The thing that we can change is ourselves. We can change our outlook, our mindset, our perspective, our boundaries, our self-care, who we surround ourselves with and ultimately our own happiness. When people are struggling with mental health issues, it can feel very alone and as though it will never get better.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Sommerfeldt, Psy.D., a Clinical Psychologist and the owner of the Loving Roots Project. Dr. Sommerfeldt founded the Loving Roots Project, an online coaching practice, with the mission of providing inspirational and motivational content as a way to promote positive mental health and wellness. Prior to this, Dr. Sommerfeldt spent many years working with high risk and underserved populations as well as a small group private practice focusing on couples and relationship-related issues.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
Well, I grew up in a small town in Texas and got my Masters degree in Family Psychology from Hardin Simmons University. Later, I spent many years in Los Angeles working after earning my Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University.
After completing my education, I started my career in mental health with experiences in a variety of settings from working with families and couples to working in substance abuse, an aging facility, and a correctional facility. I later started a small group private practice where I focused on helping individuals make positive changes in their lives. I also worked with couples facing relationship struggles. With the launch of the business, I really developed a passion for entrepreneurship and specifically in developing businesses that focus on helping others.
During this time, I met and married my husband who is an active duty service member and we now have a two-year-old daughter. Life stays pretty busy juggling the many roles of being a mother, military spouse, psychologist and business owner. During my free time, I engage in some of my favorite hobbies like hiking, traveling and gardening.
With the holiday season upon us, many people are 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?
I think we all can have challenging dynamics in our relationships. These can be things like poor communication, power struggles or projecting your insecurities onto another.
In many relationships there are challenging dynamics, but for a healthy relationship, two people are able to discuss their struggles and work through them. A relationship usually becomes unhealthy when the struggle becomes a pattern that continues without attempts to improve it and then it begins to impact the health and mental wellbeing of the parties involved, as well as the overall health of the relationship.
Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?
I think it is important to maintain and nourish relationships with family members who are champions for mental wellness. It can be easy to overlook and not express gratitude and appreciation for the people in our lives who do support us, so I would recommend focusing on those individuals and to really nurture your relationships with them.
For others who may actually be triggers or more of a negative influence, it’s important that we maintain awareness about how that relationship impacts us, what some of the negative dynamics are, and to set boundaries where appropriate. Those boundaries could be expressing how you feel about various aspects of the relationship or it could require you to limit your time with that person.
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, I think there definitely can be a difference, although there is quite a bit of overlap as well. Toxic relationships are unhealthy ones, but the relationship has crossed into a place of having a very negative impact on the person’s health, emotional state, and overall functioning. I think that “toxic” enters into a category where the relationship needs to be limited or discontinued altogether.
There are obviously situations in which people cannot discontinue their relationship. In those, I would again suggest having good boundaries. It’s important to set limits with the other person when you are feeling uncomfortable. It’s also important to implement your own coping skills in this situation and ensure that you are taking care of yourself and your own wellbeing.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
Yes, I’ve worked with many individuals who were able to overcome challenging relationships with family members, but one in particular stands out. I worked with a woman who had a very difficult relationship with her mother and it had become toxic in her life. We spent many months processing the grief she was experiencing by the idea of having to limit her time with her mother, as well as letting go of the fantasy she had in her mind of what she felt the relationship was “supposed” to be like, but was never going to be. Many people want a particular relationship with someone and when it doesn’t happen, they have a hard time letting go of that desire. Once she was able to do that, it was quite inspiring to watch her set appropriate boundaries with her mother, limit their time together to something that was more manageable and healthy for her, and then to watch her focus on her own goals, ambitions and ultimately thrive in her own life.
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?
1. Set boundaries. I think it’s so important to be clear in your limits and expectations. When you are feeling uncomfortable, it’s important to be assertive in how you feel and set boundaries with family members.
2. Make positive decisions for yourself. This is especially true when it comes to your self-care, coping skills, and alcohol and food intake. Do not let negative family dynamics impact your own pattern of health and your ability to make good decisions. Maintain your own schedule and engage in activities that are positive for yourself.
3. Practice self-care. Be sure to take breaks when needed. Go for a walk or read a book to distract yourself. You can also try to engage in mindfulness or meditation when you are alone. All of these positive activities help to balance out some of the challenging experiences.
4. Find your center. Centering is the idea of being present in the moment with how you are feeling, and then gaining composure over those feelings. When we are not centered, our emotions can take over and a situation can be even more upsetting. Centering helps us to effectively cope with difficult emotions and challenging situations.
5. Limit alcohol consumption. The reason this suggestion is important is because alcohol can lower our inhibitions and impact our emotional and mental wellbeing. Alcohol can often play a role in how people behave, and this is especially true if you are in a situation that is challenging. Adding alcohol into the mix can sometimes increase these difficulties.
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?
I think it’s important that we provide education about mental health issues, work to reduce the stigma, offer support and try to increase others’ understanding and compassion. This way they can help reduce friction, work to provide more empathy and understanding from other family members.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, “be the change you hope to see in the world.” We often focus so much of our time and energy on trying to change other people or other things that are outside of our control. The thing that we can change is ourselves. We can change our outlook, our mindset, our perspective, our boundaries, our self-care, who we surround ourselves with and ultimately our own happiness. When people are struggling with mental health issues, it can feel very alone and as though it will never get better. I think this is a very empowering statement that we are in charge of our own life and can make appropriate changes that will get better.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
Well, I’m hoping to do just that with my new business, the Loving Roots Project. My mission and goal with this project is to use online and social media outlets to reach as many people as possible in order to share positive, inspiring and motivational material that will empower others on their path to betterment, personal growth and mental wellness. Through social media, I deliver brief blogs and videos that offer education about self-care, coping skills, self-love and other tips to personal development. Self-guided online classes are also available on topics, such as stress management, mindfulness and mindful eating. To support the project, you can follow us on social media, share our content and send in ideas or questions on mental health topics that you would like to see more about.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
People can follow the Loving Roots Project on Instagram and Facebook: @lovingrootsproject or Twitter: @lovingroots. You can also follow the Loving Roots Project YouTube channel to watch our most recent videos on mental wellness and self-care topics: https://bit.ly/2NHgyK2
Thank you this was so inspiring!