Mental Health Champions: “The only healthy form of comparison comes from comparing ourselves to where we used to be in life.” with Dana McNeil and Chaya Weiner

Minimizing time spent on social media, which is a productivity sucker and an emotional vacuum. Most of us spend way too much time comparing our lives to what we see and believe is happening to other people. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying “comparison is the thief of joy.” He’s right.The only healthy form of […]

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Minimizing time spent on social media, which is a productivity sucker and an emotional vacuum. Most of us spend way too much time comparing our lives to what we see and believe is happening to other people. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying “comparison is the thief of joy.” He’s right.The only healthy form of comparison comes from comparing ourselves to where we used to be in life. Spending reflection time noticing the ways in which we have progressed from the person we used to be is the only real motivational tool that comparison provides.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana McNeil, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and 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’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, military deployed families, parents of special needs children, LGBTQ, and polyamorous clients.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this 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 tornadoes 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 had not.

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 with in my relationship and couples counseling practice.

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?

I recently read a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that backed up the report you referenced. NAMI reported that approximately 1 in 5 adults living in the U.S. experienced a mental illness in the past year and for 1 in 25 of those adults, the mental health issue was serious enough to interfere with work and life activities.

With so many of us experiencing these mental health issues on a regular basis, it still surprises me how often I encounter new clients who are often apologetic and embarrassed about making the decision to seek out therapy.

My perspective of why this shame and stigma stills exists has a lot to do with the societal impressions that many of us have around believing we should be able to take care of mental health issues on our own. The belief some of us hold is that we are mentally weak or damaged if we need to ask others for help.

Some clients hold religious or spiritual beliefs that suggest they should be able to ask their higher power for relief from mental anguish. As a result, instead of using faith as a coping skill, it can create an impression for some clients that it is the only acceptable form of relief. This can give some clients the sense that if these measures don’t work to resolve difficulties then they have somehow failed by turning to mental health care, thus creating guilt and shame.

These mental health issues don’t just impact the individual but the entire family because mental health doesn’t exist in a bubble. The ripple effect of experiencing a mental health struggle impacts a person’s relationship with their family and friends too. Clients also stall seeking help once an issue is recognized. We primarily work with couples in our practice, and statistics show the average couple waits six years before seeking couples communication therapy.

Believing we should be able to independently solve our mental health issues is a limiting and often dangerous line of thinking that perpetuates isolation, missed connections, and in some cases suicide. This line of thinking is like holding a belief that when you have appendicitis you should be able to manage the pain without medication and should be able to perform your own surgery if the appendix needs to be removed. We can’t be expected to know how to do everything in life on our own. Just as you would call a plumber when your pipes burst or go to a mechanic when you need an oil change, it is completely acceptable and practical to go see a mental health provider when you are struggling with knowing how to find new tools to manage your emotions.

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

From the very first phone call or visit with new clients, I normalize the experience of how vulnerable and scary it is to make the decision to seek therapy. I tell my couples that they should expect to have conflict, and that is healthy. In fact, research shows the average couple has at least one conflict per week. Each partner in a relationship has their own thoughts, feelings, experiences, expectations, family of origin examples, and goals. These differences are the perfect storm for creating conflict and misunderstanding.

I also remind couples that there was no class they missed in high school on self-care or couples communication. There was also likely no seminar they missed at work on how to self-soothe when they experience anxiety, stress, or grief. These all are mindsets that are natural and an expected part of life. However, we don’t get any training on how to handle these mental health issues effectively, so it makes perfect sense to seek out new tools and guidance on how to incorporate new ways of dealing with mental health into our lives.

I tell my clients that if they didn’t know how to do their taxes, they wouldn’t feel guilt or shame about seeking help and support. So why should we feel guilty about seeking help, support, and new perspectives for our mental health issues?

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

I grew up in a family where we didn’t talk about our feelings, and there was an unspoken rule that we also didn’t bring them up. My parents weren’t avoiding discussions about emotions because they didn’t care about me. They were products of the generation who raised them who also felt talking about feelings was a luxury compared to providing the financial and physical needs of a family.

I found release in experiencing feelings by getting involved in drama and acting in plays when I was an adolescent. The theatre gave me an outlet and helped me break the familial pattern that I might have been destined to hand down to my next generation. Today, we are more aware of the need to be balanced and create space for the expression of emotion as a healthy part of life.

Having the freedom to express, talk about, and experience my emotions fully and without shame is one of the best gifts I could have received in my life. I want my clients to view and embrace emotions as a positive experience. I want to remind them they aren’t broken, they aren’t “too emotional”, and there is no such thing as good or bad emotions. Emotions are only information that provides us tools to assess if something is working well or if there is an area of life that we may need to consider speaking up about and asking for our unmet needs.

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

Individuals — Increase self-care and become educated about the impact of symptoms of mental illness. Understanding what your triggers for mental health issues are, how they impact you individually, and investing time and energy into gathering tools you can use when you find yourself in the depth of those symptoms sets you up to be empowered versus victimized.

Society — Empathy and compassion for others. Some of us have experienced more trauma in life than others have, but all of us have experienced something that has shaped or impacted the way we experience life. Some of us are not as resilient as others, but not because we are weak or unmotivated. Opportunities to recover from trauma aren’t always afforded to each of us in the same way and can be a heavier burden to resolve for some individuals based on their socioeconomic and environmental impacts.

Government — I am always excited to hear about how other countries such as the U.K. have developed government bodies that set out to educate and reduce the stigma of issues such as loneliness and depression. Other countries are leading the charge in starting conversations, developing educational programs, and bringing understanding to the issues happening to their citizens. I wish we could do a better job in the U.S. creating these kinds of programs for reducing stigma thereby reducing the painful experience of dealing with mental health issues without support or treatment.

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

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 meditation.

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 that cover 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, and the tradeoff is that I have taken time for myself so I am able to start my day grounded and fulfilled.

I think I am doing not only myself but my clients and employees service because taking this time gives me the opportunity to prepare to be fully present with the people in my life.

I am also a big fan of recognizing the things happening FOR ME in life versus the things that are happening TO ME in life. My husband and I spend a few minutes each day telling each other the five best things that happened to each other during the day. This works several purposes for us. It allows us to connect about the day each person had, changes the negatives of the day into a focus on the positive, and allows us to notice each day something amazing that the universe provided to make our lives better.

Time spent with quality friends reminds me that I am not alone in the world. Being a therapist can be a little isolating based on the nature of the one-way conversations happening in my office. Connecting with people who you have invested the time in creating deep and meaningful relationships with is one of the best self-care techniques you can do. Accepting that it’s not about how many people you know but how deeply you feel seen and appreciated makes all the difference in life.

Minimizing time spent on social media, which is a productivity sucker and an emotional vacuum. Most of us spend way too much time comparing our lives to what we see and believe is happening to other people. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying “comparison is the thief of joy.” He’s right. The only healthy form of comparison comes from comparing ourselves to where we used to be in life. Spending reflection time noticing the ways in which we have progressed from the person we used to be is the only real motivational tool that comparison provides.

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

As I previously mentioned, I love the app called Insight Timer. It has great talks and guided meditations that cover tons of topics like anxiety, self-esteem, and dealing with insomnia.

I am an avid podcast junkie and I love listening to Hay House Radio and Oprah’s Super Soul conversations. I have recently discovered a great podcast called “Say More About That,” which interviews people and asks them what they wish their therapist knew about working with them in ways that make therapy a better experience for a client.

For couples who are still on the fence about attending therapy, I always recommend the book by John Gottman called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. It gives a nice overview of some of the theory that goes into the work I do with couples in session and gives exercises that clients can do at home.

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

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