Positive Thinking Can Help Mitigate The Negative Impact Of An Unhealthy Family Dynamic During The Holidays.

I am so incredibly passionate about what I do, and am always so inspired by the positive changes patients are able to create for themselves through our work together. I had the pleasure of interviewing Robyn Gold, LCSW-R. Robyn is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in New York City providing psychotherapy to individuals […]

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I personally believe unhealthy and toxic relationships are caused by an inability to relate empathetically and with respect toward one another.
I personally believe unhealthy and toxic relationships are caused by an inability to relate empathetically and with respect toward one another.

I am so incredibly passionate about what I do, and am always so inspired by the positive changes patients are able to create for themselves through our work together.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Robyn Gold, LCSW-R. Robyn is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in New York City providing psychotherapy to individuals ages 6+, couples and families. She currently specializes in treating trauma/PTSD, anxiety, interpersonal conflict, and Emotional Dysregulation. Robyn uses of a variety of modalities in her practice including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), creative arts therapies, and mindfulness based techniques.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?

Mental health has always intrigued me. I have found it so fascinating that everyone can learn, emote, and behave so differently, yet we as human beings are 99.9% the same in our genetic makeup.

After earning my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology (while having a strong interest in social work and sociology), I was unsure of exactly which route to take for my career. I decided to volunteer for an AmeriCorps program mentoring youth aging out of foster care, and it was during that experience that I found my calling.

Everything just clicked! Within the first month, I knew social work was the right field for me. After my service, I went on to earn my Masters in Social Work at NYU and gained experience in a nonprofit organization serving medically fragile children as well as an inpatient psychiatric hospital for adolescents. Post-master’s, I worked at an agency in an underserved community in the Bronx, NY where I provided counseling to help keep families together who were at risk of losing their children to foster care placement. After earning my clinical licensure, I transitioned to an outpatient mental health clinic for a few years before starting my own private practice.

I am so incredibly passionate about what I do, and am always so inspired by the positive changes patients are able to create for themselves through our work together.

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 would say one difference between having a “difficult” dynamic and one that’s “unhealthy” is that an unhealthy relationship causes a much higher intensity of emotion. I believe that an unhealthy dynamic can develop from a difficult dynamic if the individuals involved aren’t able to communicate effectively. For example, the dynamic during a family get together over the holidays could become difficult when there’s a debate that arises over a difference of opinion, such as opposing political views. This debate does not necessarily make the dynamic unhealthy if both parties are respectful and can agree to disagree while still demonstrating they care about each other. However, if one or both parties lack empathy or understanding, or exhibit a great deal of criticism or a mentality of being better than the other person, this would be an unhealthy dynamic.

In unhealthy family dynamics, individuals can feel much more angry, anxious and defensive, and often times feel as if they have to walk on eggshells.

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?

For most, it is quite easy and natural to engage with family members you have good relationships with. On the other hand, with family members who are triggering, it can be very challenging to maintain composure when interacting with them.

I think success here really depends on the relationship and adaptability of each person. Only you can decide what your comfort level is with others. If you’re not comfortable engaging with a member of your family, there is no rule that says you have to. However, if you’re trying to keep the peace and avoid a potential blow up with a family member you have a strained relationship with, you may want to speak with them individually and acknowledge that although it may be uncomfortable, you want to try and put your differences aside so you can both come together with the rest of the family. You may also do this by taking an interest in their life, or perhaps trying to find some common ground such as the football game or talking about how delicious the food tastes.

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?

I think this language is subjective. Some people may use the words “toxic” and “unhealthy” interchangeably when referring to family relationships, whereas others may define toxic as more severe than unhealthy.

I personally believe unhealthy and toxic relationships are caused by an inability to relate empathetically and with respect toward one another.

When you feel someone in your family disregards your feelings or is always trying to pick a fight with you, I advise you to do your best to stay calm and set firm boundaries. Staying calm in this type of situation can be very difficult, but remember: just because they want to argue with you, doesn’t mean you have to argue back.

One thing I recommend to my patients who struggle with this is to visualize some sort of protective barrier between you and the person who is treating you poorly. Then try to visualize their words bouncing off that barrier, and remind yourself that you don’t deserve to be spoken to in that way. This can help in separating yourself emotionally from negativity.

Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?

I have helped many families improve their relationships with each other by teaching healthy communication skills. Though I can’t share specific examples for confidentiality reasons, I can share a couple of strategies that have been most effective. I often tell families to practice the use of “I” statements. This means, instead of telling your family member, “you’re not listening to me” or “you’re making me mad,” instead try saying “I’m mad because I’m not feeling heard or understood.” Also, try avoiding absolutes such as “always” and “never.” For example, instead of saying, “you’re always so mean to me,” try to be more specific about what’s really bothering you using the facts of the situation. For instance, “It hurt my feelings when you said I didn’t dress nicely enough for dinner.”

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?

There are many things that can help maintain emotional health and wellbeing despite the stress of the holidays, familial conflict, and unhealthy family dynamics.

  1. Try to use mindfulness techniques to keep you grounded. Mindfulness practice is all about allowing whatever is in your current experience to be there with as little judgment as possible. Try tuning into your breath and feeling your body being supported by the surface you’re sitting on. Using mindfulness when confronted with an unhealthy family dynamic can help you focus on what you do have control over (yourself), rather than what you can’t control (others).
  2. Positive thinking can help mitigate the negative impact of an unhealthy family dynamic during the holidays. For example, if a family member is talking about you in a negative way, remind yourself of your strengths and try to stay focused on the positives.
  3. Engage in calm, respectful communication with others. Just because someone in your family may be talking to you or about you in a negative way doesn’t mean you have to engage in that negativity. You have the power to pause, take a slow deep breath, and speak in a calm, respectful voice to articulate yourself in a healthy way rather than reacting impulsively. When you’re able to communicate calmly, you may be able to work toward resolving conflict and improving that relationship (that is, if the other person is also willing to do the same).
  4. Set boundaries with others. You get to set the tone for how others treat you. If you are not happy with the way in which a family member is speaking to you, you can stand up for yourself assertively and let them know that this is not okay.
  5. If the previous 4 options don’t work, it may be time to create some distance and separation between you and the family member with whom you have an unhealthy dynamic. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your mental health is to separate yourself from others’ negativity. This will not only give you peace of mind, but will also show them that you will not tolerate being treated poorly and that you deserve more from them.

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?

The best thing you can do as an ally of a family member struggling with mental illness is to let them know you’re on their side and provide them with unconditional support. You may also want to speak to them beforehand to see if they have any emotional needs that you would be able to accommodate during the upcoming family gathering to avoid any potential conflict or friction (such as not putting them on the spot to say what they’re thankful for during Thanksgiving if they struggle with social anxiety).

What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?

My favorite quote would definitely have to be, “the only way out is through,” by Robert Frost. This is the epitome of how I view therapeutic work with my patients.

Often, people who come to see me have spent years avoiding their feelings. Though done as a way of protecting themselves, it doesn’t actually help to avoid what’s really bothering them. To me, this quote means that even though it can be painful, the only way to truly heal is to deal with it.

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

If I could inspire a movement, it would be for people to share the same views on mental health as they do on physical health. All too often, mental health is not taken as seriously as it should be. For example, some people think that when someone is depressed, they should just be able to snap out of it, or when they’re anxious, to just calm down. In my opinion, this would be the equivalent of telling someone having an asthma attack to just take a deep breath! People can support me in this mission by becoming more informed and spreading the idea that mental health is just as important as physical health.

What is the best way for people to connect with you?

The best way to connect with me would be through my website:

Thank you for doing this interview and for giving so much to the mental health community! This was so inspiring!

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