“Identify your strengths.” With Beau Henderson & Dr. Marina Bluvshtein

It was a huge realization to me of just how connected we all are as humans — even though that connection may not always be apparent until a disaster strikes. It also solidified my awareness of and striving to social goodness, as well as also my need to speak up, stand up, and step forward […]

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It was a huge realization to me of just how connected we all are as humans — even though that connection may not always be apparent until a disaster strikes. It also solidified my awareness of and striving to social goodness, as well as also my need to speak up, stand up, and step forward to help others. In my professional journey, and in my personal development, I think everything I had done before prepared me for that day, and that day prepared me for the rest.

As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marina Bluvshtein, Ph.D., the Director of the Center for Adlerian Practice and Scholarship at Adler University, which educates students to engage the world and create a more just society. Bluvshtein is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist. She is also a Diplomate in Adlerian psychology and a Board member of the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology (NASAP), a Vice-President of the International Association of Individual Psychology, and teaches at the International Adlerian Summer School (ICASSI). Bluvshtein has edited three books, has authored more than 10 peer-reviewed articles, and presents on Adlerian psychology frequently, both nationally and internationally.

Thank you for joining us Dr. Bluvshtein! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Two paths have brought me to where I am today: the jobs I have had and my experience as a refugee.

I’ve had many careers over the years — and I am not that old. It’s easy for me to fall in love with what I am doing, and I am often also looking for the next challenge. In chronological order: I was a librarian, a construction engineer, a chemical lab technician, a high school teacher for 12 years, and an assistant principal. I also have a degree in journalism.

I am now the Director of the Center for Adlerian Practice and Scholarship at Adler University, as well as a psychologist and a marriage and family therapist with a practice in Minnesota. My current career is a manifestation of my quest to help better humankind. It is also a result of my immigration to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1994. When I got here, I wasn’t sure where to begin to build a profession here. My brother suggested I try psychology. I decided to pursue a master’s in counseling and then a doctorate degree in psychology.

Even though my previous careers have varied, I also see a common thread — all of my roles have dealt with human nature and focused on constructing a better humankind in whatever capacity that I can. All of my experiences made me more ready, open, and able to respond to different situations and different people and have propelled my work to advance social justice.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was on a mental health first-aid support team for the Minneapolis Chapter of Red Cross in 2001. I got a call on September 11 to come in and do an overnight shift from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Volunteers were taking calls for support and I was asked to come in in case callers were in distress and needed mental health support. I was also there for the call takers in case they needed to debrief after emotionally tasking calls.

I am and have always been a very loyal and conscientious U.S. citizen. It is my country. It is my home. But that night, I distinctly remember a different quality of my connections to the U.S. — I felt a much deeper bond to this country, both as a citizen and as a mental health professional. That single overnight shift gave a meaning to what I am doing as a professional beyond what I could ever imagine. I remember every single moment of that night, faces, calls, and conversations. I remember little children bringing in their piggy banks to help. I remember people jumping in their vehicles ready to bring supplies and support to New York City.

It was a huge realization to me of just how connected we all are as humans — even though that connection may not always be apparent until a disaster strikes. It also solidified my awareness of and striving to social goodness, as well as also my need to speak up, stand up, and step forward to help others. In my professional journey, and in my personal development, I think everything I had done before prepared me for that day, and that day prepared me for the rest.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

I think to create the best work culture, leaders need to work to build community, democracy, and cooperation. We should also strive to be leaders who promote growth. Growth is never about comfort. It requires and involves stretching ourselves. Adler University founder Rudolf Dreikurs said that life only presents challenges that require cooperation for successful solution.

It’s not about give or take, it’s not about smarter or stronger, it’s not about being right — but it is about doing right, and it’s about cooperation. I often spell it as “co-operate,” to emphasize that it means we are operating together. For leaders, it’s especially important that they see themselves as equals to others in their teams and are promoting cooperation and community, instead of a top-down approach. When I say “equal” here, I mean equal human talents, equal aspirations, and an equal need to feel belongingness. This is an innate equality that often gets forgotten under the inequality of social status, financial means, and job ranks.

This democratic form of leadership is about reconciling opposing views based on a common good. It is leadership that aims to a better humanity, because it is built by equals and for equals.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you and your career? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

There are two books that have defined my career:

  1. Superiority and Social Interest by Alfred Adler (1964). Adler University is named for Alfred Adler (1870–1937), a physician, psychotherapist, and founder of Individual Psychology. He is considered to be the first community psychologist, because his work pioneered attention to community life, prevention, and population health. This book is a compilation of papers written by Adler between 1928 and 1937 that crystalizes his teachings and views. He writes about his understanding of human nature and revisits his groundbreaking concept of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, the idea that our health resides in our community life, contributions to it, and connections among equals — all in the direction of bettering the humanity.
  2. Social Equality: The Challenge of Today by Rudolf Dreikurs (1971). This is the last book by Dreikurs, a co-founder of Adler University. It’s interesting because it is written in the 1970’s following the civil rights movement. He wrote that society thinks it has achieved freedom and equality, but that we still need to learn how to live free and equal. Every time I hold this book, I have a mental image of the place close to Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr., stood and it brings these concepts of freedom and social equality together for me.

From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Instead of “mindful,” I actually prefer the term, “heartful.” This gets to the core of our existence, our heart. It does not ignore our analytical minds that are thinking and processing, but also brings something more human into it.

Heartfulness means being whole within yourself and with others. It’s the core of our existence and also the core of our wisdom. True knowledge is knowledge taken in by the heart. It is seeing things and people through your heart. It’s not only a state, it’s a movement. It’s not about “being” heartful, it’s about continuously “becoming” heartful, and then carrying it on and activating it in yourself and in others.

When in doubt or distress, I ask myself what my heart tells me to do, versus what does my rational mind tells me to do. When getting ready for a next step into something unknown, uncertain or scary, I picture my heart guiding me and supplying me with all I need for my journey.

Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

There are a lot of benefits of being mindful or being heartful. The heart is a muscle. If we exercise this muscle, it allows us to stop thinking and start feeling. The feeling is what we remember and the feeling is what brings us together.

Also, when we lead with our hearts and connect with others, it creates friendship, loyalty, devotion, faith, and hope. It also created this opportunity to be very true to yourself. This is especially helpful right now as we are trying to create a sense of connectedness in a virtual world.

The past five years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Please share a story or example for each.

To help calm fears and uncertainty related to the epidemic, it’s most important to be aware of yourself and what you are thinking and feeling. Many people are experiencing both sensory overload (ex. watching news reports constantly, which can be overwhelming) and sensory deprivation (ex. feeling the lack of social contact while in isolation).

It is important to recognize these feelings and to focus on the activities and coping strategies that give us a sense of meaningfulness, a sense of control, and a sense of wholeness. We should be aware of what helped us get there, so we know how to practice them, and can use them when we are anxious.

For someone who is feeling very anxious, and wants to get to the state of serenity, I think it is important to realize how anxiety is adaptive. Evolutionarily speaking, anxiety is a response to ensure survival, though it is only useful in the right dose. I would recommend following these steps:

  1. Take a moment to check in with yourself and to notice where you feel the anxiety in your body.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Describe what the anxiety is: both the physical sensation and where you feel it in your body.
  4. Tell yourself that it is normal. It means your body is listening to you, and is reacting to the current situation.
  5. Give yourself a pat on the back, because it means your body is in touch with your mind and your heart, and is responding normally to an abnormal situation. The congruence between a situation and a body’s response is a hallmark of mental health.

It is important that we understand what we are feeling is normal. If we didn’t know how to be anxious, we wouldn’t be prepared in case the worst does happen. However, our bodies were not designed to stay in a state of alert for very long, as it draws a lot of energy and resources. By normalizing the anxiety, we are already helping to get out of that state. Oftentimes, part of the problem is that we not only feel anxious, but because we feel anxious, we think we “must be crazy.” Everyone else seems to be handling this, so there must be something wrong with me. When actually, it is more likely that we are responding in a normal way in that moment.

To help cope with sustained anxiety, you can:

  1. Think about how you’ve dealt with stresses before and what has worked.
  2. Identify your strengths.
  3. Keep practicing what you have done before to calm yourself.
  4. Learn a new coping strategy and practice it.
  5. Ask someone from a generation before you about how they got through situations like this for multi-generational wisdom.

I also recommend staying busy and engaging in sensory activities, including dishwashing and baking, which help people feel connected with their senses and more grounded in their emotions. In addition, taking care of pets or window gardening can help people feel in control and in charge — something that feels missing in life right now. Research shows that those who take care of others (pets, plants, people) are healthier and live longer.

Lastly, it is important to find a purpose for the worries — a way to use them for growth. Worry can help make us more compassionate, it can lead us to prepare, and it can spur us to achieve our goals. For example, this is a tremendous opportunity for all of us to grow and do something that we used to put aside.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

I like to refer to Alfred Adler’s quote, “The only normal people are the ones who we don’t know well.”

We are all feeling inferior right now because we are dealing with something that is invisible, powerful and pervasive. We are all going through this together. What we need as people is not to “be connected” but to “feel connected.”

To help others through this time, I recommend:

  1. Encouraging others to follow the steps we would for ourselves to help others normalize the worry and help them to feel like they are not the only ones feeling this way.
  2. Helping others find their coping strategies and activities that you can do together that help you to connect and be heartful together.
  3. Practice attentive listening, check in with others’ experiences of what’s happening in the world, and help each other make sense of the situation. Many people are experiencing changes to their normal routines, such as working from home or being recently unemployed. This change can cause stress, in addition to stress caused by the pandemic.
  4. For those not in the same household, take the time to call, video chat, and message friends and family.
  5. Get creative about how you connect and find things you can do and create together virtually.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

There are many good resources out there that can offer coping techniques. As great as new resources can be, it’s difficult to use them when you are distressed because when you are distressed, you default to something that has worked for you before. So it is good to think about what you have done before when you have felt anxious and what has worked — and do that again.

That’s not to say, don’t practice or don’t learn a new coping skill, such as meditation or yoga, but don’t expect that it will start working right away. I recommend thinking about what have you have done that has worked before. You can even ask someone you trust, such as a close friend or a family member, what they have seen you do that has helped you cope with stress and anxiety, such as taking a walk or a nap. Not only will you find something out about yourself, but it gives them an opportunity to contribute.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I often think about the story of “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and the idea that it is “only with the heart that one can clearly see the true thing that is invisible to the naked eye.” A lot of the time, I ask my clients and students, “what do you see with your heart’s eye?”

There was a clear moment when this resonated for me. I was somewhere in Europe for a speaking engagement. I was led to my hotel by some colleagues and didn’t pay any attention to where we went out or how we got there. I was just visiting and following where they led me.

I didn’t pay attention at all — until I was in the hotel room alone and realized that I wanted to go out to get something to eat and had no idea where I was. I stepped out of the door and it was pitch blackout. I was afraid to wander out by myself in a strange place in complete darkness. I could have just gone to sleep and waited until morning. I ruminated about it for a few moments.

Then, having gathered all my courage, I decided to take a step outside — and just as I did…a motion-censored light came on, illuminating everything in front of me. Often, we wait for the light to come on before we take a step, but this moment made me realize that many times if we follow our hearts and have the courage to take the first step, it will make the light turn on for us.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would start a movement for each person to work to improve themselves — to keep doing it daily, in whatever ways needed to become more heartful. After each session, I have heard that Alfred Adler would say to patients, “now go home and improve yourself.” I think if I were to start a movement that would bring the most good to the most people, it would be for each of us to improve ourselves in this heartful, centered, active, and courageous way. That would bring the most out of humanity.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Please follow me on Twitter: @AdlerOnline

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