We may be going through waves of anxiety or fear or depressive moods, or disharmony with our partners or periods of loneliness. As long as we reconnect with the emotions we are feeling — whatever they may be — we can navigate through the ups and downs of our reactions to events with a sense of direction and feeling of control over what is within our power to address.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Brouillette.
Starting out in human rights work with survivors of torture and war trauma and trained as a trauma therapist, Richard is an online schema therapist working with entrepreneurs, creatives and activists who have plateaued and are trying to overcome anxiety, find fulfillment, and improve relationships. With down-to-earth warmth and professionalism, Richard uses structured work and free-flow dialogue to help clients reconnect with a core sense of love, balance, creativity, and compassion for self and others. Sometimes the superpowers we rely on get in the way, and we need new perspectives and routines. Richard helps find a way through. Schema therapy honors how we learned to cope with hardship growing up, shows how this kind of coping gets in the way in the present, and offers cognitive and emotional tools for change. Richard has published in The New York Times, Salon and Psych Central and offered expert opinion for Bustle and The Correspondent.
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?
What do you do with a degree in French literature and philosophy? I had returned from my year at the Sorbonne with only vague ideas. So I started volunteer work as an interpreter with a non-profit. This is where the story gets intense really fast: I was volunteering with a treatment center for survivors of torture. This was in the 90s when a lot of political asylees from francophone Africa were coming to the States, and there were tiny non-profit torture treatment centers all over the country. Wonderful, accomplished, committed, kind people. I was an interpreter for French-speaking clients in their psychotherapy sessions and meetings with their lawyers for asylum hearings. They were mostly activists who had been imprisoned and tortured by their governments. I learned about trauma and PTSD and resilience and strength, and how terrible some people can be and how brilliantly strong and loving other people can be. It all got me very passionate about working with trauma survivors. The treatment center was like a family of people from around the world who had something painful in common who came together and made something good out of it. During this time I started to understand how important community support is for overcoming individual pain and I decided I wanted to be a psychotherapist. I also decided I wanted to be a community organizer!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2009 I did some consulting work with a large NGO in northern Iraq, in Iraqi Kurdistan. I was part of a team training new Iraqi community mental health workers on the basics of working with trauma and elements of psychotherapy. The Kurdish people taught me some very powerful lessons on how important the community is in the healing process. This was a city that had been murderously occupied by Saddam Hussein for decades and still had the scars from it. In particular, there were these two military buildings in Sulaymaniyah, and everyone knew they were where people were tortured. Part of the oppression was putting a torture prison in the middle of the community, so everyone sees it and knows what’s happening. It terrorizes people. Once Hussein’s regime was gone, the Kurdish local government did a brilliant thing with those buildings. They kept one of them exactly as it was and turned it into a museum so that no one would forget what had been done there. And the other building they demolished and, in its place built a playground and amusement park. Going through that museum was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And going to the playground was seeing such a wonderful vision of people enjoying themselves, a picture that completely rejects the evil in the other place. For the Kurdish community, it was such a moving act of saying “we remember” and “in spite of it, we thrive.” But from a more mundane angle, I was so struck by how the local government managed to succeed with such a meaningful and powerful project! From a community organizing and consensus building angle, how did they make it happen? Mustering the tone of community resilience and then translating it into policy is a major challenge that comes down to the everyday work of managing relationships, overcoming conflicts, and preserving real spirit and inspiration. Wow.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
You know, I would answer this question by coming back to the Kurdish example. How do you preserve and nurture an authentic sense of inspiration among participants? How to keep them motivated and creative and accomplishing something authentic that people connect with? As a community organizer who directed a program in New York City I developed a very serious respect for this challenge. And being a psychotherapist holds a lot of the same pitfalls as being a leader in an organization: you can be over-prescriptive, or present yourself as an “expert” on a power trip, you can focus on symptoms and forget there’s a whole person in the room with you, you can use “feel good” psychology to burden people with “shoulds,” you can focus on preserving your authority rather than being open to the critiques of your clients. As a psychotherapist or as a leader, I turn to the principles of neo-humanism laid out in a technique called emotion focused therapy (link 1) and respected by schema therapy (link 2), which I practice:
- What is really happening in the room? In the here-and-now of the relationship in the room, is there real connection, or performance and protective detaching? Is there a feeling of authenticity?
- Is the agency of your client (or staff) being respected? Are you respecting their ability to manage things for themselves when they can?
- Are you respecting your client (or colleague) as a whole person, who has different moods, a life outside the room you’re in and human needs outside the role they play with you? Do you respect their personal or cultural or identity differences and incorporate them into the work?
- Do you preserve and respect the priority of personal growth in the role your client (or staff) plays? How are they building new skills and trying them out for themselves, and seeing where they want to be in the future?
A psychotherapist has to manage being in a position of authority as much as a leader, and I guarantee a project is much more capable of reaching a level of authentic meaning by respecting these principles than not.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
In spite of my background with French literature, over recent years I’ve developed a lot of affection for the work of Charles Dickens, in particular a book that was right under my nose my whole life: A Christmas Carol. From a psychotherapist’s perspective, it’s really a book about the process of psychotherapy, though involving the metaphysical and happening over the course of only one night. (I might guess that therapy with Ebenezer would have taken a year or two.) Dickens is so poignant when talking about the role of money and class in the lives of his characters; he captures how life-defining money can be while portraying characters who are bigger than their poverty, especially in David Copperfield and Great Expectations. For Scrooge, having enough money became an obsession, a means of finding a sense of security. I’ve seen a lot of clients who have very similar tunnel vision about money over everything else. And these days, who can blame them? Scrooge became so preoccupied with money that he grew cold to his fiancé, who soon left him. Then when his sister died, his hidden grief threw him so far into detachment from his emotions that he gave up on all relationships and counted his coins instead. And the visits of the three ghosts are such a powerful depiction of the course of a psychotherapy! He revisits his past and sees how he got to be the way he is and feels grief over it, he gets out of his narcissism and sees the role he wants to play in society, and he looks into what he wants from his future. In all these ways, he finds a path back to being able to love. I always find something new in it, it’s always joyous.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Without lecturing anyone on the objective definition of mindfulness, I would say from my experience, I have one message more important than any other insight I can offer. Mindfulness is about being present with our emotions, not disconnecting from them. When I first practiced Zen meditation about 20 years ago, I mistakenly believed it was about detaching. Not so much! I was bringing my own issue with detachment into the mindfulness practice without knowing it. I recently returned to Zen and learned from some very serious practitioners how much their personal emotional struggles are a core element of practice. It was quite moving and finally made sense.
But the most powerful element of mindfulness I experience now personally and with my clients is the imaging we do in schema therapy which connects us to a sense of our child selves. In therapy, we connect a difficult emotional experience my client is going through in the present to a similar emotion she had in the past. When was this? How old were you? What was happening? We then work through what that child self needed at the time in terms of love and support, and really imagine the child-self getting it. This becomes a touchstone in the client’s mind going forward, so that when this difficult feeling come up again, she can reconnect with the childlike intensity of the emotion and find comfort. So a schema-oriented mindfulness is one of connecting with our most simple and powerful emotions, the ones that originate in childhood, and holding them in our imagination.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
I could call the schema-oriented mindfulness a kind of heart-centered mindfulness. The kind of deep connection with our memories of ourselves and a vision of care and love for them provides an amazing amount of groundedness and peace. It’s a feeling of safety but also one of acceptance, spontaneity and even joy. When in situations of stress or fear or anxiety, from public speaking to dealing with a health crisis, it lends confidence, focus, and direction.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
From an angle of human psychological experience, the last five years are a story of massive threats to our security, well-being and sense of normalcy, and how we respond to those threats, whether through denial, primitive aggression, or realistic action. Just as Zen is a practice always based in the context of real events in our lives, I would say our mindfulness and serenity are not about escape, but rather finding peace and resolve to react to what is happening in our world with dignity and love. We may be going through waves of anxiety or fear or depressive moods, or disharmony with our partners or periods of loneliness. As long as we reconnect with the emotions we are feeling — whatever they may be — we can navigate through the ups and downs of our reactions to events with a sense of direction and feeling of control over what is within our power to address. These are grand ideas, but we can realize them in a simple 10-minute daily mindfulness practice. Here’s how to get started:
- If you are new to this, even a simple 5-minute meditation can be a kind of behavior change that we should respect. Stay determined, but if you go off track, no problem, just start again. Behavior change is not easy and takes time and patience.
- Connect with feelings or behaviors you aren’t happy about. Are you overdoing it with numbing self-soothing activities like drinking, eating, binge-watching, or even exercise? Do you find that you are emotionally detaching more and more? Are you losing your temper, feeling abandoned by others, that they are letting you down?
- Imagine a memory of yourself as a child engaged in these behaviors or feelings. (Or if it’s easier, imagine yourself as an adult talking to a child who isn’t you.) What does that child need to hear in order to feel comforted or loved? Try scripting that to yourself. So for example, instead of more snack food or work, what feeling may offer comfort instead? Perhaps a feeling of being accepted?
- Now try saying to your adult self the same script you believe the child needs to hear. This is a kind of ideal parenting you are providing yourself, what I call in schema therapy “healthy caring adult” who may say something like “I know this is a scary time, but you are safe and handling this, you’re doing great just as you are. Don’t forget you are loved.”
- This is not an instant solution and takes practice. It may help to keep a journal in the notes section of your phone to track your experience.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Try to connect with that healthy caring adult image when you are trying to support a loved-one, or really anyone in your life.
- Tune in to what they are feeling and remind yourself to try and step into their shoes and feel it. Don’t assume you know, you really have to make a mindful effort to do it.
- See if you can tell whether they need support in what they are feeling, or instead could use a welcome distraction from it. People need to feel seen, but we can also be a welcome relief for each other. Try to rely on your gut to see what they may need, or just ask.
- Our loved one may be having a hard time being aware of what they are going through, and sometimes they just need us to accept them where they are.
- On the contrary, if you feel your loved one is not being their best, it may take some direct talk to help them maintain good boundaries. In schema therapy we call this “empathic confrontation.”
- Be sure to make time for spontaneity, creativity and joy as a regular practice, however you find it together.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Time without distractions. Maybe something to write on. Generosity with yourself, even if that’s hard.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
This one goes back to Freud. He has a wry sense of humor that betrays a deep appreciation of the challenges of living, the kind you might find in a Zen poet:
“Much will be gained if we succeed in turning your neurotic misery into common unhappiness.”
I have seen this for myself as much as I see it so often with my clients. We can get so caught up in our heads about succeeding, or being treated with respect, or being happy, that even the inevitable hard things that happen to everyone become something we take personally. “Why has fate decided that this virus is hitting us now, when I had so much going for me?!” Or at a deeper level, we can feel guilt when losing a loved one, and it’s an important and humbling insight to bear in mind that everyone must go through grief, as unique as it may feel. It can be an enormous relief to stop going through life taking everything personally. It actually helps you feel more connected to everyone else. Believe it or not, the good news is that sometimes life just sucks, and that’s ok.
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. 🙂
You’re never too busy to overcome stress and fear and to nurture the loving parts of yourself and others — in fact it’s exactly what the world needs right now.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
www.therapywithrichard.com and @therapyrichard
https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4317035Schema Therapy Society – HomeThe International Society of Schema Therapy (ISST) is the member organization committed to the principles and practice…schematherapysociety.org
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!