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“Listen without “fixing” feelings.” With Dr. Ely Weinschneider, Psy.D. & Dana McNeil

We will be able to look back and feel that we have invested in building better communication and connections with our friends and family. The very best of us are struggling to keep a positive attitude and to avoid taking out our frustrations on those dearest to us. We are not doing it on purpose. We […]

We will be able to look back and feel that we have invested in building better communication and connections with our friends and family. The very best of us are struggling to keep a positive attitude and to avoid taking out our frustrations on those dearest to us. We are not doing it on purpose. We are anxious, scared, worried, and we don’t have a rule book to tell us how to best navigate something we have never seen before.


As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana McNeil, Founder of the Relationship Place.

Dana McNeil is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and is the founder of a group practice called The Relationship Place located in San Diego, California. Dana’s practice specializes in couples’ therapy and utilizes an evidence-based type of couples’ therapy which is known as the Gottman Method. Dana is a certified Gottman Method therapist and Bringing Home Baby instructor. Dana’s practice works with all types of relationship issues from pre-marital counseling, dealing with the aftermath of extramarital affairs, partners working through addiction recovery, the military deployed families, parents of special needs children, LGBTQ, and polyamorous clients.


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?

Two experiences compelled me to enter the therapy profession. The first was my former job as a property insurance adjuster helping people after natural disasters. The second was the amazingly helpful pre-marital relationship work I did with my husband before our marriage.

My early career consisted of working for a large insurance company as a property damage claims adjuster. Part of my job was to travel to affected areas of the country in the wake of catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, and tornados to provide on-the-ground assistance to clients whose homes had experienced damage.

As you can imagine, these clients were traumatized by their experiences. They were often in shock and some experienced guilt about having survived when so many in their community hadn’t.

Many of them also didn’t have access to mental health care.

I soon realized that before I could settle their insurance claims, I would need to provide my clients with support and empathy so they could process their shock and be able to participate in meaningful conversations with me about their property claims.

I found a great sense of purpose in listening to and validating my clients’ experiences as they shared how they had survived their trauma. I saw how helpful it was to them to debrief their feelings.

Before we were married, my husband and I had a long-distance relationship. Because of the challenges of being so far apart, we sought pre-marital counseling.

I knew that regardless of how much I loved my husband-to-be, we were going to face communication challenges, differing expectations, and conflict. I wanted to ensure our marriage got off to a strong start.

I researched the best evidence-based couples therapy methods and fell in love with the Gottman Method because it’s an easy-to-understand and structured method that teaches effective and simple communication skills that build upon one another.

I was also pleased that I could enhance my relationships with everyone in my life by using these skills.

I couldn’t find a local Gottman Method therapist who was taking clients, so we bought Gottman’s “The Seven Principles” book and Skyped with each other every Sunday as we worked through the couples’ exercises together.

We learned invaluable communication tools that helped us be better partners and we still use them in our relationship today.

I believe firmly in the Gottman relationship method and have found it to be highly valuable not only for myself but also for the clients I work within my relationship and couples counseling practice.

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

I have always loved the book called “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. I first read her book when I was a teenager and it was the first real “self-help” book I recall ever wanting to read.

The idea of it has stayed with me all my life and informs the way I approach life. We all have fears and we all have things that we are scared to fail at or that will end up in embarrassment.

What makes the difference between a person who is ruled by fear and the person who faces it is what we choose to do in those tender fear-based moments.

The book opened the idea for me that I should let myself feel the feelings, acknowledge them, honor, and respect the value fear has on how I feel in the moment. Once I notice it, I then have a choice about what to do with it once it is on board.

For me, this was an early introduction to the acceptance of difficult emotions and created the ability for me to notice that feelings are not things but merely information. I have choices to accept or reject how what I am feeling will define me and rob me of opportunities. I allow myself to invite both negative and positive feelings along on the journey without giving any of the power to define the outcome.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

On the other side of this difficult crisis that we are all collectively experiencing together, my hope is that we will be able to feel hope about the following:

We will be able to look back and feel that we have invested in building better communication and connections with our friends and family. The very best of us are struggling to keep a positive attitude and to avoid taking out our frustrations on those dearest to us. We are not doing it on purpose. We are anxious, scared, worried, and we don’t have a rule book to tell us how to best navigate something we have never seen before.

The best thing we can do for our family and friends is to practice being vulnerable with each other and letting our loved ones know when we are in emotional pain. Asking for our needs when we are feeling as if we need some extra care or attention is not a sign of weakness. Our emotions are information, and they are there to tell us that we are pushing ourselves too hard or asking ourselves to avoid dealing with things that are scary or difficult to talk about.

Now is the time to learn how to manage tough conversations with our family members by learning to acknowledge their feelings even if we don’t agree with their subjective reality. If we don’t learn how to start allowing our partners and family to have their feelings as valid to them, we are creating fuel for negative conflict.

Learning the art of navigating conflict, to shift from viewing it as something to be ignored or avoided to compromise, and potentially having a deeper connection are worthy goals to focus on during this time of uncertainty.

We can learn the value of and embrace the need for self-care. The only way we can learn to have compassion for others is by starting to have it for ourselves. Pushing ourselves to do more, avoiding our need for downtime, or avoiding the desire to do something purely for our own mental health is not an option during these current stressors.

This also means letting others know when we need them to be there for us. Yes, everyone has a lot on their plate right now. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t give a little extra emotional support to each other. You are not a burden asking for a friend or family member to call more frequently or to check in on you on days with a call or video chat.

Learning how to create daily rituals that ground us and help us feel more connected to some sense of normalcy is extra important as a coping skill right now. This skill is something we can continue to prioritize when the world comes back on-line. Taking the time to figure it out now is not only an investment in our self-care; it’s an investment in being able to actively participate in self-care on a permanent basis.

We can choose to incorporate a slower pace in life on purpose. We don’t know what the world economy will look like when we are all allowed to emerge from the quarantine. Many of us will feel that we need to double or triple down to get back to work and make up for lost time and finances.

My hope is that the slower pace we have all been forced to embrace might have some sticking power. The ability to have dinner with our family in the evenings, the opportunity to have more family time dedicated to shared activities and connections, and the lack of rushing to and fro is now a part of every family’s new normal.

What if this crisis gave us the opportunity to have a reset on thinking about how we spend our time and what we do with that time? Creating rituals of connection with our families and incorporating those choices for quality time requires us to be more mentally and emotionally present.

We can all grow more tolerant and reflective. No one is getting through this event without it having an impact on our lives in some way. We are experiencing a collective moment of sadness and uncertainty as a country. We all have shared symptoms of PTSD that are going to reverberate harder or worse for some than for others. But certainly, to some degree, we are all changed as people. We will never be the same, and we get to choose whether this change makes us stronger and more connected or leaves us critical and self-absorbed.

All of us are doing the best we can to create a sense of normalcy and consistency to help our lives make sense right now. This virus does not discriminate between Republicans or Democrats, by skin color, or by socioeconomic status. My hope is that as a result of this shared experience we all notice and appreciate that we all struggle. Everyone else’s struggles are just as significant to them as yours are to you. Can we take this moment in history to become more observant, tolerant, and kind?

Each of us can become more resilient. Every one of us is surviving day by day and sometimes moment to moment. This is arguably one of the most difficult things that any of us will have to experience in our lives. By virtue of the fact that we are getting through it, managing the stress and uncertainty, and somehow still conducting daily life under these incredible challenges has set us up for success moving forward. We can’t help but come out on the other side stronger, more resilient, and hopefully more aware of the skills, talents, and coping skills we possess to handle future challenges and uncertainties. If we ever need a reminder, all we will need to do is to remind ourselves that we handled this time in life and that we came out on the other side. That means we can do so again if necessary in the future.

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?

Listen without “fixing” feelings. When you really listen to someone without judgment or any intention of getting them over their feelings, then you are giving the best and most important gift you can bestow on someone you care about. The people in your life know you can’t actually “fix” them, and they are not looking to you to do so.

Most of us want to know and feel that we are not wrong or broken for having the feelings that we do. We want to hear someone else acknowledge our pain, frustration, and confusion with validation and empathy.

There is nothing that will shut down a connection or conversation quicker than hearing another person respond to our expression of worry or fear by telling us, “You know what you should do…”. We aren’t looking for someone to tell us how to fix our emotions. We are all smart and capable of solving problems.

When people open their hearts and become vulnerable with their feelings, they are looking for the person on the receiving end to be touched and receive the shared emotion with respect and love.

The vulnerable person wants to hear that their feelings are acknowledged, that it is reasonable for them to feel the way they do, and that it makes sense for them to experience anxiety based upon the way they are perceiving events in the world.

Acknowledging these feelings doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree or would even react the same way. You are simply telling the person that they are entitled to feel the way they do, and that based on what you are hearing of their experience, you also understand they are experiencing accompanying anxiety.

Have regular stress-reducing conversations. Take 20 minutes each day to check in with your loved one about how they are doing emotionally.

Don’t focus on the behaviors of the day (e.g. how they did at work or what issues they had with the kids) without also checking in as to how those activities impacted them emotionally. When a partner, family member, or friend talks about how something went during the day and you hear an emotion lingering in their words, point it out or ask about it.

If they are telling you about the way a meeting went at work or the difficulties they had on their video conference call, ask them about how it feels to be working from home and what are the hardest parts about being away from the office. Check-in with them about what they are missing most from their daily routine — or what parts they aren’t missing at all.

You know your partner but there is always something more to learn from them, and we all are new at dealing with this sort of crisis. Your loved one has lots of emotions happening for them right now, even if they aren’t speaking up or telling you they need to talk.

Encourage structured routines to be followed or start new ones. I am a big fan of creating a morning ritual that sets the tone for the day ahead. My morning ritual starts with a slow launch into the world by spending time by myself journaling, reading, eating a healthy breakfast, and ten minutes of mediation.

This quiet wake-up routine is followed by taking my dog for a walk while listening to a podcast, and then about 20 minutes of yoga. I use an app called Insight Timer that has guided meditations covering almost any topic or emotion I might be dealing with on a given day.

These practices are a non-negotiable part of starting my day. Yes, they absolutely require that I get up earlier in the morning. The trade-off is that I have taken time for myself so that I am able to start my day more grounded and fulfilled.

We are all feeling drained emotionally, mentally, and physically these days more than ever. We are not going to be the best we can be for our employers, children, or partners unless we take the opportunity to prepare to be more fully present with the people in our lives.

For those who have anxiety, the big fear is loss of control and not being able to predict or prepare for what might happen. Morning rituals are a reminder that some things in life haven’t changed. These predictable behaviors create predictable outcomes and keep your brain organized and soothed by rituals that anchor you.

Schedule regular events with friends. Thursday nights at 5:00 have become a standing virtual happy hour for our friends. We look forward to seeing each other’s faces, sharing in our collective worries (and our collective hopes), and being reminded how funny our friends can be. This is a real source of support and connection during these uncertain times. Laughter is definitely the best medicine right now.

Connect with someone today. Who needs to hear from you today?Reach out to those friends, co-workers, or family members that might be either feeling alone or needing a break from their current stressors and would be cheered up by a call or text from you.

Just letting someone know you thought of them or wanted to share a new show you have been binge-watching that made you think of them is a nice gift to share. You are not the only person in your world who likely feels anxious or worried about the current state of events.

Some people don’t feel like it’s ok to complain or seek support because they don’t want to feel like a burden to the people in their lives who also have their own set of problems.

Letting someone you love know that it’s ok to express their worries and fears to you can also help put things in perspective for you and balance your thinking when you are feeling anxious yourself. Remember, it’s not your job to fix others’ feelings.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Meditation. There are tons of free or minimal cost apps you can download on your phone to use whenever you can find 5 to 10 minutes to pop on a pair of headphones and go in a quiet space. Investing just a few minutes a day can have a huge benefit in quieting down the anxious chatter and frustration in your head.

Mediation is also something that you can do that doesn’t require you to seek out any special skills. Most apps have guided meditations that will walk you through how to breathe and will remind you when you have gotten lost in thought. Getting lost in thought is ok by the way! The point of meditation is not to completely clear your mind of thoughts — that’s not possible! The brain is meant to process thoughts. The point of mediation is to notice when you have gotten carried away with thoughts and pull yourself mentally back to the here and now.

We call this grounding in the therapy world, and the value in doing is that it helps remind you that at that very moment you are safe. It’s only when you get lost in thought wishing things were different than they are, or worrying and catastrophe-thinking about what possibly could happen, that you lose perspective.

Creative or purposeful distraction. Grab an adult coloring book, pull some weeds from your yard, fold your laundry, or reorganize your dresser drawer while listening to an inspirational podcast. Do something with your body and mind that facilitates changing your thoughts and focus.

I recommend my clients try to do something for about 20 minutes to change up the obtrusive and obsessive thoughts they are lost in. This is the right amount of time to tell your brain to shift gears. Adding in doing something that feels creative or leaves you with a sense of accomplishment or purpose simultaneously acts to soothe those worries and fears.

Seek out mental health support. Now more than ever our mental health providers are our biggest sources of support. In a world that doesn’t make sense, we need better reinforcement or development of coping skills to get through the days of worry and uncertainty.

We are at a time in life we haven’t been in before, and it might be time to seek out some new skills or work on the underlying traumas or triggers that are coming up during this time of uncertainty. Many clients are re-experiencing the pain of old wounds during this time because they feel so familiar to times in life where they have felt confused, scared, uncertain, and powerless. Now is the time to seek out help to manage those painful emotions and re-traumatization.

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

My favorite life lesson quote is by Byron Katie: “Notice that everything is happening FOR me, NOT to me.” What she means by this is that everything happens exactly as it should in the right way, the right time, and in the right moment. If it wasn’t as it should be, then it wouldn’t be happening at all.

The only way to avoid suffering is to find a way to accept the reality of a situation. We can’t always avoid pain. Sometimes it is inevitable, but we can avoid suffering. The suffering comes from the way we think about a situation. If we get caught up in thinking that a situation should or shouldn’t be happening, then we are caught up in suffering.

The relief starts to come when we accept the situation as it is happening and become present at the moment. Only in presence can we see the next indicated step clearly. The next indicated step only materializes when we stop wasting energy and emotional space on denying or attempting to stop what is the reality.

This way of viewing the world doesn’t come easy, and I often must remind myself to accept what the reality of a situation is because I don’t like what is happening. I honestly believe that when we can accept our current moment, then we are more likely to spot the blessings at the moment in ways that prove the universe did show up and look out for us.

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. 🙂

People often tend to become defensive in order to protect themselves when getting into a conflict. I would advocate for a movement to help people notice when that happens and to do something about it.

By finding even one thing that I did that led to the disagreement and taking responsibility for it, I can completely defuse the negative energy of the moment.

I am not saying one should take responsibility for the whole issue or say they are at fault for the disagreement, but finding something they did that contributed to it will help prevent escalation of the conflict. It doesn’t cost anything to say, for instance, “I am sorry. I was distracted and wasn’t listening as carefully as you deserved,” or “I’m sorry. I didn’t eat lunch today and I’m sounding edgy.” Taking the first steps to bring down the stress level of a potential conflict also just feels good because it says, “I notice my part in things and I want to take responsibility for what I contributed to the conversation going sideways.”

This simple but powerful act helps to start to defuse any situation and model vulnerability and intention to reduce conflict and start repair attempts.

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

www.sdrelationshipplace.com

www.facebook.com/sdrelationshipplace/

twitter.com/sdrelationship

www.instagram.com/sdrelationshipplace/

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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