As a part of my series about “Connecting With Yourself To Live With Better Relationships” I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Victoria Chialy Smith. Dr. Smith is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and director of hope+wellness, a psychotherapy practice offering compassionate care for depression, anxiety, and stress. Dr. Smith created hope+wellness based on her philosophy that hope can be found even in the most difficult seasons of life. She believes that people need hope and resilience to set goals and affect change, to persevere in the face of life challenges and thrive. Her passion lies in providing exceptional psychotherapy services to empower people to live happier, healthier lives. Dr. Smith specializes in women and child mental health, including relationships, personal growth and identity development, self-esteem, stress management, and self-care, work/life balance, with expertise in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based treatments, and other premier evidence-based treatments. In addition to her clinical work. Dr. Smith has published and presented extensively on topics related to maternal depression, child development, and mood disorders.
Thank you so much for joining us! Let’s Get Intimate! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.
My own family life was significantly affected by bipolar disorder with multiple members affected. I understand firsthand the pain and devastation that bipolar, depression and anxiety disorders can bring — how difficult it can be to work through periods of suffering and hopelessness, and the critical difference that therapy and support can make in healing.
These life experiences motivate me. They deeply inform my decision to become a clinical psychologist, and my current clinical work with clients, inspiring me to establish hope+wellness to help others struggling with personal challenges know that hope and wellness are possible — that through darkness can come greater light, wisdom, and wholeness.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?
I am passionate about helping clients live lives of greater authenticity, hope, and meaning by building upon their strengths and abilities to overcome challenges they may be facing. So many people struggle with feelings of love and belonging — feeling as if they are never good enough as if there are pre-requisites for worthiness. I’m currently working on growing my psychotherapy practice, hope+wellness, so that it can be a place where more people can come and find compassionate care for their struggles even in the most difficult seasons of their life — to move toward greater understanding and happier and healthier relationships with themselves and with others.
Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self-acceptance?
I’ve always been someone who gets incredibly excited about various creative pursuits and endeavors. I spent most of my twenties working, always busy doing something and pursuing things toward the future. It wasn’t until I turned 29 when I realized that I had spent so much time working and feeling as if I was ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’ that I had actually missed my life, because life, of course, is in the present moment. I had let life, and some of the most important things in life, slip away. Since that time, I have worked to live my life with greater awareness, and presence. One of the most beautiful gifts you can give to yourself and to those you love is time spent cultivating greater stillness, calm, and true presence when you are with them.
According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?
Research shows that as humans we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others. With social media, and the increased availability of images, people, and lives that look perfect and idealized, there’s increased pressure on ourselves, and dissatisfaction with where we feel we stand. Comparisons involving social media have particularly negative effects on mood, body image. In such a pursuit, we often forget that the path to fulfillment is actually living your own best life — not some idealized version, or someone else’s version. The most beautiful thing in life is for you to grow and come into your own. Real life is messy, chaotic, and painful, but it’s authentic and true, and there is a joy and connection that can be found when we embrace and surrender to it, letting go of who we think we are to become the person we are fully meant to be.
As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?
Loving yourself provides a strong basis and foundation for your life. When you love yourself, you act in ways that are healthy. You engage with others from a place of love and security. You are in greater touch with your thoughts, emotions, and desires. You form healthy, fulfilling relationships with others.
So often, people seek or define themselves by love or security that comes from external sources such as but not limited to money, appearance, relationships, or health. However, these are external factors can all be lost. And so above all, we see that for people who love themselves, there is a greater coherence and peace to their lives — that no matter what difficulties they experience or how many things they lose — they are able to hold on to who they are in the midst of life’s storms. So when you love yourself, there is a greater sense of a direction, purpose, meaning and flow to your life. You become closer to who we are meant to be, despite all the up and downs and stress of life.
Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?
There are many potential reasons why people stay in mediocre relationships. Sometimes people settle out of a fear of the unknown. Other times, people may have low self-esteem and feel as if they don’t deserve better, or fail to recognize that they deserve better. With long term relationships or marriages, people may feel as if so much time and energy has been invested into it that it is difficult to let it fail or to let go. Alternatively, couples may recognize that other values in their lives are important and that happiness isn’t everything — as it’s a fluid emotion that naturally ebbs and flows with time. For example, marriage expert John Gottman promotes the concept of the ‘good enough relationship’ — one that involves kindness, love, affection, and respect while recognizing that no relationship is free of conflict or can fulfill all spiritual existential needs. Ultimately, love is about supporting each other, and in turn, part of supporting your partner involves taking care of yourself and working to engage in positive growth even if it involves identifying and exploring your own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and fears to develop a deeper connection, passion, and love in your relationship.
When I talk about self-love and understanding I don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but for our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?
What are your weaknesses? Insecurities and fears? What are some difficult truths that are hard to face? Regrettable incidents you wish you could take back? What did you learn from them? Are there any areas you hide from yourself or your partner out of shame, vulnerability, or fear of rejection? What are they and how are they getting in the way of intimacy or connection?
So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?
Metaphorically speaking, it’s important for us to be able to stand on our own, to have a sense of ourselves and who we are and what we want and needs from others. It’s important for us to be comfortable in our own skin. This is a lifelong journey, and while we benefit from having a strong understanding of ourselves when we meet our partners, many of us are also with partners who can help us along in this journey. Literally speaking, it’s important that we are able to be alone, that we are able to continue feeling a sense of secure attachment to our partners when apart so that the connection can be sustained in a healthy manner.
How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?
When you love and understand yourself, you are able to demonstrate higher emotional intelligence — demonstrating greater self-awareness, allowing you to navigate your life in a more clear and sure manner and to better communicate your emotional needs to others. In addition, you may have a greater ability to manage your emotions — soothing yourself and being resilient in the face of life’s setbacks, engaging in support and deeper connection with others. You may also be better at recognizing emotions in others and have higher levels of empathy and attunement to the needs and wants of individuals around you. In turn, these abilities can contribute to increased ability to manage the emotions of others, which is a critical skill for relationships, and skill seen in leaders and those with very high levels of interpersonal skill.
In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?
Individuals and society should continue to cultivate greater mindfulness — the ability to pay attention and be present, aware of the present moment, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness wakes us up to the inner workings of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, leading to greater attention, awareness, and quality of presence in our lives. Through it, we gain self-understanding and wisdom and make greater contact with the miracle in the everyday moments of our lives.
What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?
1. Cultivate a deep appreciation for who you are. Think of all your strengths and weaknesses, the unique peculiarities that make you, you. The greatest gift is the gift of yourself. Discover how incredibly wonderful you are — with all your vulnerabilities and scars and all. You are unique and beautiful.
2. Love yourself now. So often we wait to achieve a certain status or moment in our lives before we feel as if we can begin loving ourselves. Some people spend a whole lifetime waiting. But the truth is that we can love ourselves now, at this moment.
3. Recognize that you are the author of your life. Some of us may have experienced difficult childhood circumstances or parents who were unable to love us in the way we needed. Although it may not be ideal, you can learn to love yourself. Let go of any anxieties about the past or future and recognize that you are in charge of your life, that you yourself are what you’ve been seeking.
4. Be compassionate toward ourselves and others. When we are compassionate, we understand that we are not our mistakes or failures or defined by them. Something shifts within us once we realize this. We grow and demonstrate greater resilience when faced with hardships. We stop judging ourselves or others, and making comparisons, feeling peaceful and free instead.
5. Be true to yourself. Be authentic and genuine, even if it makes you feel vulnerable. Make this constant decision each day. It’ll get easier with time, and you’ll find that you’ll become more brace and strong — comfortable in your own skin, less worried about the future and the past, more grounded in the present and who you are.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?
The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary D. Chapman
What I love about this book is how practical it is and how gaining insight into how we show and receive love can deepen intimacy with our partners. Readers can learn what their own love languages and that of their partners are.
Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, 20th Anniversary Edition by Harville Hendrix
The author of this book created Imago Relationship Therapy. What I love about this approach is that it helps couples transform conflicts into opportunities for healing and greater connection and intimacy.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW
I love this book which discusses how to cultivate greater feelings of self-worth, acceptance, and love to live a wholehearted life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…
It would be that peace and love are available to us in the here and now. We only need to tune in to the present moment and to our breath and stillness to cultivate it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?
“Love is a state of Being. Your love is not outside; it is deep within you. You can never lose it and it cannot leave you. It is not dependent on some other body, some external form.” — Eckhart Tolle
When I was younger, I used to feel as if love was something I needed to work or hustle for or wait to feel worthy enough to receive. But what I’ve learned is that it is available to us in the here and now. It is something that we can cultivate within ourselves and learn to access if you’ve never or only rarely experienced it before. There are a couple of ways to do this. The first is to intentionally send love and kindness to others in your life as you interact with them. This opens up and creates space to feel these same emotions toward ourselves. The second is to feel compassion towards others — to understand that we’re all in this together — seeing this can help soften your eyes and thoughts toward yourself.