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“We are wired for connection.” with Aviva Kamander and Beau Henderson

We are wired for connection. Infants are born defenseless, completely reliant on their caregivers for several years after birth. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense because our survival was dependent on getting along with others and not being kicked out of the group. We continue to be interdependent with others throughout our lives. It […]

We are wired for connection. Infants are born defenseless, completely reliant on their caregivers for several years after birth. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense because our survival was dependent on getting along with others and not being kicked out of the group. We continue to be interdependent with others throughout our lives. It is literally painful when we experience social rejection, heartbreak, or the loss of a loved one.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Aviva Kamander. Aviva is a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice in Mamaroneck, NY. She works collaboratively with clients to improve wellness, interpersonal communication, and emotional regulation. She helps her clients gain awareness, assertiveness skills, and acceptance. She developed and teaches the workshop, Navigating the Gray Zone: Dating with Assertiveness and Compassion. For more information please visit www.authenticvida.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us, Aviva! 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?

As cheesy as it may sound, Oprah Winfrey had a lot to do with my decision to be a social worker/psychotherapist. As a first-generation American, born to Holocaust survivors, growing up in a lower middle-class neighborhood of Brooklyn, she inspired me to believe I could do something meaningful in this world, that I could love my work, and possibly make a good living. I imagined I might eventually be on her show, promoting my book on how to have a good life, in the way I had seen Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor, explain gender communication differences. That episode changed the way I understood human behavior, and opened my mind to the idea that I could learn how to improve my relationships.

In college, I stumbled into a discipline I loved from the start, the study of human communication. I was extremely fortunate to have excellent professors, who remained mentors for years after I completed their courses. Once I found my area of interest, I became more serious about my studies, and tried to learn as much as I could about how people communicate, what impacts perceptions, and the different approaches to managing conflict. Getting a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University in NY, allowed me to learn more about human behavior from a systems perspective.

25 years later, I am living the dream I envisioned, for the most part. Although I haven’t met Oprah, I work for myself as a psychotherapist and lead a workshop that I developed called Navigating the Gray Zone: Dating with Assertiveness and Compassion. I developed this workshop in response to the current #metoo movement. It is a way for me to combine my years of training and experience with my interest in gender equality, and help individuals have more satisfying interpersonal connections while preventing unwelcome sexual encounters.

If I ever do write a book on how to have a good life, the information on emotional wellness listed below will certainly be a cornerstone of it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There have been so many stories. I have the privilege of working with individuals in a sacred way. I hear people’s hopes and dreams, triumphs and tribulations, their personal histories, and most vulnerable encounters. I witness and support people facing tragedy, heartache, illness, and loss. Despite difficult circumstances many are able to maintain their goodwill towards others. Perhaps one of the open secrets about being a therapist is the access to wisdom, perspective, and experience that others afford us, while sharing their personal stories. We are given the opportunity to hear and reflect upon so many experiences of the human condition in a way the general public is not privy to.

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?

As a 22 year old graduate student, at a famous NYC teaching hospital, my internship placement was with the kidney/liver transplant and dialysis unit. Occasionally I was assigned to the medical/surgical floor. One day I was helping an elderly veteran with being discharged and, in my excitement to share the plan our team had put together, I misinterpreted the man’s grunting in his chair, as the signs of an aging body, and so continued speaking a few moments longer. It was only after I lifted my head from the clipboard that I realized he was sitting on a commode. He never asked me to leave. He wasn’t visibly annoyed or embarrassed. His attention was on the business at hand. I, on the other hand, was mortified. After apologizing, I left the room quickly questioning my clinical assessment skills. The takeaway was two-fold: pay attention to your environment before speaking, even when there is something important to discuss, pause and evaluate the current situation to determine if the timing is right to talk. The second lesson I learned is that people will surprise you. You never know how someone will respond to something, they may remain tactful when you make a blunder, and gracious when you apologize, as was the case with this gentleman.

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?

I have been fortunate to have supportive educators and mentors along the way during my social work career. In addition to the college professors I mentioned above, I had a wonderful supervisor at an outpatient mental health clinic I worked for. This opportunity happened as I returned to the field after about 10 years away. I made a career change in my 20s, and then stayed home with young children for a few years. Not only was my supervisor a highly trained professional, she was an effective clinician, and also has impeccable integrity. There is a high degree of emotional burnout when facing the darker parts of humanity on a regular basis; it takes a lot of skills and a support system for most people to stay in the field of human services. My supervisor created an environment where I could speak honestly, sharing my concerns and fears. Along with a non-judgmental disposition, she offered me new ways of looking at situations and concrete strategies. She is a woman I continue to admire, who is still available for suggestions and support when I get stuck.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Find a good supervisor, someone you feel supported by and trust. Prioritize taking time for yourself to rest, recharge, and restore your energy. Exercise regularly, spend time with loved ones and on activities you enjoy, evaluate your progress at work, develop self-compassion, and follow the 5 steps for emotional wellness listed below.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Support staff members at every level. Especially when “the work” is caring for people, it is essential to have a corporate culture where staff feel safe, recognized for their work, and solutions to manageable problems are addressed in a timely fashion. Leaders should demonstrate courage, strength, wisdom, emotional regulation, and perspective-taking. Clear and consistent support is another way an organization can help staff understand and meet expectations. Provide regular training and ask for feedback.

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.

5 steps that each of us can take to optimize our mental wellness include: self-reflection, nurturing the body, connecting with others, making peace with all our parts, and having fun.

Self-Reflection

Good mental hygiene includes self-reflection. Spending time getting to know yourself is an investment in your mental wellness that pays dividends. Understanding your motivations, values, habits of thinking, rules you live by, feelings, and sensory experiences helps you to know when to take action, where to move your attention, and allows you to ask: what now?

Facing your problems directly prevents you from wasting time in avoidance. Noticing when you are chasing a craving or compulsively comparing yourself to others allows you to shift your attention towards something more beneficial. Emotions serve a function, so take the time to consider what your body/mind is telling you, reflect on your choices, and respond, rather than react. Knowing you have choices is essential for well-being.

After a long term relationship broke up, I spent several months reading and writing about my experience. This helped me gain a better understanding about the pain, the fears, and feeling of loss I was going through. I reflected upon, and wrote down, the essential qualities I was looking for in a partner. This process gave me hope that things could be different. Like a miner dusting off layers of dirt on a precious gem, self-reflection will clarify your blind spots. Getting to the essence of what is most important lends itself to making better choices and ultimately to a greater sense of fulfillment. Years after writing my laundry list of qualities for a mate, I stumbled upon this list while packing up to move in with my then boyfriend. He later became my husband, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well my list had served me.

Nurture the Body

Mental wellness requires taking care of one’s body. Raising your heart rate, maintaining good posture, stretching, and strengthening will all impact how you feel and promote a sense of wellness. Breathing purposefully can help with emotional regulation, and supports emotional hygiene. Rest, sleep, and good nutrition all impact how you feel, contributing to a sense of wellness or feeling unwell.

Most of us know that regular exercise, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep are crucial components for maintaining emotional wellness. Not only as energy sources, but also as mood boosters. What is less known is how the body does not distinguish between an external threat in the environment, for example a snake rustling in the grass, and the internal threat activation (heart racing, tightness in the chest or belly, etc.) caused by ruminating on the judgements of one’s family members.

When we are experiencing an internal threat response, it is not something we really choose to think about. The thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences all kind of happen to us — they pop up. And while it is not our fault that we are having this experience, it is our responsibility to do something about it, as it does cause us harm. Luckily, we can learn to use our minds to shift our attention and focus towards the body, labeling sensations, and slowing down our breath. All of this allows the internal threat response to recalibrate. Turning to the body is a way we can promote positive emotional well-being.

Connection

We are wired for connection. Infants are born defenseless, completely reliant on their caregivers for several years after birth. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense because our survival was dependent on getting along with others and not being kicked out of the group. We continue to be interdependent with others throughout our lives. It is literally painful when we experience social rejection, heartbreak, or the loss of a loved one.

As much as possible, choose to spend time with others you feel supported by, and cared for, including pets. A sense of belonging and connection are essential for mental wellness.

Befriend All Your Parts

Notice how you talk to yourself when you are sad, sick, or make a mistake. Most of us have a relentless inner critic, stepping on our necks when we are down. The more we understand how we see ourselves and understand the function of shame, the less identified we become with the fear it brings up in us, and the more we can soothe ourselves in a nurturing way.

This may be the most difficult step for most of us, and I encourage you to be patient with the process. Taking a look at that which embarrasses, shames, and disgusts us about ourselves is counter-intuitive. It does not feel good, and our natural tendency is to seek pleasure. By facing these parts of ourselves, we can loosen their hold upon us.

The function of an inner critic is protection from pain, once we see this function, rather than fuse with any beliefs to isolate ourselves when we make a mistake or fail at something, we can choose to do something different. We can encourage ourselves and engage with others, and see how we are received. We can speak to ourselves kindly, the way we would speak to someone we care for. This might seem strange at first, but makes sense when we realize that most of us would never speak to another person the way we do to ourselves when being critical. Knowing that staying isolated or speaking harshly with ourselves actually harms us, may offer a motivation to look for alternative solutions.

Have Fun

Bring attention to the beauty around you, or actively look for it. For emotional hygiene to be complete it must include regular attention to that which enlivens and enriches your life. Our minds seek novelty and wonder. Figure out what lifts you up — mind and body — and find a way to do it regularly. To live well does not mean to survive, it means to thrive. Joy is an integral part of thriving. Fun rejuvenates us from our daily stressors, keeps us hopeful, and promotes resilience.

Make time to watch the game, play with your children and/or pets, go for a hike, bike ride, dance the night away, or whatever it is you enjoy. If you are unsure, think of a time, perhaps as a child or younger person, when you spent time smiling, laughing, or had a sense of ease, pleasure, or wonder. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? How can you replicate these experiences in your current life?

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? Please share a story or an example for each.

For some people the transition to retirement brings a sense of loss as it pertains to purpose, a sense of belonging, and social engagement. As much as possible, developing areas in your life that bring you a sense of meaning, feeling of engagement, and keep you in contact with others will contribute to a greater sense of emotional wellness.

It may be important for you to rest, reflect, and perhaps even grieve the stages of life that have passed. After that, revisit the ideas you had planned for your retirement, take up old and new hobbies. If you seek connection and none is readily available, consider ways you can be of service to others.

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?

My suggestion would be for teens to develop a self-compassion practice, it will serve them throughout their lives. This practice includes improving awareness and understanding that hardship is part of life, as well as utilizing self-kindness, a caring sustainable approach to motivation.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is a structured approach to improving self-awareness. I found it helpful for understanding competing values. By reflecting on the many things that matter to me, I was able to prioritize and plan for how I wanted to spend my time.

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. 🙂

I think if people developed a compassionate mind, we would have a real chance at decreasing or eliminating violence, hatred, cruelty, and the vast inequality of resources on this planet.

We can teach people to recognize the emotional systems all humans share, the impact of secure attachments or lack of secure attachments, how to effectively use the mind to help cope with emotional distress, and normalize the desire and necessity for social connection.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions” was a lesson my mom always imparted to us. The pursuit of knowledge was a highly held family value.

As an adult, I believe the lesson “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want” changed the trajectory of my life. Of course, I will never know for sure, but I am a person who follows up on every inkling of interest, energetic burst, and hunch to see where it leads me. I still make plenty of mistakes, and have areas that I continue to try to improve upon, but I have learned to look for and make the most of opportunities that present themselves.

An example of when I asked for something I wanted was when I politely requested that the supervisor who interviewed me for a job, would actually be my supervisor on the job. This was after about 10 years away from the field, on the heels of post-graduate training, at my first social work job back in the field of mental health. This supervisor made an impression on me from the brief meeting we had, and I wanted to learn from her. I asked in such a way that it was clearly an inquiry, not a demand. I am extremely grateful that my request was granted, and we worked together for 5 years. During those first few years, I often wondered — especially when hearing certain clients’ trauma histories — if it were not for the support and skills she provided, whether I would have stayed in the field.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

https://www.instagram.com/authentic_vida_/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/avivakamander/

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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