Dr. Victoria Harris: “Wonder”

Wonder. To have a childlike wonder for the world can change our perspective. Finding joy in small miracles such as a beautiful sunset, a family meal, or a walk with your dog can help us feel happier. When Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, described what kept people going in the concentration camp he […]

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Wonder. To have a childlike wonder for the world can change our perspective. Finding joy in small miracles such as a beautiful sunset, a family meal, or a walk with your dog can help us feel happier. When Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, described what kept people going in the concentration camp he was in, it was the joy taken in the small things. We are meaning-making beings and finding meaning in aspects of life such as beauty or love can help us feel more connected. Allow yourself to enjoy small pleasures and don’t feel guilty.

It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Victoria Harris.

Dr. Victoria Harris is a Humanistic & Integrative Psychotherapist and Supervisor in private practice who specializes in using creative techniques with children, adolescents, and adults. Dr. Harris researched the use of creative techniques in psychotherapy at Dublin City University. She is the author of Wish, her first middle-grade fantasy book in the Otherworld series, which incorporates emotion regulation skills to help children navigate life challenges.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in the New Forest in Hampshire, the UK where Lewis Carroll set his characters in Alice in Wonderland. I was fascinated by the story of a portal to another world because I sought an escape from this one. After my parent’s divorce when I was six years old my father remained emotionally distant. As I was a sensitive child, this had a huge impact on me. I felt unlovable and struggled with my feelings, taking refuge in my imagination. Perhaps it’s not surprising that my quest and personal passion became to understand and relieve emotional suffering in others. Nor is it surprising that I wrote a middle-grade fantasy novel to help children like me build resilience and learn to better regulate their emotions.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My own emotional struggles in childhood led to a lifelong interest in emotional well-being. After studying psychology for A-level, I continued my undergraduate research where I learned the powerful influence that symbols have on our minds. Earning a master’s in psychoanalytic studies, I further understood the importance of working with the unconscious to heal emotional wounds.

During my early client work, I came to realize that sometimes talk therapy could not soothe every emotional pain. Working in a suicide and self-harm prevention center, I began to see clients for whom words failed and where it was difficult to engage verbally. I knew I needed to build a relationship and help them to express and process what was going on for them but I had no idea what to do when a person wouldn’t — or couldn’t — talk to me. Then I remembered my own therapist and how she used creative techniques like metaphor, art, and symbols to help me unlock aspects of myself that needed healing. So I began to use these techniques with my clients and had so much success I trained in creative techniques and later researched them for my doctorate.

One in six children today suffer from a mental health disorder, affecting the way they learn, behave, and manage emotions. In order to help people navigate an uncertain world we need to equip them with the skills to manage their emotions. Early intervention is crucial for this.

I wrote my fantasy novel Wish for middle-grade readers. Much like Alice in Alice in Wonderland and myself as a young girl looking for my own door, Wish is about a young girl on a quest of her own into the Otherworld. The young girl in my story has many adventures as she searches for her father. But on a deeper level, Wish subtly guides readers in how to process their emotions and learn the skills they need to regulate and calm their systems when they feel overwhelmed.

By teaching children to process and regulate their feelings while they are young, they develop lifelong skills to help them navigate times of stress and trauma they will face in life. Children can author their own futures. Wish shows them how to do just that while helping them build resilience in the process.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

We all need a cheerleader in life, someone who truly sees, hears, and encourages us along the way. This could be a parent, partner, friend, or mentor. I was fortunate to meet my husband in my early twenties at a time in my life where I felt quite adrift. We met while I was living and teaching English in Japan and he has been a huge support and instrumental in encouraging my career.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

The most interesting mistake I made was when I was training to be a psychotherapist. I was on a placement in a psychiatric outpatient clinic and was desperately trying to be a good therapist. This meant I wanted to follow what I perceived were the rules. One day a female client who was suffering from severe panic attacks and anxiety was just about to finish the session. When she reached the door, she casually asked me what I was going to do over the weekend. This sent me into a panic as I had been told during training to keep myself professional rather than share anything personal. So, rather than answering her I asked her why she was interested in me when our time together was about her. The next week she returned extremely angry. She told me that I was cold and uncaring. This was not my intention at all, but my own discomfort had led me to behave in a way that was detrimental to our therapeutic relationship. In that encounter, I learned the importance of being authentic. Had I been real in the relationship it could have benefited it instead of leading to a rupture. She needed to be seen and heard, not dismissed. Fortunately, the relationship was repaired. Interestingly, my own research has indicated how important it is to notice, sit with, and be curious about the times that we are uncomfortable in relation with another. It is an awareness of this that can lead to great learning.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am passionate about early intervention. I recently consulted on a school well-being program for the charity A Lust for Life in Ireland. It aims to build resilience, increase well-being & enhance the emotional literacy of school children. Using a Netflix-style platform, children creatively learn about their well-being and self-care with content that is rooted in psychology. At the end of the ten lessons, children listen to a creative visualization read by me to help equip them with the skills to regulate and calm their system. In addition to this my middle-grade fantasy novel Wish releases on October 5th. It is about a young girl on a quest into the Otherworld where she has many adventures who struggles to process what is going on when struggling with dark thoughts. The story gently guides readers in how to process their emotions and learn coping skills when faced with life challenges.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Determination. I always struggled in math and science at school. My teachers told my parents early on not to worry too much as I would never be bright enough to get into university. People may label you, but you have the freedom to believe it or not. My determination has served me well. Without determination, it would have been hard to keep going in the face of the endless critique that comes with doing a doctorate and writing a book!

Passion. I am extremely passionate about mental health and well-being and using creativity as a tool when words are not enough. This helped me to achieve a doctorate in psychotherapy and write my first novel. I really believe that creative techniques have the power to unlock healing when words fail. The use of metaphor can bypass our conscious mind to access and work on our unconscious.

Focus. People will always judge and critique your work. My writing may not be everyone’s cup of tea but holding on to the belief that it can help children and keeping this the focus has helped me move forward. When I received my first negative review of Wish I was distraught and felt like giving up. But then I remembered why I was doing it. I have spent my life studying mental health. I want my life to be useful, so, to write an exciting adventure that also provides tools to help children navigate life is important to me.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?

I have a doctorate in psychotherapy, and I’ve helped many people over the years to find more peace and joy in their lives.

Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?

There may be privileges and opportunities in the US but if there is a large part of society that feels unable to access these due to inequality and disadvantage it will be difficult to rank higher as a country. People may feel their quality of life is severely impacted by something outside of their control, which can affect their sense of hope for the future. There needs to be a feeling that we are in this together. Trust is extremely important, and if people don’t trust those who hold power in society this can negatively impact well-being. It is hard to be happy if we feel we are at the bottom of Abraham Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs and are existing in survival mode. To be happy we need to feel safe and secure.

What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

  1. Someone else is responsible for my happiness. If we are always waiting for the other person to change, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Focus on what is within your control.
  2. Something needs to change for me to be happy. Again, if we focus on what is outside of our immediate control it can feel overwhelming. Instead try focusing on taking that small, achievable step in front of you. Even the most successful people can be unhappy. True happiness is an internal state. It is difficult to feel happy if we feel stuck, but we can feel happier if we perceive that we are taking baby steps forward.
  3. I can’t be happy because of x, y, or z. You can learn to be happier from this point forward. Life events can impact us deeply, but the possibility of healing always exists. I once worked in a suicide and self-harm prevention clinic where all clients were in an extreme state of crisis, and I was deeply inspired by the ability of people to overcome adversity.

In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?

  1. Don’t expect someone else to provide you with happiness, be that a boss, partner, child, or those in power. Take steps to change how you feel internally and externally yourself.
  2. Focusing solely on yourself may not lead you to happiness. While improving your individual quality of life can alleviate suffering and make you more comfortable, we live in a society and are social beings. We can feel happier when those around us are also happy. Giving back can provide us with a sense of meaning and purpose which are important factors in feeling more joy and happiness.
  3. Don’t chase someone else’s idea of happiness. Be authentic. Just because society may portray happiness as owning a Ferrari or having x number of followers on social media, it won’t necessarily be true for you. Find your own passion and follow it. Happiness will come when you are being true to yourself.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)

Compassion. Being compassionate toward others fosters a sense of connection and a desire to give back, which can be hugely rewarding. Helping others or taking steps to influence change in society can give meaning and purpose. Having compassion for ourselves is also important. If we can give ourselves permission to feel all emotions, know that it is understandable that we struggle at times, and can talk to ourselves kindly in times of challenges, this can really impact our well-being.

Wonder. To have a childlike wonder for the world can change our perspective. Finding joy in small miracles such as a beautiful sunset, a family meal, or a walk with your dog can help us feel happier. When Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, described what kept people going in the concentration camp he was in, it was the joy taken in the small things. We are meaning-making beings and finding meaning in aspects of life such as beauty or love can help us feel more connected. Allow yourself to enjoy small pleasures and don’t feel guilty.

An Anchor. We all need tools to self-regulate when we feel overwhelmed. Life can be challenging, and it is normal to struggle at times. Sometimes we may not feel safe. Just like a young child uses a security blanket, certain things can calm and regulate our system. For example, some of the coping mechanisms I use in my book Wish are using the breath or holding something tightly. These techniques can act as an anchor to bring us back into connection with our body in times of high nervous system arousal. Find your anchor and practice using it. Just make sure your anchor is healthy and safe. So often we turn to unhealthy coping strategies to alleviate emotional pain.

A Cheerleader. We all need one person in our life who sees, hears, and encourages us. This can be a partner, friend, or mentor. Having someone we trust is hugely important to our sense of happiness and joy. The experience of having a cheerleader can carry us through in times of challenge. Hope. My experience of working in a suicide prevention clinic showed me just how important hope is to well-being. When in crisis we can struggle to feel that life can get better. We can feel overwhelmed and seek an escape. Connect to the life drive that pushes you outward into the world, toward something more.

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?

Reach out and let them know you are available to listen. Don’t give advice but give the gift of your presence. Active listening is the ability to listen with full attention which is important for building a relationship and demonstrating you are there for them. It might be hard to listen when someone is struggling, and it may bring up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings in yourself. Use this to be empathic. Empathy is the ability to connect to the feelings in the other and show understanding. People want to be seen and heard. Be authentic and tell them if you are worried about them. Help them to seek more support through contacting their doctor, a helpline, or a therapist. Try to encourage them to get out into the fresh air with you. When we feel down or depressed, we can isolate ourselves. Even going for a walk outside in nature can be helpful. Animals and nature can be very healing.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Creative techniques can be used to encourage better connection and teach coping skills to navigate turbulent times. I’d incorporate them into the curriculum of all our preschool children.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I have great respect for the work of Dr. Gabor Maté. His method of compassionate inquiry goes to the very root of our disconnection from ourselves. I’d love to chat with him over lunch about early intervention. If we can help equip children at a young age with the skills to reconnect with themselves, this will help them when they encounter turbulent times.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out my professional website — www.drvharris.com or author website — www.victoriaharrisauthor.com

Or follow me on IG @drvharris

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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