You own your schedule; your schedule doesn’t own you. A hectic schedule can be a major cause of stress and make one feel out of control and overwhelmed. It has also been misrepresented as a sign of success when one is constantly rushing from one activity to another. When we push too hard and try to do everything, the body and mind eventually rebel. Stress levels rise, energy levels sink, and unhealthy connections to food and substance often develop. Simplify by reducing the number of commitments in life to just the essential and most fulfilling ones. Cultivate the courage and fortitude to say no to the rest. Those entries on the calendar are under your control. Set clear boundaries. Learn to say no to commitments that you really have no interest in being part of. Contain the length of your workday. Doing less is a radical approach to self-care that goes against the grain of societal expectations but in the end, it can open the doors to a more fulfilling life.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Sovec.
John Sovec is a therapist and coach in private practice in Pasadena, California who works with clients on career transitions, goal setting, and motivation. John is the author of multiple publications, speaks at conferences nationwide, and is a respected trainer and presenter in the corporate, educational and non-profit sectors with almost thirty years’ experience. John brings a powerful eclectic style to his work based on extensive education, heartfelt empathy, and a wicked sense of humor
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
My current career path is the result of a roundabout journey toward a calling that was probably always in my DNA. Effective therapists and coaches are born listeners and from an early age, I was always the person that people would open up to. A recurring confession I have heard throughout my life is “Wow, I have never told that to anyone before.” Along the path to where I stand today, I have been an actor/singer/dancer/, a massage therapist, a yoga teacher (still am), a middle management executive for a Fortune 50 multi-national corporation (those were interesting years), and for over thirty years a volunteer emotional support facilitator in the HIV/AIDS community. It was this last one that finally moved me to pursue my graduate education, applying my natural affinity for empathy and caring outreach into my current profession.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As a therapist, one of the pillars of our work is keeping our clients’ information and stories confidential, so the story that I share with you is from a workshop that I was leading many years ago for people living with HIV. There was a young man who was attending this workshop which focused on personal empowerment and education. During the course of this two-day program, this young gentleman did not say a word, no sharing, no questions, no chatting with other participants during breaks. The general format of these workshops was to let attendees move through the experience at their own pace and engage in whatever way was most comfortable to them. However, in the case of this young man, my instincts were telling me that he was in a vulnerable place. I was so worried that he was unhappy and not getting what he needed out of the workshop and I had resolved to approach him if he didn’t attempt to connect in some way before its conclusion. At our final closing circle, he finally shared, and his words broke my heart and still inspire me today. He shared that he was 17 years old and had just tested positive the previous week. He was scared, confused, uninformed about HIV, and overwhelmed with the vast implications of his life-altering diagnosis. He did not speak because he was so frightened and didn’t know what to ask or how to engage. And yet by the end of his experience, he found the courage to share that the workshop had opened his heart to hope and a recognition that he wasn’t alone in this diagnosis, that there were people and places he could go to for help and support. It was one of the moments that cemented for me what kind of healing impact I could make for people facing their darkest times with kindness, compassion, empath, and love as my tools. And those principles have guided my path as a therapist ever since.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Mistakes come and go so quickly around here that it is hard to pick just one. But here goes! As a fledgling therapist in training, I had a moment with a new client where I called them by the wrong name. I looked straight into their eyes and called them by another name, one that was in no way connected to their life. The client politely corrected me. And then I did it again! As a natural overachiever, naturally, I was mortified. But luckily, the client took it in stride and we managed to have a little laugh over my faux pas. I apologized and owned my mistake. By owning my mistake, I gave my client a chance to see how we can make amends and that the world doesn’t come crashing down whenever we have a misstep. Over the years I have found that it is okay to not have to be the “perfect” therapist and that making mistakes, owning them, and repairing them can be a beautiful and empowering moment in therapy both for the therapist and client. The most poignant examples of this have been with my adolescent clients. In many cases when I have had to own a mistake and apologize, my young clients have told me it is the first time an adult has ever admitted to them that they were wrong and taken responsibility for acknowledging and fixing the situation. These have been some of the most important bonding and trust-building moments between my clients and me because they show that I am willing to be honest and vulnerable with them, trusting that they will exercise understanding and forgiveness. And ultimately, my willingness to be vulnerable and honest empowers them to do the same, both in their therapeutic work and more importantly, in their daily lives.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
One of the people that I am most grateful for in my life is my husband. I know it is cliché to say your spouse but without my husband’s understanding and support I would not be the person I am today, nor could I have manifested the level of success I currently enjoy in my career. When we first met, I was living my best corporate life and feeling stifled and unfulfilled. Although the job provided a great income and lots of opportunities for advancement, I found myself struggling with the idea that this was going to be my path for the rest of my working life. After lots of communication about my needs and wants, and what real fulfillment would look and feel like for me, it became evident that I needed to make a change. That change would involve leaving behind corporate security and pursuing a graduate degree and building a psychotherapy practice. We spent many hours discussing all the ways that this transition might affect our lives and lifestyle, but he encouraged me to go for it. He not only encouraged me, but also was my loudest cheerleader during the years I spent in graduate school, then as an intern, and finally becoming a therapist. And perhaps his most important contribution: whenever I would get too mired down in my thoughts or trapped in negative self-talk, he would pull a Cher in Moonstruck attitude and tell me to “Snap out of it!” Fortunately, he never opted to reenact the full scene and slap me to my senses, even though I think he may have been tempted to at least once or twice.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
In any profession I am a big believer in radical self-care, but even more so for mental health care providers. I refer to it as radical, because the kinds of self-care I advocate go against the norms that our culture tells us we should embrace, like no pain no gain, do whatever you have to do to get to the top, more is better, and build an “insta-perfect” life. I see rejecting these pressures as a radical act of defiance that prioritizes our individual wellbeing over the unhealthy and unrealistic expectations that have become common in our society. If you think about what mental health care providers do for a living, sitting with and being present for people who are moving through some of the most challenging and vulnerable moments in their lives, you can imagine how susceptible we are to overwhelm and burn-out. By committing to a system of radical self-care, we can take better care of ourselves and by extension, care more effectively for our clients. For me this radical self-care includes managing my schedule so that I only see clients four days a week, staying connected to colleagues for consultation when I need it, meditation, yoga, experiencing nature regularly, and prioritizing family. It is also important to remember that I am more than just a therapist, that I am also a husband, a gardener, a person who loves and values good friends, a baker, and the devoted co-guardian of a geriatric Great Dane. Staying in touch with all of the facets of my life is a huge part in helping me to thrive and avoid burnout in my work.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
To create a fantastic work culture, it is vital to remember that in any company the most valuable asset is the people who work there. When leaders view their employees as fungible revenue units instead of complex human beings with practical and emotional needs, then there is no hope for a positive and productive work culture. My belief is that true leaders are those who strive to cultivate an environment where each person in the company believes that they are a valued component of the larger whole and their unique abilities and energies are integral to everyone’s success.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
In my work, I emphasize that therapy is a valuable asset in maintaining equilibrium in our lives as well as building and focusing on our goals and dreams. Importantly, you don’t have to be “ill” or “in crisis” to seek out and benefit from therapy. In my own life, therapy has assisted me in not only walking through challenging moments but also in tapping into my internal strengths so that I can live a more powerful and focused life. My own long-time therapist has been in my life for many years and although we do not work together all the time, I know that she is my secret mental health ninja whenever I need a tune up or reach a challenging moment in my life.
And now, my magical five steps to improve or optimize your mental wellness:
- You own your schedule; your schedule doesn’t own you. A hectic schedule can be a major cause of stress and make one feel out of control and overwhelmed. It has also been misrepresented as a sign of success when one is constantly rushing from one activity to another. When we push too hard and try to do everything, the body and mind eventually rebel. Stress levels rise, energy levels sink, and unhealthy connections to food and substance often develop. Simplify by reducing the number of commitments in life to just the essential and most fulfilling ones. Cultivate the courage and fortitude to say no to the rest. Those entries on the calendar are under your control. Set clear boundaries. Learn to say no to commitments that you really have no interest in being part of. Contain the length of your workday. Doing less is a radical approach to self-care that goes against the grain of societal expectations but in the end, it can open the doors to a more fulfilling life.
- Multitasking is the myth of our time. This may be hard to believe but multitasking is actually impossible for our brains, and when we try it, we are putting ourselves into a high stress environment where we will ultimately become fatigued and overwhelmed. In the practice of radical self-care, the focus is on doing one thing at a time as effectively as possible. Do only that one thing with no distractions. Rather than trying to drive the car, manage the kids, eat lunch, and take a meeting on the phone all at once, ease up and enjoy the drive. Chat with your kids about their day. When you get them settled in, then make the phone call in a quiet, contained environment. Focus as much as possible on doing one thing at a time and only that. Recent studies are showing that our brains are not wired to multi-task and that by doing so we are lowering productivity and increasing stress, while also increasing the likelihood of making mistakes and hindering attention to detail. This is a challenging concept for many people who have been raised with the myth of multitasking but with practice, a more efficient and focused mind will develop that is also able to effectively soothe itself.
- Choose a life that feels good rather than looks good. Marketing and media have been very effective at promoting the aspirational lifestyle which is represented by the need for the newest car, the cleanest house, and even a focus on always having bouncing and behaving hair. The pernicious development of these appearances of success have cultivated in many people an undercurrent of personal dissatisfaction, unrealistic body image expectations, distorted financial priorities, an endless pressure to achieve, and a hyper-aroused state of constantly chasing the next best thing. This constant striving creates a highly stressed and unmanageable lifestyle where we are constantly chasing our peers, leaving us spiritually depleted and emotionally unbalanced, and physically exhausted. Instead, open up the possibility that a slightly messy house may actually be a sign of the fun and life that takes place in that environment. Wearing last year’s yoga clothes feels good because they are worn in and comfortable when you work out. By relieving ourselves of the social construct that we need the newest and shiniest toys, we create room to relax and celebrate the real achievements that are occurring. The race to keep up with the Joneses may be woven into the fabric of the American Dream but in the end, it is more like running on a hamster wheel and never actually getting anywhere instead of heading toward the idealized finish line of success and fulfillment we’ve been conditioned to believe it is
- Get your butt moving. When managing our mental wellbeing, it is important to maintain physical activity so that our bodies don’t deteriorate and become susceptible to depression, sadness and illness. Do something each day to be active — walk, hike, go for a run, do yoga. It doesn’t have to be grueling to reduce stress and promote health. When I worked in the corporate world, one of my secrets to staying sane was that I would make a point of getting out of my office and taking a walk around the building every few hours. I even incorporated the idea of having walking meetings as a means to connect with colleagues while also increasing our creative and problem-solving abilities. Incorporating some physical activity into every day will energize your body and reset your brain. Current studies show that short bursts of activity help stimulate brain function. So, get off your butt and get your body moving. You will be surprised how it improves your mental wellbeing, your workday, and your productivity.
- Laugh!! A Lot!! Laughing with friends, family, co-workers, and even by yourself is a powerful way to improve your personal interactions and it’s a great tool for diffusing conflict. Laughter creates connections between people and adds joy back into the equation of life. It can be a powerful mood elevator that can elevate your mental wellbeing. The energy shift that laughter initiates isn’t just psychological; there is an actual physiological change that takes place in the body when you laugh. When you experience a deep, heartfelt laugh, there is a rapid exchange of oxygen in the respiratory system, the heart beats more rapidly from the movement of diaphragm, and most importantly, endorphins are released. This endorphin rush moves feel-good chemicals into the brain, increasing your sense of connection and calm. To bring positive influence of laughter and fun into your life, make a commitment to actively pursue it. Watch funny movies, go see comedy shows, share jokes that you hear through friends or online (work-appropriate, of course), play with kids or even your pets to experience spontaneous laughter.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
One of the major negative shifts that I witnessed as people retire, is a move into isolation. This is often a result of moving out of the workforce where social interaction was a part of daily routine. Suddenly those connections of seeing people, whether you liked them or not, were severed and all responsibility for staying connected and relevant is now on your shoulders. And this may not be a natural skill that you have developed. I have a coaching client who worked in customer service for a major hotel chain for most of their adult life. Every day they were having interactions with both coworkers and customers but as they moved into retirement, suddenly those opportunities for connection were not there and they began to move into a mild depression. Part of our work was refocusing on making a daily effort to reach out and connect with people to help maintain a healthy equilibrium. Our connections to people are a major factor in maintaining a healthy mental state and when retirement shifts that ability to connect, it becomes vital that we acknowledge and take responsibility for cultivating and maintaining our friendships.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
For teens, I believe the same priority of maintaining and building social connections is vital to health and emotional well-being, but with the caveat that some of those connections have to be IRL (in real life). Most kids these days are spending enormous amounts of time online. Whether it is doing homework, playing games individually or with friends, watching movies, or simply falling down the rabbit hole of Tik Tok and YouTube, the majority of their social time is often spent online. These social connections created online are a valuable facet of a teen’s social experience and at the same time I encourage them to make a conscious effort to spend some of that time hanging out in person with their friends and family. When we hang out in person, we get a different experience on both a mental but also a physical response level. Those interactions feed our souls and help us to develop a strong internal sense of self and our connection to the world we live in.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
A long time ago, I was blessed to have a friend share a book with me that has been my companion for many years. The book is Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. The story is a metaphor for the spiritual journey of discovery that is our lives and teaches that the most important thing that we can do is to celebrate that journey as we experience it. The first time I read this book, I was a freshman in college in San Diego and also working at the San Diego Zoo. I finished the last words of the novel while sitting in the Japanese garden at the zoo amongst the bamboo forest with the sounds of a bubbling stream in the background. In that moment, I became aware of the beauty that exists in the world if we can only pause long enough to notice it, and from that moment on, I have continued to pause and notice.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The lesson I learned from Siddhartha is the movement I would want to ignite. And that is for people to learn how to pause, listen, and connect. So much time is spent rushing around, focusing on success, and finishing people’s sentences before they are even out of their mouths. This addiction to speed opens up the pathway to miscommunication and misinterpretation that leads to pain and damaged relationships. If we can take the time to pause and learn from each person’s unique story and wisdom, we can grow closer to our fellow human beings as we grow wiser with ourselves. Each of us has a beautiful and valuable life story and when we can pause to actually recognize and hear each other, the world will change in deep and immeasurable ways.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My life lesson quote that I remind myself of every day is “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance,” courtesy of Oscar Wilde. From the moment we are born to the moment we die we are going to be our own constant companion and we might as well love ourselves along that journey. People and possessions will come and go, relationships will flourish and flounder, our bodies will develop and change, our belief systems will expand and evolve, and yet, deciding to sit in self-love and affirmation can allow us to weave these experiences into the larger and often surprising tapestry of our lives, giving us the perspective and vision to see the bigger picture and find the path we most want to tread.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!