Start your day with yourself. Be the first person that you greet in the morning rather than checking in with a following. If you build even small amounts of time into your day to feel nurtured or nourished, you will reduce the likelihood of experiencing dread or feeling run down and overwhelmed.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Virginia Williamson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Collaborative Counseling Group now located in Fairfield, Connecticut. Virginia’s current focus, beyond continuing to expand her couples’ work, is the pursuit of being well versed in assisting transgender youth and their families, schools and communities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I hold a belief that, like many therapists, I had more questions than answers during my upbringing. My mind seemed to be wired in a different way, and I felt as though certain topics were off the table or the responses left me underwhelmed, so what better thing to do than talk and listen for a living?! There were challenging dynamics, at times layered on top of one another, despite everyone doing the best that they could. I think at a certain point I convinced myself that if I just had a deep and broad enough understanding, then I would find healing from anything that had caused me distress. While this is true to some degree, insight only takes us so far. There are a host of actions, beliefs and experiences that have to come together to enable one to be a whole person. I am grateful for the opportunity to assist those that I work with out of their pain or simply walk alongside them if there is no coming out of it at the moment. I have learned as much from my clients as they may have learned from me. I feel like a keeper of stories, stories often intimate and vulnerable, and that is an honor in many regards.
What does it mean for you to live “on purpose”? Can you explain? How can one achieve that?
For me, living on purpose means not making my decisions from a place of fear. This is different of course from exercising caution and being thoughtful and mindful in our choices. It means asking myself how can I honor myself today, how can I honor those that I love today and how can I honor those that I work with today. We all have times when we become complacent. It’s easy and even understandable why we might just take what is coming our way rather than exercising the influence that we have over our circumstances. Living on purpose means being flexible enough to acknowledge that there are many elements of life over which we have no control, while also taking ownership of the opportunities all around us. It means harnessing the momentum of our desires to propel us toward what fulfills us, which may look different today than it did five years ago, last year or even last week.
Do you have an example or story in your own life of how your pain helped to guide you to finding your life’s purpose?
I question whether we only have one purpose in life. I tend to think and experience that just as we think we’ve arrived, there’s another challenge on the doorstep and that if we look at it in a particular light, hold it close to our hearts in a particular way, it redefines purpose. This story is difficult to arrange neatly into a sound byte so I might deliver it messily. I have a transgender child. We are still on our journey however with each step along the way, it has been clear to me that there remains a deficit of resources for families that are trying to navigate this path and advocate for their children. While the experience of being a parent of a transgender child has its own whole set of losses, uncertainties and pain, there is also wonder in being a pioneer for pushing forward to a better understanding and quality of life for all people. A parent in a group that I attend once said, “Ours is a unique truth.” I call this forward anytime I feel worn down and remind myself that I am in a position to provide much needed services to families grappling with all of this tremendous change. I have an amazing opportunity to use my expertise as a therapist coupled with my personal story to help families have a stronger network and promote a feeling of connectedness in a time often characterized by isolation.
The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?
I think we have become to some degree perfectionists as a culture. By this I mean that we expect ourselves to manage so many aspects of life and have become terrible at asking for help. I think the pressures on the family dynamic and the couple dynamic are unsustainable, and many of us lack the sense of community upon which we can draw support, strength, laughter, encouragement, celebration and solace.
Another contributor to lack of happiness is what I hear regularly in the therapy room, loneliness. How is it that we have so many avenues to be in touch and yet we feel increasingly more alone? I have to attribute this in part to the role that technology has played in our present lives. We prefer to be voyeurs and our natural curiosity becomes dulled in the process. We become observers rather than participants. There is certainly a place and a value for all that technology has to offer us, however it cannot be a replacement for true, live, face to face connection. We strive and thus far perhaps are failing at finding the balance of the two.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
What I have offered the world to date is that I have provided therapy with commitment and passion for the work, and I serve clients regardless of socioeconomic status. I’ve worked with clients with a wide array of cultural backgrounds and clients who live courageously with their authentic sexual identity as well as authentic gender identity. What I am doing now, with endeavors like this one is my first step toward reaching a larger audience, helping people more than one on one in the therapy room and embarking on the path of being an advocate and resource for transgender youth and their families.
What are your 6 strategies to help you face your day with exuberance, “Joie De Vivre” and a “ravenous thirst for life”? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1) Establish rituals. From infancy through later adulthood we all require some degree of consistency, of knowing what to expect. Waking up in the morning is not intended to be a full throttle headlong dive into the day. Spend at least 15 minutes doing something that soothes the soul. That can be anything from meditation, mindful eating, journaling your dreams, taking in the morning sights and sounds of your backyard, sitting in your favorite window seat in the stillness with your coffee or tea — any personal endeavor that’s just about you. This may require waking a bit before you might typically, but it is well worth it!
2) Tech-NO. There will be plenty of time in the day ahead to respond to work emails, build your online presence and catch up on the nation’s latest breaking news stories. Start your day with yourself. Be the first person that you greet in the morning rather than checking in with a following. If you build even small amounts of time into your day to feel nurtured or nourished, you will reduce the likelihood of experiencing dread or feeling run down and overwhelmed.
3) Skin to skin. This is another lesson we learn from observing the first weeks and months of life. We need physical contact with the people that we love and feel loved by. It’s easy to maintain the belief that you have to hit the ground running and be engaged in completing tasks until you literally cannot stand on your feet any longer. In doing so we miss opportunities to hold and be held, to be greatly, warmly, affectionately, physically greeted as we transition from home to work or school and back again. Be open to taking a moment to allow for these crucial points of connection whether it be a partner, a friend, a child or your pet that’s been anxiously awaiting your return.
4) Make the leap. We must ask ourselves when we have nothing to look forward to, whether we’re unwilling to make the effort to move toward the things that we know would reignite the spark of interest within us. Whether you have long been considering signing up for a cooking class, attending a meet up with like-minded peers, or even returning to something you have always enjoyed but let go by the wayside, the first step is always the one we most avoid and it’s all easier strides from there. When asked this question about a variety of things, “once you’re doing it, how do you feel?”, the answer is most often a resounding, “I feel good.” It’s just the initiation that seems to trip us up. Remind yourself that no decision has to be indefinite, and we can spend more time and energy considering doing something than actually getting underway.
5) End with gratitude. This is by no means a silver lining directive. Pain and emotional distress are real and should not be ignored or denied however we all have aspects of our experience that deserve genuine gratitude. The elements that we focus on come into the foreground and everything else in the frame becomes blurry and distant. Call forward those images floating in the periphery. Take time at the end of each or most days to spend a few quiet moments allowing appreciation to settle in, whether it’s for the care and concern that another has for you, whether it’s a professional challenge that has the potential to propel you forward, or simply the stranger that held the door open for you in the rain and smiled as you passed through.
6) Seek help. If you are being kind and patient with yourself and re-engaging in life with the people and the endeavors that tend to return you to yourself and your vitality, and yet you continue to feel that emptiness and deep reluctance to embrace the day, seek help. There are a number of paths to access resources that can disentangle the web of why you may have slipped into this lackluster version of living. Remind yourself that you somehow stumbled into this fog from a place that was once clear, and you may just need a hand to help you find your way back out.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?
Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser
Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Maya Angelou
This is relevant to my life because I have had to face a number of difficult truths and choose whether to accept these truths and integrate them into helping others or to bury them away for fear of the outcome or of other people’s judgment. While I am human and I sometimes want to look up to the sky and shout, “Really, this too?,” I know that having the experience of truly walking in many of my clients’ shoes has humbled me and made me a stronger and more effective therapist. I debated about whether to disclose being the parent of a transgender child in this interview because it will be the first time for me that it is out there in the world in a different way and more accessible to people who do not know this about my family. I am working diligently to refrain from asking my daughter to make herself smaller, limit her visibility because there is still a lack of understanding so I have to lead by example. Having the pleasure of doing this interview, for example, is a vehicle to share a part of my story that has remained largely unknown and the freedom that comes with that makes it easy to face the day with exuberance. Imagine how much more seamless it would be to embrace a Joie De Vivre if you knew that your vulnerabilities were safe with others and that you would be welcomed even if you were not feeling like the best version of yourself. We would all greet the day with the steadfast belief that “who I am today is enough.”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As boring as it might sound, writing is my new project, or more accurately returning home to something that I truly love and hope will help me reach people I might never have reached sitting in my office in Fairfield, Connecticut. Also, growing my private practice with my business partner and dear friend so that we can continue to serve the community around us and provide clinicians with an alternative to thankless agency work and isolating private practice. My children are always an exciting new project. I have one nearing senior year of high school and one nearing middle school and with each new stage and phase, they challenge me to continue to grow. While they can certainly be infuriating at times, their courage, compassion, humor, and innovation are awe inspiring to me. I often think, “Did I really have a hand in any of this?!” I believe we are already helping people, by living authentically, by facing fear, and I am confident that all we strive for will persist in helping people in new and surprising ways.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
If I could exercise my influence to a greater degree it would be to raise awareness, spearhead research, and develop and implement resources for cisgender siblings of transgender youth. While this would not necessarily provide the most amount of good to the most people, I believe that we have a tremendous amount to learn about this population that can often get lost in the shuffle. In a perfect world, or quite frankly a world in which we could expect compassion and kindness to be the rule rather than the exception, siblings of trans youth would likely not be at risk for negative mental health outcomes. In a world in which we were not so wedded to our ideas that there was enough room for people to be respected for who they are without having to fight for it, siblings of trans youth might be like siblings of any kind. However a transgender youth’s path impacts the whole family in a myriad of ways. I would be incredibly energized to inspire a movement that would allow for a less isolating experience for this population and honor their bravery and resilience in the manner in which they deserve.