“When we have an understanding of the choices we make, and have love, compassion and kindness towards them, it gets easier to open our minds to understanding the perspectives, values, and interests of other people.” with Ana Jovanovic and Sasza Lohery

When we have an understanding of the choices we make, and have love, compassion and kindness towards them, it gets easier to open your mind to understanding the perspectives, values, and interests of other people. Our effort does not go into seeking validation for our own preferences but on sharing experiences and learning from each other. […]

When we have an understanding of the choices we make, and have love, compassion and kindness towards them, it gets easier to open your mind to understanding the perspectives, values, and interests of other people. Our effort does not go into seeking validation for our own preferences but on sharing experiences and learning from each other.

As a part of my series about “Connecting With Yourself To Live With Better Relationships” I had the pleasure to interview Ana Jovanovic,a psychologist, psychotherapist and a life coach. She considers herself a passionate believer in people’s capacities to transform their lives. Ana is working remotely with people from all over the world who aspire to make changes in their lives. She is a writer at Parenting Pod, a site for promoting family mental health and wellness. She has contributed to articles in other popular online publications such as Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, MSN, and Family Circle. Ana is a firm believer in lifelong learning and continuously invests in her education, personal and professional growth. For her, the core of the therapeutic or coaching process is a relationship that gives a person the confidence to share, where their thoughts and emotions are welcomed and understood. Ana is also an amateur half-marathon runner and a former basketball player who loves to travel the world, paint, read and write.

Thank you so much for joining us! Let’s Get Intimate! I’d love to begin by asking you to give us the backstory as to what brought you to this specific career path.

There’s a quote I always felt resonated with me. It’s Albert Einstein’s “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” Well, with time, I figured out that my biggest talent is actually my passionate curiosity about people. From where I am standing, there is nothing as diverse and complex in the universe as people and their experiences. I’ve always been drawn to listening to people’s stories. I believe it’s the same drive that lead me to pursue a career where I cannot only listen to stories, but support people and help them transform themselves.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?

I am regularly writing articles for popular online platforms. I am also helping to build up Parenting Pod which is quickly becoming a go-to site for parents who want to strengthen and improve their children’s mental health and wellbeing. I will probably publish some academic articles this year as well. I feel that these are all ways I can contribute to building awareness about important topics around personal change. Speaking of personal change, I am working on something very much connected to the topic we are going to talk about today and that is allowing myself time to rest and recharge. Loving my work as much as I do, it gets hard to tell yourself to slow down and celebrate what you’ve achieved thus far.

Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self-acceptance?

To be honest, I feel like that is a never-ending journey. There’s always a part of me that will question the decisions I make, that whispers doubt and challenges my ability to make wise choices. Instead of letting it consume me, I try to reach out to other parts of me that are far more compassionate and understanding of my flaws. I try not to bind myself with the pressure to be entirely consistent with the roles I’ve assigned to myself or that I feel were assigned to me: “a smart person”, “a successful coach”, “a perfectionist.” As Walt Whitman says in the “Song of Myself”: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” So, I feel free to explore different sides of me: those that are confident and those that are overly insecure, the ones that love to talk and the ones that are silent; the ones that provide support and the ones that are demanding and harsh.

I try to be as disciplined as I can in understanding and appreciating the complexity of my own feelings and thoughts.

There are many tipping points. For example, it happens that I fail to support someone in a way I felt they needed me, and I torment myself with guilt. I think of myself as not good enough of a professional, devoted enough of a wife or loyal enough of a friend. Being harsh with yourself is such a painful experience. The change that I strive to make each time I feel I’ve made a mistake is to compassionately approach it and understand why is it that I made a certain choice. People often think of understanding as approving. However, understanding is looking at the choice from the perspective you had when you were making it. You don’t have to approve of the choice to understand that when making it, you may have felt too tired to think it through, or too angry to show compassion to another person, or too constrained by your own biases to notice some important factors that would have changed it. When you do so, you can make a choice to take another perspective — the one that can pull you out of that tormenting vicious cycle.

The struggle to do so is always there! It’s so hard to pull yourself out of the quicksand of blame and guilt and anger. It sometimes seems that the more I try to shake them off, the deeper I get stuck. This is why I find compassion as my gateway to love and understanding.

According to a recent study cited in Cosmopolitan, in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?

I feel that the dominating one is the lingering fear that we are not enough. We take 10 selfies before we find the one that we think represents us the best. As I think about scrolling through my social media feed, I see that I am barely able to witness any of people’s imperfections — but I witness our own daily. Every time I look at myself in the mirror or see that pair of jeans in my closet that I am no longer able to wear, or when I am putting makeup on or trying to make my hair look good… people are innovative in finding ways to criticize themselves.

Also, we adopt other people’s criteria without challenging their relevance for us as individuals. Each culture has its ideas of what beauty is. When that’s added to our insecurities, which we may have picked up as messages directed from others or as conclusions from our own personal experiences, we end up seeing ourselves as not beautiful or sexy enough. In a world dominated by the visuals, we put so much emphasis on what the person looks like.

Some of my clients would reassure me that this lack of satisfaction is pushing them forward. If they were completely happy with how things are, would they have the energy to invest in changes? Would they wake up 2 hours earlier in the morning to go to the gym? Would they spend as much on cosmetics or clothing?

And I partially agree with them. We need problems to get us started on our work. However, in setting the goals, we need to ensure that they really resonate with who we want ourselves to be instead of blindly following someone else’s ideal.

As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?

The reason it sounds cheesy is that even professionals such as psychologists or life coaches who promote it find it hard to explain what understanding or loving yourself truly means. For me, to understand yourself means knowing the pathways of your thinking and feeling about yourself, others and the world. It means looking at your own experience of yourself, others and the world and answering questions such as:

What do I feel insecure about?

Where do they come from? What do I do when I am insecure?

What do I need? Where do my thoughts wander?

What do I feel this says about me?

What are my relationships with people like?

What do I expect from myself, people around me, my career or life in general?

Understanding yourself is not a given and it’s not the end result. It’s an ongoing process that requires mental and emotional effort. Loving yourself means that you are compassionate and kind to yourself in a way that allows you to understand your choices even when you do not fully approve of them — like loving yourself even when you mess up.

By understanding yourself you can consciously choose to devote time to things that really matter to you. That may include spending more time with people or taking a break from them. It may mean establishing a habit to work out regularly or to stop obsessing with how you look.

Loving yourself allows you to get started on making changes while being supportive of yourself through them and ready to celebrate your successes but also, to compassionately approach your mistakes and flaws.

Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?

There are so many that I can talk about and I still doubt I’d be able to make an exhaustive list.

In most of the cases, one of the top reasons is the predictability of the current relationship.

The predictability of a semi-happy relationship is less anxiety-provoking than the unpredictability of the unknown that comes after its end. So, even though you dislike the same kind of crappy situations in which you find yourself by staying in the relationship, you know that you can somehow cope with them. On the other hand, if you look at the possibility of the future without the partner, you may find yourself lost and overwhelmed.

Another reason is people starting to believe that they won’t be able to find anything better. That they, somehow, deserve just what they are getting in the relationship. This may result from our personal insecurities, as we may feel we are not young, good-looking, smart, successful or interesting enough. I’ve also worked with clients whose families insisted that they were foolish to think there’s more to the relationship than a compromise. So, my clients felt forced to settle and ashamed for wanting more.

Another reason for staying in the mediocre relationship is that ending it requires a mental and emotional effort. Many people simply avoid this major turbulence in their lives, hoping that problems will disappear on their own. They simply shove the issues under the rug. I see this happening with couples that have been together for a long time, that already live together or have made plans for the future together.

A couple may have also become dependent on one another for some needs they feel no one else will be able to meet. You may hear people say how there’s so much missing in their relationship, yet they know that their partner is the only person they feel they can fully rely on. So, they make that need a priority and a number one factor when making a decision on or not whether to end the relationship.

This is what comes to my mind when I think of some advice I can give:

· I find it very important to explore the reasons for which you are staying in the relationship. That means asking yourself questions such as: “Why is this relationship worth staying in?”

· Imagine yourself in the same relationship long term — what do you see happening in the future?

· If you have silent expectations that are not being met by the relationship or the partner, verbalize them and share. Ensure that you are not waiting for changes that are not going to happen.

· Think about alternatives — what if the relationship ends? Many people drop the thinking about the quality of their relationships because the unknown frightens them.

· Find support in case of a break-up. Reach out to people you care about and that care about you. It is good to build a social and emotional safety net before you end the relationship. In some relationships, we tend to put our friendships on hold to fully dedicate ourselves to another person. Before we know it, we have no one else to rely on. Even if you don’t end up breaking up or divorcing, you will still have resources outside of your relationship in people that can inspire you, help you grow, and challenge your thinking, but also, who are willing to patiently listen and understand.

· Work on your own growth — explore your interests. Ask yourself: “What do I care about? What is important to me? What are my needs?” When in a relationship, some people tend to be all consumed by it in a way that after a while, they can no longer remember what they are like without a partner.

When I talk about self-love and understanding I don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?

Here are some of the “favorite” tough ones that I like to ask myself:

  1. What lies about myself am I letting others believe in?
  2. What do I really, REALLY need?
  3. What am I asking from other people and what am I silently expecting?
  4. What change am I avoiding right now?
  5. Who am I when no one is watching?
  6. How do I sabotage myself?

People sometimes have this tendency to define who you are by your successes. And success feels good, so we let people define us based on what we have accomplished. This is one of the things I feel happens to me. More often than I would like to, I describe myself as always being super-organized, productive, and goal-oriented, and I let people believe I am always naturally consistent in working on my ambitions.

So — when I ask myself question #1 — the answer is — I let them believe that there’s no way that I would ever procrastinate, lay on the couch and binge watch bad TV, sit all day in pajamas with zero willingness to talk to anybody at all.

That brings me to question number two: What do I really, really need?

Well, sometimes, I need the very things that no one would guess I need, such as putting everything on hold and spending all day in pajamas watching bad TV. That is a way to let myself take a break and shut down for a while, especially if I happen to feel emotionally exhausted. I always felt ashamed to admit that I am capable of reaching that level of laziness. People think of self-care as bathtub and candles, sipping tea and reading books, and sometimes that is a way to relax and recharge. However, more often than not, our self-care activities are not picture-perfect. They are intimate and private. I feel like one of the most important changes I’ve made is learning is letting myself take what I need without tormenting myself for stepping out of the role of this so-called “successful, productive, consistent person.” That person is just a part of me.

So many don’t really know how to be alone, or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?

Good relationships must incorporate the element of choice. If we feel being alone is unbearable, any relationship may come as a compulsive act to minimize the pain or anxiety. To form good relationships, we must make a conscious choice to invest in it, while giving the other person an opportunity to do so freely as well. This is very hard to do if we feel unable to be in touch with ourselves and if the thought of another person choosing something over us or leaving is unimaginable. We feel the pressure of staying with them or making them stay no matter what, even though we may no longer feel we picked right.

When we feel being alone is unbearable, we tend to focus on dependence and not on the exchange and reciprocity in the relationship. We start expecting people to read our minds and always guess our needs, thoughts and emotions. And since we don’t have the capacity to be alone, we also expect from people to always be there for us!

In learning how to be truly with ourselves and alone (it’s a process!), we are acquiring a better understanding of what is truly important to us as individuals. We don’t find ourselves lost in the relationships we end up in. We can make choices that transform our lives, without the fear that the anxiety of being on our own will overwhelm us. For example, we are more ready to assess whether a relationship we are in is fulfilling enough or whether a job we have is aligned with our passions and values — and end a relationship or quit the job if we feel we have picked poorly. We will not compromise on things that matter to us the most. Being able to focus on our own interests and immerse ourselves in our alone-time activities also builds emotional resilience, which is important in processing emotions, working through pain or grief, and expressing anger and frustration.

Also, this capacity helps us in being better partners. We become more aware of what expectations around our needs we are putting on our partners, like the need to be inspired, entertained, comforted, listened to, etc. Our partner may indeed want to be there for us, but there will be times when their capacities are low. This is when we can rely on ourselves without blaming or thinking less of them.

Relationships include reciprocity — being able to stand by your partner when times are both good and bad. We can’t pour from an empty cup. This is why it is important to ask yourself: “What is it that fills mine?” Your emotional capacity for yourself affects how much you can truly listen and understand others.

How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?

When we have an understanding of the choices we make, and have love, compassion and kindness towards them, it gets easier to open your mind to understanding the perspectives, values, and interests of other people. Our effort does not go into seeking validation for our own preferences but on sharing experiences and learning from each other.

For example, if we feel confident about the way we look we are not likely to go around asking people to compliment us. We are more ready to listen to what choices they are making towards their health and well-being even if they differ from our own.

The biggest validation for who we are comes from ourselves, not the people we meet.

Self-understanding and self-love also imply awareness of your feelings around who you are and recognition of both your qualities and challenges. This is what helps us connect to other people’s values, recognize similarities in the experiences we share and more willing to look behind concrete behaviors and into the reasons that stand behind them.

In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?

That is a hard question 🙂 With individuals, my first thought goes to willingness to listen and really hear themselves and others.

Listening is a skill that requires practice. Many people listen only to share their own point of view or to disprove or judge what you’ve said. We are so equipped with biases, prejudice and impatience that we seem to have lower capacities to truly hear each other. It’s not only that we are deaf for the challenges and needs of others, but we hesitate to truly listen to ourselves as well. We don’t listen to our bodies when they tell us: “Slow down, you are tired. Get some rest.” Or our needs whispering: “You said you’ll end work on time today and meet with your friends.” We choose to interrupt voices within us to say something more “smart” like: “I need to focus”, “Work needs to get down”, “Who are you to tell me this?”

So, I would suggest learning how to listen to hear, both yourself and others. When you really think about it, what therapists and coaches primarily get hired for is proficient listening — devoted attention to your specific challenges. What if we could be good listeners to each other?

Another thing that applies to both individuals and society is legitimizing the need to talk about mental health at least nearly as much as we talk about physical. Talking about mental health, we need to focus on prevention, as much as we focus on treatment and rehabilitation. In focusing on prevention, we need to start as early as possible.

What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?

I want to emphasize the need to find what really works for you. There are many experts in the field who may say ‘this is the recipe you should follow.’ However, I don’t know much about your readers’ experiences and the person’s experience must be taken into account when tailoring solutions that work for them. So, I hope your readers use my strategies as an inspiration and then experiment with what makes the most sense to them.

  1. I start my day with a break

Rushing into the day makes me feel like there’s not enough time. My days are super busy anyway, and if I worked 24 hours straight, I’d still have a whole lot to do. The work is going to be there. I cannot afford to drain my own energy with an exhaustive plan for the day right away. From where I am standing, no matter how busy you are, there’s still no reason to avoid being in touch with the one person that you depend on — yourself. This is why I start every morning with a break — a time to reflect on what I want my day to look like and focus on how I want to feel at the end of it. I may take 15 minutes to meditate or some time to read a few pages of the book I started, savor my morning coffee and decorate or rearrange my workspace.

2. Journaling

I don’t like thoughts to be stuck in my head if I have no time to entertain them at that moment. So, I pour them on paper and get back to them when I have the time. A first good side to it is that I feel like I’ve expressed them, so they don’t create tension in my mind anymore or push other thoughts away, and second, I can reflect on them later and process them, which is a way to learn more about myself.

3. I give myself appreciation gifts

This one requires a lot of my mental effort as I tend to skip moments of celebration. I simply rush to new tasks and activities and challenges. What I try is to give small symbolic gifts for whatever I felt I appreciated about my actions on that day. I make a hot chocolate for finishing the article or write myself “Great job today!” on a post-it note after a few productive sessions. Why should we wait for others to recognize the good work we’re doing? It’s the small acts of kindness to oneself that can mean so much — do not underestimate their value!

4. I give myself opportunities to express emotions creatively

It really doesn’t matter what activity I’m using for it — drawing and painting, dancing or writing stories or poetry… What I believe is important is finding a channel to express yourself. The more non-verbal cues I am getting from my body — gut feelings that I cannot quite put into words or something heavy being on my chest- the more I resort to non-verbal activities. I feel this helps me decipher what I am feeling and what I can do to resolve it. I try to mindfully immerse myself in the activity. Having someone to guide you through it can help. Luckily, there’s a lot of talented people online with channels with this purpose.

5. Running!

I actually don’t like running as much as somebody who runs half-marathons should. Running is often so tiring that I end up complaining only about how much my muscles hurt. Still, it helps immensely. When I run, I focus on breathing. When I focus on breathing I tend to also notice the sensations in my body. It makes me feel more aware of my physical presence. Running also gives me the sense of accomplishment. I have a goal — my next race- that I am working towards. It also help pay more attention to nutrition.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?

I feel that a book does not need to be in that category of self-help/self-psychology to be psychologically helpful to a person. There are a lot of fiction or history books I found to be very useful in many of life’s circumstances.

However, I was just reading Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly” a month ago, and found it very interesting. She talks about the courage to be vulnerable in relationships with others. It is really so hard to open yourself to sharing, despite knowing that there is a chance you may get hurt. Brene Brown may be familiar to your readers for her amazing TED talks about empathy and the power of vulnerability.

I am a huge fan of School of Life Youtube channel. The videos pose very important questions about relationships worth thinking about.

Another channel that I find very useful is Yoga with Adriene. Her videos may take you only 10–15 minutes and help you bring more awareness to the connection between your body and your mind. Adriene points out that yoga exercises are good for anxiety and stress, to gain perspective, to relax, to wind down and for self-love.

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? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…

There is a website I recently stumbled upon: Random Acts of Kindness. 
 I found it so inspiring, as it empowers people to show kindness not only to others, their community, animals and nature, but to themselves as well. This is what really resonated with me. I feel that in the end, it is the small things we do daily that make the biggest impact long-term.

So, I try to start my day with, “how and who do I want to be kind to today?” and preach the importance of this question to as many people as I possibly can.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?

It’s Rumi’s:

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Whenever I have blamed circumstances, or expected other people to make changes because I was needing them, I ended up feeling disappointed and hopeless. In most of those situations, not only was I feeling bad, but I was also avoiding the possibility of facing my own challenges or flaws. This kind of reasoning never brought me to a solution I was happy with. This is why I like to start from my own ability and willingness to change. I address my own resistance to change before I get to speak to others about ways they should change. Not every change is growth, true. But every growth requires change.

Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!

About the Author:

Sasza Lohrey is the Founder & CEO of BBXX, a digital platform for intimacy and wellbeing. She is also the host of the BBXX podcast, “Let’s Get Intimate!” which hosts provocative and entertaining conversations with experts in order to challenge the way our culture conditions us to talk about sex, intimacy, and healthy relationships. BBXX was created in order to help people better understand themselves, so that they then can form deeper and more fulfilling relationships with others. Sasza is a former D1 athlete with a background in psychology and digital media. She is a member of the Women of Sex Tech collective, the co-mentorship community Dreamers and Doers, and a regular columnist for several online publications. Originally from the Bay Area, Sasza founded BBXX during a Stanford entrepreneurship program in Santiago, Chile. Learn more on our website and listen to more interviews with experts on our top-rated podcast!

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