. These unique programs allowed me the opportunity to serve clients from various backgrounds and age groups where I was allowed to conduct individual, couples, family, and group therapy. Each one of these programs wanted their staff trained in the best modality of treatment available for serving the needs of their clients. This allowed me to acquire an extensive clinical toolset from these various trainings and certifications.
At the end of that journey of discovery, I realized that the client population I am most passionate about is couples. Now, most therapists I have worked with have a lot of anxiety about working with couples due to the challenging nature of the sessions and the intensity of the environment. I, on the other hand, felt very comfortable working in that environment, because it was suited to my skillset.
This led to starting my own couple’s counseling private practice which later evolved into the Infidelity Counseling Center. The first thing I noticed when I opened my practice was that the vast majority of couples seeking counseling were coming in due to a major crisis or a conflict rather than a checkup. Those who were in a crisis were often in such a state due to the discovery of an emotional and/or sexual affair.
So, when I started to look at the extensive clinical toolbox I had accumulated throughout the years, I began to realize that none of the clinical tools I had obtained were adequate or specifically designed for treating infidelity. This was the first “aha moment” about the pressing need for filling this important gap in the field of couples counseling and marriage therapy. This realization combined with my observation of the devastating impact of untreated infidelity ignited my passion to solve this puzzle and develop a treatment method that could be taught to and applied by other counselors throughout the globe.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
It’s hard to pinpoint a single moment, because my work culminated over time through research and direct clinical experiences. But, as they say, need is the mother of invention, so when I realized that there was not an adequate, tailored-made treatment method for infidelity, I decided to jot down my observations about the infidelity clients I was working with, who were the majority of my cases. As soon as I began recording my observations, I began to see clear universal patterns that all my clients shared in their struggles to recover from infidelity. The similarities of these shared experiences between these clients who came from various backgrounds, ages, and types of relationships were astounding. This was when I realized that I am on the right path of solving this puzzle, so I guess you could say that this was my “aha moment.” The final trigger that led me to doing something about it was seeing how ill-prepared my fellow clinicians were in dealing with infidelity. The lack of knowledge about the causes of infidelity and how to treat it, and the anxiety about working with folks dealing with it was apparent in every clinical presentation I conducted about my work. The glaring need for codifying my methods and the clinicians’ thirst for a clear, systematic approach for treating infidelity gave birth to the SART model.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting thing is the unexpected, consistent feedback I have received from therapists exposed to the SART ™ model. They report that not only does the SART ™ model help them be better equipped to help their clients heal from emotional and sexual affairs, but that they are beginning to notice that the model has a useful application for a wider range of couples dynamics that are related to different types of betrayal and breaches of trust. Furthermore, they report that the interventions and the milestones in the SART ™ model has helped improve their clinical assessment and treatment formulation with the non-infidelity couples they work with. I was pleased and pleasantly surprised that the SART ™ model has a broader and more global application than what it was designed for.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I believe that in addition to creating something of value to others, the most essential ingredients for success are passion, curiosity, dedication, and tenacity. When it comes to mentors, I believe that my father was the most influential person in my life. His passion for life and curiosity about it was exemplary. Despite his humble origins and illiteracy he managed to find different ways of learning about the world and acquiring wisdom through lived experiences. He travelled the globe during a time in which travel was not easy and always strove to instill the passion for learning and the quest for knowledge in me and my siblings. He was a wise man that listened more than he spoke, and when he spoke, he did so with purpose and intention.
As far as cheerleading goes, my wife Angela is my biggest cheerleader and number one fan. She has always believed in me, even during my moments of doubt, and has always managed to help me to stay the course with her relentless support and Pollyanna attitude to life. Without her cheerleading, none of this would have been possible.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
It’s unfortunate that, despite the high prevalence rate of mental health conditions, we are still dealing with the stigma about it. The root causes of the stigma are many, but I will share with you the most salient ones from my perspective, which are the terminology we use, myths and misconceptions, cultural beliefs, and ineffective mental health services.
The words we use to describe constructs carry positive and/or negative connotations. The connotations of these words tend to shape how we think and feel about these constructs. In the case of mental health, the majority of the terms used tend to have negative connotations such as crazy, unstable, psychotic, illness, diseases, dysfunction, abnormalities, etc. These words carry negative connotations that reflect a lifelong, chronic deficit that cannot be corrected, remedied, decreased, or healed.
The connotation of the terminology we use when we talk about mental health can either reflect or create the many myths and misconceptions about mental health conditions. There are many myths and misconceptions, but the general theme is that mental health issues are chronic, untreatable, and prevent folks form living happy and fulfilled lives.
As for the influence of cultural beliefs, how a certain culture views the causes of a mental health condition dictates the type of cultural norms developed to handle the mental health condition within the context of social interactions. This either could lead to embracing and providing support or it could lead to isolation, shame, or shunning.
Lastly, the quality of mental health services and the efficacy of the interventions in resolving or improving the symptoms of a mental health condition has a large impact on how we perceive mental health and the value of mental health services. This is especially true when you consider the perspective of the average person who is unable to see the effectiveness of the mental health interventions in improving orresolving the issue which further validates the myth about those struggling with mental health conditions not being able to live a happy, normal life.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
I really liked how you phrased the question, because providing such support is a shared responsibility. On the individual level, we need to have more compassion for ourselves and others who are struggling with mental health conditions. This compassion can be achieved once we begin to look at ourselves and others as persons beyond the mental health label that we carry. On the society level, we need to take some ownership and accountability for the impact of the sociocultural environment that impacts the individual’s mental wellness and, at times, exacerbates preexisting mental health conditions. Despite the genetic and biological components to mental health conditions, a large portion of it is heavily influenced by the daily social interactions and experiences we encounter in the social units to which we belong. I could go on for hours describing the cause and effect between social processes and mental health conditions, but, for brevity’s sake, I will just use two obvious examples: poverty and bigotry.
Lastly, on the government’s end, the best support can be provided through three main facets: legislation, financial support, and oversight. Legislation wise, the government should strive to change some of the laws that make it difficult for folks to have better access to mental health services. As for financial support, the government should allocated more funding for mental health programs that not only focus on intervention but also prevention. The benefits that will be reaped from changing the laws and providing more funding for mental health programs should be protected by government oversight to ensure that people continue to have access to such programs and such programs are effective in helping them to heal and improve their lives.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Exercising and eating well. I know that this sounds like a cliché, but I can’t emphasize the value of physical wellness and its impact on mental health. When our bodies are out of balance, it affects all aspects of our daily interactions which in turn affects how we feel about ourselves and our bandwidth to deal with life stressors. Eating well and exercising does not mean becoming a gym rat. It simply means creating and sticking to a healthy and manageable routine for meals and levels of daily physical activity.
- Make relaxation and leisure a priority. Life can easily overwhelm us and drain our energies even when we are engaged in activities we are passionate about. This is why it’s important to carve out time in your schedule for enjoyable actives to help recharge your batteries. I personally enjoy playing with my dog and going on hikes with my wife.
- Surround yourself with positive people and remove toxic influences from your life. Attempting to change the world by creating and sharing new ideas is hard work. In order for you to stay the course, you need to surround yourself with people who believe in you and your cause and encourage you to do the necessary work to achieve your goal. I always make it a point to surround myself with peers and colleagues who are supportive and encouraging.
- Diversify your ego portfolio. A lot of our mental wellness is tied to how we feel about ourselves and our accomplishments. A lot of people make the mistake of pigeonholing their self-worth into one aspect of their life or one of the many roles they play. This is problematic because at any given point, your success and sense of accomplishment in any aspect of your life might be stunted or impacted by something outside of your control. If that aspect or role is your only source of self-worth, you are going to struggle. I personally strive to diversify the sources that I utilize to define my self-worth. For example, my roles as a counselor and a trainer are two of the many outlets that I have for making accomplishments that derive satisfaction. Other outlets include my roles a husband, father, and friend.
- Engage in proactive self-assessment. The key to healthy mental wellness is prevention which can only be achieved by regular self-assessment and evaluation. It’s important to get in the habit of being attentive to your moods, feelings, thoughts, and behavior on a regular basis. This data can be useful in gauging the balance that you have in your life and the potential risks for mental health conditions. Early identification of red flags allows for early intervention.
- Aspire to grow and avoid stagnation. I truly believe that mental stagnation and a lack of goals and direction is a leading cause of dissatisfaction. It’s important to keep the flame of curiosity ignited by setting new goals to achieve and new endeavors to explore on a regular basis. In my personal life, I am most happy and fulfilled when I am working on a new project or exploring new possibilities.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
As for podcasts, I would have to choose Radio Lab on NPR. The show focuses on topics of a scientific and philosophical nature and attempts to approach broad, difficult topics in an accessible and light-hearted manner and with a distinctive audio production style. I really applaud their efforts in breaking down complicated scientific topics and making them accessible to the general public. This is something that I aspire to do in my efforts of sharing my knowledge with the world.
When it comes to books, there are many, but the most influential was The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. This book is my favorite for two reasons. First, it contains two of my passions: psychology and comparative mythology. Second, it provides a common template of a broad category of tales and lore that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. In a sense, it describes the journey one must take in order to transform and achieve great things, which I believe is a must-read for anyone who is aspiring to be a mental health champion.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
In order to be good at what you do, you must aspire to learn not just by following what others have created, but also by innovating and reinventing.
Believe in yourself and your ability to contribute something great and extraordinary in your professional field. All the big names in any industry were, at some point, entry level with no street cred.
Lastly and most importantly, don’t be afraid to challenge dogma. There is nothing in this world that should be beyond reproach and reexamination. The quest of discovering knowledge should be fluid and dynamic.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!