Mental Health Champions: “Strive for progress over perfection” With Dr. Kara Fasone, Ph.D

Strive for progress over perfection — I commonly refer to myself as a “recovering perfectionist.” While I still think it’s important to set challenging goals, I’ve also realized that there’s no consensus around what “perfect” looks like. Instead of waiting to completely polish a work project, I’ve learned that a preliminary outline can be just as impressive […]

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Strive for progress over perfection — I commonly refer to myself as a “recovering perfectionist.” While I still think it’s important to set challenging goals, I’ve also realized that there’s no consensus around what “perfect” looks like. Instead of waiting to completely polish a work project, I’ve learned that a preliminary outline can be just as impressive AND can allow me to collaborate with others to further refine my work. Similarly, jogging at 12mph can be just as beneficial for your health as running a 7-minute mile. I’ve learned that the most important benchmark for success is ME … and not some arbitrary measure of “perfection”. Perfectionism leads to paralysis.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Kara Fasone, PhD. Kara has a PhD in Industrial & Organizational Psychology and a passion for pushing others to reach their fullest potentials. As a seasoned I/O professional, Kara has spent years applying psychological principles within organizations to help employees maximize their self-awareness, motivation, and performance. She’s created and managed a variety of people-focused processes related to employee engagement, talent management, career development, and workplace wellness. She’s committed to helping employers understand the importance of their employees’ mental wellness (above and beyond the obvious bottom-line effect of focusing on employees’ physical wellness). In addition to her “day job”, Kara is also the proud co-founder of Wise & Well Academy, a digital hub for online wellness courses and psychology-based resources designed to help others live happier, healthier, more productive lives. For anyone considering or currently navigating through their own wellness journeys, check out this free overall wellness inventory. This self-assessment tool will help you build your self-awareness and identify which thoughts, feelings, and behaviors may be helping or hurting your attempts at living a healthy lifestyle (because building a healthy body starts with building a healthy mind).

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Happy to be here! I stumbled onto this career path after experiencing firsthand how stress (particularly stress in the workplace) can impact one’s health and wellness. My personal life mission is simple. I want to help as many people and possible live happier, healthier, more productive lives.

After years of working as organizational development and I/O professional in the corporate world, I realized that I felt most fulfilled by the meaningful interactions and the personal behavior changes I was helping others achieve. I managed wide-reaching people-focused initiatives within organizations, including performance management, employee engagement, organizational learning & development, and workplace wellness.

But the best part of my job wasn’t the success that came with leading large, firm-wide projects. Rather, the highlight of my day was when employees would e-mail me or drop by my desk to ask advice or thank me for helping them to develop personal insights or to achieve the professional goals that were most important to them.

Over time, I realized that I wasn’t leveraging my experience & education in I/O Psychology to help as many people as I had the potential to. So, I decided to channel the power of the world wide web, and I founded Wise & Well Academy, a digital hub for online wellness courses, psychology-based resources, and a growing membership community built to help hundreds of more people (while not completely burning myself out in the process).

Starting a business is a continuous hustle that includes learning everything I can about entrepreneurship, marketing, and building scalable processes to help me make my efforts a success, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s incredibly energizing to wake up every day and know that I’ve made healthy living more accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the motivation to grow themselves. And hey — I continue to have a soft spot for people-focused organizations, so I’m staying true to my HR roots and also offering corporate wellness solutions.

Most of us spend more 8+ hours each day at work 5 days a week — some spend much more time than that. That’s a significant amount of time, and organizations are beginning to recognize how employees’ health and mental well-being impact their experience, engagement, and productivity at work. My goal is to extend beyond the conventional Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and empower organizations to help their people manage stress, maximize their health, and continue to grow towards their individual potentials.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

In my view, the stigma around mental illness can be divided into two types: external stigma (or social stigma), which involves the biased attitudes that others have around mental illness; and internal stigma (or self-perceived stigma), which involves irrational thoughts and self-blame that the person with the mental illness suffers from.

A 2013 review of studies on the social stigma of mental illness shows that it is still widespread, even as the public has become more aware of the nature of the various mental health conditions. While our society may now recognize the medical nature of a condition and the need for treatment, (as opposed to assuming pure personality defect), many people still have a negative view of those with mental health conditions.

This social stigma leads to the second type of stigma (self-perceived stigma), which drives individuals to feel shame about suffering from a mental illness. In our individualistic culture, we’re oftentimes taught through childhood (whether directly or indirectly), that we should take responsibility for our lives and engage in problem-solving to make it through tough times. Sometimes, though, individual “problem-solving” isn’t enough and individuals go untreated because they’re unsure of what to do or whether they should seek help.

Sometimes, individuals feel as if their suffering has not yet crossed an invisible threshold of seriousness. In my past, I’ve asked myself: “Am I sad or broken enough to go see someone? It’s probably temporary. I’ll do the best I can and figure it out myself.” While focusing on ourselves can sometimes work, it’s important to lean on important support networks. It’s important to recognize that you can still be an individual and seek out help for those particularly difficult struggles.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

When partnering with my co-founder, our goal was to make mental wellness a focus of everyone’s regular self-care routine. Yes, eating well, exercising, and getting sleep are all common behaviors we typically think of when we’re attempting to live healthfully, and these lifestyle habits can actually have a profound impact on your mental wellness (spoiler alert: it’s all connected).

But oftentimes, people stop there. They don’t move beyond that focus on physical wellness.

One of the most important pieces of taking care of your overall wellness is embracing a focus on your mental wellness and building your self-awareness.

Bit’s incredibly important to take the time to become intimately familiar with your thoughts, your self-narrative, your feelings & emotions, your behaviors and how all of these pieces come together to form your experience in life.

At Wise & Well Academy, we advocate a holistic approach to wellness and support our community in building self-awareness, identifying sources of stress and unhappiness, and developing small lifestyle changes that are sustainable in the long-term (and which cumulate over time to transform the way you experience life).

This means helping you nurture your body and your mind.

We want to normalize mental exercise so its viewed as just as important as physical exercise.

We want to show that it’s OK to ask for professional help if you’re unable to decode your thoughts and feelings by yourself.

We want to make building one’s mental wellness a healthy habit instead of a scary stigma.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

Of course — the decision to launch Wise & Well Academy was influenced by multiple experiences I’ve had in life.

Depression runs in my family, and throughout my life, I’ve been met with loss through the suicide of friends, family, and acquaintances. In fact, when I was a freshman in sophomore in college, I banded together with a small group of friends to organize Life Fest, suicide awareness and prevention benefit in my small hometown. Spurred by the death of a friend and the growing suicide rate of young people in my town, we aimed to raise money for suicide prevention organizations and come together as a community. The response was amazing and the event continued annually for five years.

Reflecting back to my experience in school, I realized that we never spent much time on mental health disorders in health class. I’ve always wondered if some of the people my age who have been lost would have been better equipped to deal with their emotions if we’d been told it was OK to ask for additional help and we’d learned more about various mental illnesses and how they impact us and others around us.

I’ve struggled personally in the past, too. I remember branding myself as the “health nut” because I ate a nutrient-packed diet, exercised for hours, and conditioned myself to what I considered to be peak physical shape. But, I was overworking myself at my job, repressing my struggle with social anxiety and stress, and unwilling to ask for help because I thought I could push through my personal battles on my own.

I ended up burning myself out to the point where my body nearly stopped producing cortisol, quitting my job (out of necessity), and still fighting my friends’ recommendations that I should see a therapist for help parsing out my thoughts and feelings.

It was then that I realized I was never truly healthy. I was just thin. I neglected the mental side of my wellness in favor of the physical side. I did take steps toward seeking help and made a promise to myself that I’d stop focusing so heavily on the physical part of the wellness equation and I’d start giving more attention to my mind.

I was confident that there were others out there who have experienced this a similar situation, so I created Wise & Well Academy to help others (whether health and wellness newbies or veterans) to take a more holistic approach to build their health and wellness.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Great questions. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

Individuals should, first, schedule time each week to dive into their thoughts and feelings. Stop shying away from introspection and start building self-awareness. Sure, it may feel uncomfortable thinking about negative feelings or bad events but running away from life’s “problems” will not allow you to fix them. And, hey, asking for help is completely OK.

Society should make mental wellness a focus in schools. We develop ingrained beliefs and habits growing up, and it’s important for young people to begin learning about mental disorders, why they occur, and what they can do to help themselves and others address instead of avoiding these realities.

And, institutionally, I think employers hold the potential to influence how their employees address challenges related to stress management and mental illness. It goes above and beyond offering a “competitive” benefits package and hinges upon the ability for organizations to ingrain health and well-being into their cultures.

As far as government is concerned, I hope federal funding continues to drive forward research and continue to create opportunities to study the causes of, treatments for, and recovery from mental health disorders. This information contributes to our overall understanding of mental health and can improve treatment and future research as well as increase public awareness.

What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Aim for balance — for the longest time, I lived my life according to what I thought others “expected of me. These unrealistically high standards caused me to drive myself to the point of burnout while attempting to balance a full-time job, full doctoral course load, strict exercise regimen, and multiple extra-curricular. Over time, I’ve realized that doing “everything” ultimately gets you nowhere. So, I paused, reflected, and prioritized the activities that were MOST important for me at my current stage in life. I finished school, found a more fulfilling and less stressful job, and loosened my tendency to over-exercise.
  2. Strive for progress over perfection — I commonly refer to myself as a “recovering perfectionist.” While I still think it’s important to set challenging goals, I’ve also realized that there’s no consensus around what “perfect” looks like. Instead of waiting to completely polish a work project, I’ve learned that a preliminary outline can be just as impressive AND can allow me to collaborate with others to further refine my work. Similarly, jogging at 12mph can be just as beneficial for your health as running a 7-minute mile. I’ve learned that the most important benchmark for success is ME … and not some arbitrary measure of “perfection”. Perfectionism leads to paralysis.
  3. Practice gratitude regularly — Gratitude is incredibly important for general mental wellness. As humans, we’re primed to fixate on the negatives and the stressors that cumulate in our lives. By regularly reflecting on the good and accepting the bad without judgment or rumination we can manage stress and remain resilient. Every night, I take five minutes to journal using the 3–2–1 Framework, which means I jot down 3 things I’m grateful for, 2 things that went well during the day, and 1 observation or personal insight (whether positive or constructive). This helps me appreciate my life as I live it and clear my mind in preparation for a good’s night sleep.
  4. Find the intersection between wants & needs — I used to struggle with the concept of what I “need” to do in order to live a happier and healthier life, and I’ve found that many others I’ve worked with have trouble making this same distinction. Sometimes, we go to extremes in the name of improving ourselves. (The popularity and continuous failure of restrictive, fad diets is one of the best examples). My advice is to learn about the many strategies that can be used to improve your wellness and then, reflect. Think about the strategies that meet your needs and feel attainable and enjoyable. Finding this “sweet spot” will ensure you’re able to integrate these mental wellness hygiene strategies into your life for good.
  5. Check-in with yourself — Each week, I ask myself three questions.
  6. What am I most excited for?
  7. Am I doing things that are aligned with my core values?
  8. Am I making time for self-care (aka “me-time”)?

These questions help me understand whether I’m living in a way that’s conducive to my mental well-being. I want to be energized and optimistic about what’s to come, proud of the goals I set and accomplishments I reach, and cognizant of my personal and emotional needs. If I struggle to answer those three questions, I know that I have some work to do.

Lean on others for support — I cannot stress this enough. Others are here to help if you’re struggling mentally or emotionally. You may have a close friend or family member to lean on during tough times or you might find belonging in an online community. Humans are social creatures. We’re wired to help one another. As a teenager, I went far too long without asking others for help as I struggled with extreme anxiety and depression. I searched for the solution within myself and when I couldn’t find the solution I doubled down in the search. It almost cost me my life. Now, I have a core group of friends that I talk to about stressors, goals, achievements, and challenges. At one point, I sought professional health and attended therapy sessions. It was one of the most helpful things I could have done for myself.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I have a few go-to books and resources that I advocate. Here are my favorites:

· BOOK: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough by Brene Brown

BOOK: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown (really anything by Brene Brown)

BOOK & ASSESSMENT: Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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