Stop Apologizing – It is really common for us to apologize for the things we enjoy. We feel embarrassed or call things our “guilty pleasure.” What is there to feel guilty about? If the thing isn’t causing harm to you or others, just enjoy it! For me, it’s a show called “90 Day Fiance.” I’ve been watching since day 1. For a while, I would explain it as “well, I’m watching because it highlights different cultures.” Then it became “I’m a licensed mental healthcare provider, this helps me see communication style differences.” I finally realized that I wasn’t fooling anyone (largely because no one was judging me but me). Now I just admit that it’s “brain junk food” and I relish the break from life’s requirements!
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kryss Shane. Named by The New York Times and many national and international platforms as America’s go-to Leading LGBT Expert, Kryss Shane, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW (she/her) has 25+ years of experience guiding the world’s top leaders in business, education, and community via individual, small group, and full-staff trainings. She is known for making each organization’s specific Diversity and Inclusion needs become more manageable, approachable, and actionable. She is also the author of “The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion” the first book of its kind to guide educators, administrators, and school staff to become able and empowered to make their schools more LGBT+ inclusive.
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?
The issues related to self-love and self-care transcend all classes, races, genders, and socioeconomic statuses. However, I recognized early in life that difficult upbringings and not being accepted in society can create a lifetime of struggles for those without access to the compassion and care needed to undo negative thought processes and the damage of traumatic experiences. With a recognition that the beginning of life is where many self-worth struggles occur, I began there with my education. This led me to earn my bachelor’s degree at Ohio State in Human Development and Family Sciences. Simultaneously, I was volunteering a ton with LGBT organizations. Over time, my volunteer work grew, and my experiences allowed me to consistently hear about the struggles so many in the LGBT community face(d) due to being rejected by loved ones or forced to remain closeted for decades, thus creating internal chaos and a lack of self-love because they lacked acceptance by those whom they loved. This realization sent me into my first master’s degree program, where I graduated from Barry University in Social Work, where I focused my studies on LGBT issues.
As years passed though, I was always bothered by how often textbooks in schools still lack representation of minority groups and how this lack of representation often created a lack of self-acceptance and self-love by those who did not see positive role models in their textbooks. This led me to go back to school, where I earned my 2nd master’s degree, from Western Governors University in Education, specializing in Curriculum and Instruction.
My work now focuses on the needs of the LGBT community, teaching and training schools and businesses how to become more LGBT inclusive, working as an Adjunct Professor at Brandman University, working as a Liaison at Columbia University, and writing articles, book chapters, and books (including The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion” the first book of its kind to guide educators, administrators, and school staff to become able and empowered to make their schools more LGBT+ inclusive) that focus on acknowledging and celebrating the minority populations that have been too long left out.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I first began my work, it was still socially acceptable enough to heckle during conversations or trainings on LGBT+ people. It was still socially acceptable enough to make sexist comments to young women on stages. As a result, many of my first times on stage training and educating were met with loud homophobic and transphobic comments from the back of the room. It was also very common for men to ask about my genitalia or my bra size or whether I was single. I became very agile in redirecting conversations and at ascertaining when to address behaviors and when not to give them more oxygen. Now though, it is becoming less common for the comments to occur and, when they do, it is very likely that someone else in the room will shut the behavior down before I need to say a word. I think it really speaks to the learning that some are doing as well as the changes in whether people are willing to be a silent bystander to inappropriate language and behaviors. Though those behaviors are never acceptable, I always end up just a tad grateful for those moments, as it reminds me how far we’ve come in our society!
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
When I first started, I was quite young. Because of this, I knew very little about adult fashion. With very limited knowledge, I put together a couple of outfits that I thought were fit for speaking events. Now granted, there was nothing wrong with them, but I always referred to them as “my grown-up clothes” because I felt like a kid putting on someone else’s clothing to pretend to be an adult to do the adult work that occurred when I was on stage. I always hated putting the clothes on and I always rushed to change afterward, when I’d go back into items that were my style (most of which involved some type of tie dye).
I had one event when I was running late, I think I was teaching a class online and then had to rush downstairs from my hotel room to an event. In the midst of it, I forgot to change my top, which had a tie dye design to it. When I took to the stage, the event went off better than maybe any had before. When I sat to figure out why, I realized that I was more authentic than I typically was. I was more off-the-cuff, I was less nervous, I was more open during the Q&A, and I felt more connected to the audience who came to take a photo with me afterward. It made me realize that I hadn’t just been donning what felt like someone else’s clothes, I’d been putting on a façade that put up a wall between myself and the audiences. Since then, I’ve embraced my love of tie dye; in fact, it’s something I’ve become known for! Now, when I attend conferences, even ones where I’m not speaking, people approach me already knowing who I am because the tie dye gives me away! It’s so much a part of my identity and how people know me that it’s on my business cards, on my website, and there’s even tie dye on my book covers! It really taught me that authenticity matters more than being the best dressed or having perfect hair or having every word spoken perfectly. Now, when someone tells me that they found me to be a really authentic speaker, I see it not only as a compliment about the talk I just gave, but a reminder to myself that I’m making choices that are best for me, which are also benefitting the attendees!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When I was writing my first book, The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion”,the very first thing I wrote was the Acknowledgements. I just felt like I couldn’t begin to share without first honoring those who helped me to get on my platform in the first place as well as those who help to keep me standing upright. In it, I acknowledged the contributions of some of the educators who supported me when I was a struggling little kid. I acknowledged my Chosen Family. I acknowledged musicians and authors and artists who inspire me. I even thanked my 4 year old self because of all she endured. I felt it important to recognize the way that it is seldom just one person who makes us who we are, but instead a collective of people and experiences. The people whom I’ve chosen who have chosen me back are, in my incredibly biased but accurate opinion, some of the world’s greatest people. The people who have fought for equality for generations whose footsteps I walk in (including those I never met and can never meet) are some of the world’s greatest people. I saw a tshirt once that said, “I’m just trying to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Between my dog and my people and the people I honor by preserving their legacy and extending their goals, I’ve been very lucky to have a lot to live up to while having many who help me along the way.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Burnout happens when there is no balance. That tends to occur when employees do not believe they can take a breath without letting their boss down. I always encourage leaders to be mindful of the long-term goals (which can’t happen if employees burn out). I also recommend that they model behaviors for their employees. As a result, some encourage their staff to put up an out of office message every day at 6 and that no emails are expected to be responded to before the next workday… and then they model that behavior. Others reward staff with healthy snacks in the office to ensure no one works through meals. I’ve met some who have been at the forefront of working from home programs in the company because they know it can benefit some employees to have flexible schedules or to work without a commute. Some of my favorite ideas come from ways in which leaders offer trainings and education during working hours with meals provided so that employees can continue to grow their skills without sacrificing mealtime or personal time.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
When I think about what makes work culture, well, work, it comes from a sense of feeling safe in the workplace. By that, I mean that a person feels able to share ideas or to try to expand their scope of work without being admonished or fired if they make a mistake. It means that a person can use the bathroom or hang a photo of their loved one without fear of retribution. It means that the leader uses guidance and mentoring as their method of leadership rather than threats and intimidation. I also think about what helps employees to grow and excel. It includes being mindful that there are people who are parents, so not scheduling meetings at 7pm when many are having family time. It means recognizing that not everyone is a parent and not minimizing the importance of their evenings or weekends. In a Covid climate, it means recognizing that not everyone can come back to work without expecting them to jeopardize their own safety and the safety of those in their circle and not making anyone feel like they could lose their job if they do not return to the office for roles that can be done remotely. I guess, in summary, my advice would be to think about others’ experiences, what has been scary or stressful for you in workplaces (especially in roles before you became a leader), and how you can guide others in ways that don’t require them to be lesser versions of themselves.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
Take a Breath- So often, we are “go-Go-GO!!!!!!!!!” It leaves no room for relaxation or even to process the joy of what was just experienced. Building time into your schedule to just breathe can be incredibly beneficial. One of the ways I do this is that I always sit through television and movie credits. Not only does this allow me a moment to process and appreciate what I just watched, it lets me see the names of those who contributed to the entertainment I just received. Plus, it reminds me that even those whose names are far down the list made a difference in making the world a better place through their work in entertaining others. It reminds me that my work matters too, even if it isn’t the most glamorous or most prestigious.
Stop Apologizing- It is really common for us to apologize for the things we enjoy. We feel embarrassed or call things our “guilty pleasure.” What is there to feel guilty about? If the thing isn’t causing harm to you or others, just enjoy it! For me, it’s a show called “90 Day Fiance.” I’ve been watching since day 1. For a while, I would explain it as “well, I’m watching because it highlights different cultures.” Then it became “I’m a licensed mental healthcare provider, this helps me see communication style differences.” I finally realized that I wasn’t fooling anyone (largely because no one was judging me but me). Now I just admit that it’s “brain junk food” and I relish the break from life’s requirements!
Accept Yourself- This one can be incredibly difficult, especially if there are parts of who you are that society says is not _______ enough. What does that mean? I mean that we are so often told that we are not tall enough or short enough, not curvy enough or thin enough, not dressed up enough or appearing natural enough, not white enough or Black enough, not American enough or connected to our roots enough, not straight enough or openly gay enough. The list is infinite. In reality, Nobody is anything enough, which means that everyone is enough. *laughs* I know that doesn’t make great sense in English! In reality, none of us will ever be the exact “enough” that will make every single person in the world happy with us. The problem is, we get so caught up in trying to be that we turn ourselves into versions of them rather than into growing versions of who we actually are. The more we can focus on what makes us happy and less on what others think should make us happy, the better off we’ll be!
Focus More on People, Less on Stuff- We’ve long lived in a “keeping up with the Joneses” society, but we don’t have to! Too often, we work too much to afford things we never enjoy because we are working too much. It leads to owning too many things and wondering why we are always exhausted. This is also a really privileged problem to have, as not everyone has consistent employment or the life situation that allows them to spend frivolously. We can solve both, though. What we need as humans is not more stuff, we need more positive experiences, we need more love, we need more laughter, we need more opportunities to connect with others, we need more opportunities to enjoy ourselves. When we focus less on what we can buy, we can focus more on our relationships with others. It can give us an opportunity to do more volunteer work and to help those who do not have the privileges everyone struggles to juggle. When we focus on making those connections and giving of ourselves, we become more balanced as we contribute more to the bettering of society than to mindless spending. A desire to help more or to share more is always healthier than a desire to buy more and to collect more.
Dance It Out- Okay, so I’m borrowing from Shonda Rimes here, but hear me out! Most of us have a favorite song or three. Most of us have songs that make it feel impossible to sit still or impossible not to close your eyes and get lost in them. We need to lean into that experience! Whether it’s Garth Brooks or 2Pac or Curse of Lono or Jackie Shane (no relation) or Daniel J. Watts, the goal is to let yourself feel. Dance around when the mood strikes, whether it’s in your living room or in your car. Play the best air guitar ever (Hendrix has nothing on you)! I have to tell you, I genuinely believe that there is no better drummer in the entire world than me… on my steering wheel… when I’m alone in my car. I am also the world’s best singer… when I’m alone in my car. Is this factually accurate information? Who cares?! It feels good. Figure out what feels good to you, put on the music, and become the world’s best, whether you’re a better dancer than J.Lo or a better pianist than Mozart or a better singer than Whitney Houston, when you’re alone in your space, enjoy it… you can even find a recording of applause to play at the end of each song, because, of course, you earned it!
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement?
Mental wellness in later years is often focused on memory tests or being mindful of medication schedules. While those are vital, it isn’t enough just to stay alive, it’s important to feel valid and valuable, which can be tricky as people retire from workplaces and no longer have children to raise. Elders can often find opportunities to engage with others through community service. I always encourage this to be tied to a person’s true interests and passions, not just as a “something to do.” Most retire with a huge skillset from their workplace or from raising a family. Those pieces of knowledge can be crucial to the success of new employees in need of mentorship and to struggling young families who would love some insider tips that typically only come with experience. Some have hobbies they adore which can be shared with kids in local schools. Others may be excellent cooks who could teach others or who could help to feed those in need. While some struggle to find a place, especially if they are not tech savvy enough to know how to seek community via internet websites and apps, public libraries can be fantastic ways to gain computer and smart phone skills or just to ask an employee for assistance. Libraries often also host events, allowing community members to come together, so it can become a one-stop-shop for the needs of both elders and others within their neighborhood!
How about teens and pre-teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre-teens to optimize their mental wellness?
I would tell them that the most optimizing thing they can do is to just be kind. Those who want to do more will always find a way to volunteer or speak out or become better by becoming more educated. The one thing that is universal though is kindness. Be kind to the person who has nothing to offer you. Be kind to the person who is the least classically attractive. Be kind to the person who cannot help you. Be kind to the person who is struggling (and be mindful that everyone is struggling in some way). In addition, be kind to the person in the mirror. It is so easy now to compare one’s self and to become frozen in fear of not measuring up. We all share that. Just as you have someone on a pedestal, someone else wishes they were more like you.
The more kids can be mindful of this and treat others well, the better they’ll be at finding their own inner calm. Plus, those who excel at this tend to surround themselves with similar people, so their social circle is built on kindness and affirming one another, rather than on negative behaviors that can be detrimental to growth and stability!
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Although I have always loved to read and once had a large collection of beloved books, the reading that stood out most to me as a kid was a poem from an edited collection. It was Edgar Guest’s “The Junkbox.” I found it in a book when I was about five or six and loved it so much that I memorized it just by reading it so often. Until now, I hadn’t wondered if it was still in my brain but *pauses to think for a few seconds* yep, it’s still in there, the entire piece!
Anyway, the poem is about how no one is disposable and even when someone seems different or broken, it doesn’t mean they don’t have value or worth. As a kid, I don’t think I realized it was really advocating for equity and equality, but as an adult, I find that it still resonates with me and my belief about humanity.
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. 🙂
We are in the middle of a time when Black Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter is growing with each passing day. We are listening to Fredrick Joseph via social media postings and interviews, we are making videos for Tyler Merrit’s project “This Is Who I Am” (see mine on my Instagram: @ThisIsKryss). We are being led in marches by leaders from Stonewall and those who follow in the footsteps of so many who have been fighting these fights for generations.
There is absolutely nothing I could create or aspire to create that would do more good to the most amount of people than the ending of systemic racism and systemic transphobia. At best, I aspire to encourage others to become more mindful and more willing to become educated on how to bring inclusion and affirmation into the lives and worldviews of our youth. My book “The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion” was written with this goal in mind and we are seeing each day how leaders in this critical crucial life-altering life-saving movement are working not only to change the status quo, but to encourage us all to teach our children better so that they become adults who do better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid. -Audre Lorde
For me, this reminds me to use every position of privilege I have (whether by luck or having been earned) as a way to reach my goals or the goals of those I am leading. It reminds me that, though I may sometimes struggle or fear getting leadership exactly right or hitting every goal exactly perfect, I cannot and should not be rooted in fear. It reminds me that my fear cannot be the reason why I lose vision or why I do not act.
Being a leader is really difficult and sometimes it is scary to know how many are depending on you to know what you are doing and to know how to reach the goal. By acknowledging the reality of the fear and understanding why the fear is not the priority or the most important part of the work, I can be a more successful leader, which means those I am leading can be more successful too.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
My website: ThisIsKryss.com
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!