Emily Roberts (MA, LPC) is a Psychotherapist, Parenting Consultant, Educational Speaker and Published Author. Her Book is Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are. The Guidance Girl is a concept created by Emily Roberts and an innovative, powerful approach to help you achieve your goals and feel your best by redefining traditional therapy for the girls and women of today.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
I’m a psychotherapist, author of Express Yourself, a Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, speaker and just launched my jewelry line Rock Your Worth, intentional jewelry to shift the mindset.
I grew up in Seattle, WA and moved to Austin, TX at 13 years old, which was a major culture shock. I’ve grown to love Austin now, but that time of my life was difficult. The teen years are complicated — and it was hard to navigate them without guidance. I had a tough time adjusting, and, though my parents found several therapists, they turned out not to be a good fit for me. I needed and wanted someone who was “cool” like my older cousins, who would truly hear me. Unfortunately, at that time, that person didn’t exist in my world.
In college I struggled with low self-esteem and finally found the right therapist for me, one who understood who I was and what I needed. This motivated me to get my masters in psychology, start a practice, begin speaking, and essentially become the therapist I wished I had when I was younger. One of my most profound experiences was working in an outpatient hospital for eating disorders — that’s when I began to see how to shift the mindset successfully.
As a therapist who mainly works with women and girls, I help clients reset their mindset and become more self-confident. That is what my book is about, and now, what my Rock Your Worth bracelet collection helps with. I wanted something visual that would radiate positive energy, to help you break-free from negative thinking patterns and build unstoppable confidence.
With the holiday season almost over, many people have been 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?
Difficult dynamics are challenging, but they teach us something. We may learn more about ourselves or the people we love.
Unhealthy family dynamics are ones that are hurtful. If you don’t feel safe, emotionally or physically then this is harmful to you. The problem here is many people have been brought up to believe they are too sensitive or shouldn’t feel so strongly about things, which can be invalidating. If your sibling has a history of making snide comments about your weight at the dinner table, you are not being difficult, these comments are hurtful.
Difficult dynamics within a family may not be pleasant to deal with. Maybe a parent cut you off emotionally and remarried someone closer to your age than theirs. You’ve got anger and resentment (just to name a few emotions) but if you’re trying to accept and build a relationship with that parent, it can be challenging, but it isn’t really harming you.
Getting through dinner might be awkward, but it doesn’t really rattle us or make us angry because we have already learned that it doesn’t help the situation. An awkward dinner with a family member who clearly doesn’t see the big picture can be dealt with later when we aren’t as rattled. This allows us to address whatever needs to be discussed later in a low-key, non-hurtful or insulting way.
Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. What advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?
Get mindful and cope ahead before you leave your home.
I was at a memorial last year and all the family, cousins, second cousins, family members I hadn’t seen in years were all under one roof for two days. I brought my beads (and got lots of people there bracelet-making) and games. It may be the therapist in me, but I realized that when people are doing crafts or a project together, they fight and drink less (huge reason for most of the fighting in many families).
Planning an activity or game ahead of time can be a great way to give more than just a present. You’re helping your family and yourself focus on the present moment and working to create new pleasant memories.
My home can get a little intense over the holidays. I ran an errand halfway through Christmas Day last year just to get some breathing room and perspective. I went to the gas station, I didn’t even need anything but bought some scratch off tickets for the family. It made me excited rather than annoyed. A simple break (a walk or an adult-time out in your childhood bedroom or car) to do anything that regulates your emotions (call a friend, play a game, do a meditations on an app like Simple Habit or Calm) can help you reduce intense emotions and feel more regulated. When I returned to the group, it was with love. I was able to reengage with love rather than frustration and annoyance — plus we won some money on scratch off tickets so a win-win.
Know your boundaries if a parent or relative has historically been hard to be around, don’t go into this year’s festivities with rose-colored glasses, it’s unlikely they’ve changed. Be mindful about how much time you spend around them. I’ve had clients make an internal curfew or booked a train ticket well in advance in order to reduce the time (and tension) they feel when they are with people who evoke powerful emotions. Prepare in advance for your exit plan, it will help you feel more confident about your visit.
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 would say that the reason something becomes toxic is because it’s systemic, no one person can be toxic. When we call someone toxic or manipulative (they may very well be acting this way) , it is often the people they engage with who reinforce their behavior in some way. So blaming one person isn’t helpful, but identifying the behavior that is problematic helps us express our concerns in a more effective way.
If you’re worried about someone in your family engaging in a destructive way, plan ahead for that too. First you have to identify your feeling about the past behaviors or pattern. Say you have a sibling who has a history of abusing alcohol on holidays. Maybe you have less alcohol in your home this year. Talk to them before the event, “I feel like the holidays are hard for our family, we all get really intense (make it about the collective we — family — versus them, it will help them feel less attacked). I’ve noticed that when we have lots of booze around it’s easier for us to attack each other. Would you be comfortable if we had less this year or even a dry Christmas? I really want to enjoy our time together.” This is called the Sandwich Technique!
Put your request in between two positives; think of it like the sticky peanut butter in between two slices of bread. For example, expressing your feelings to a friend about feeling ignored:
Positive: “Hi ______ I have really missed you lately, your friendship really means a lot to me.”
Request: “I would really love to spend more one-on-one time with you. Can we try to set some time up in the next week or two to have dinner?”
Positive: “We always seem to have a great time together.”
We make something toxic by judgement of the behavior — if your parent is buying booze for your sibling who is known to have blackouts and acts belligerent, and no one says anything to them ahead of time, you are part of the dynamic as well. The key to having a less-toxic relationship is to communicate your concerns in an empathic way. If your family is unwilling to listen, try standing your ground and avoid triggering situations. This will send a stronger message, one that may be vital in helping others see you will no longer be part of the unhealthy dynamic.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
A young woman has a sibling who has historically thrown adult tantrums, yelling at her family or drinking too much and embarrassing them at every single holiday or family gathering. So for her birthday this year, I encouraged her to have a new kind of get together. Rather than inviting her sister, she had a small dinner with close friends. She had a casual lunch with family the next day. She enjoyed her time and her sister was much less-reactive when there were less people around.
We often need to adjust our attachments to an outcome to feel better.
For this person, her sister will likely never be capable of managing her deep-rooted emotions around her family, but she is more capable when there are less people and the pressure is lower. Adjust your expectations and you’ll find alternatives that feel better.
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although gatherings are only a few times 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?
- Ask for help. If you try to do it all by yourself, you will become resentful and stressed. Instead, ask for more help from family members and friends. Many people enjoy helping out as it makes them feel needed and appreciated.
- Participate in activities you enjoy. Be sure to leave time for the activities you love, don’t neglect them because of the pressure over the holidays. If you love the class at the gym make sure to schedule it in. Don’t neglect self-care and the activities that nourish you
- Take a mindfulness or meditation break. Even five minutes of deep breathing or a mindfulness mediation, or listening to a guided relaxation to drown out the chaos around you activates your body’s relaxation response.
- Don’t spend too much. Stick to a budget you’re comfortable with for gifts. Don’t let others pressure you into spending more than you can afford.
- Avoid comparisons on social media. Everyone’s families have issues, they just don’t post those on social media. Most of the time when you’re scrolling through photos or comparing yourself you are filing your mind with self-criticism and feelings of lack. Get off the phone or computer for a little while and focus on real life.
- Avoid the urge to drink more alcohol. Binge drinking will only make things worse. Alcohol is everywhere during the holidays, and if you’re struggling with feeling down, it may be wise to avoid drinking as it can make anxiety and depression worse and your stress higher.
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?
Cope ahead for these conversations — don’t have them when there is family in the house. Ask the family member what you can do to be helpful and supportive, rather than assuming or making changes in your routine. They may say they need some time alone. Honor it and ask for a way they can let you know so you can assist them (without drawing attention to them). Just like you would with a family member who has a food intolerance or is vegetarian, ask them ahead of time how you can make the experience a positive one.
Ask if there is anything they need or would like to talk about. If you are noticing that they are having a hard time talking, speak to them privately and really listen. Don’t interrupt or problem solve just listen and validate — in fact this is something that we can do with everyone. The more we listen and show that we care (while being mindful of our own urge to solve problems or push through an uncomfortable situation) the healthier our relationships will be.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
“Be the person you needed when you were younger.” I don’t know who said it but I say it a lot.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
I have a deep desire to help girls and women learn the tools to empower themselves. That’s why RYW is giving back to Girl Empowerment Organizations across the country. A percentage of proceeds go to a non-profit organization that help girls and the adults in their life learn the tools to cultivate confidence, express themselves assertively and provide them with skills for success.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?