Women in STEM: “What we need more of is curious, inquiring minds that are willing to learn.” with Melissa Coats

Simply put, less judgment and more curiosity. This can be applied to both how we view ourselves and others. There is enough judgment in the world. What we need more of is curious, inquiring minds that are willing to learn. We need less “you are wrong and here’s why” and more “tell me about your […]

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Simply put, less judgment and more curiosity. This can be applied to both how we view ourselves and others. There is enough judgment in the world. What we need more of is curious, inquiring minds that are willing to learn. We need less “you are wrong and here’s why” and more “tell me about your experience, I want to listen.” We can practice this with others, but we can also notice when we are being critical of ourselves. We can flip the script from self-criticism to “tell me about your experience, what has you so afraid?” Being gentle with ourselves and others does not produce negativity, it produces connection.

I had the pleasure to interview Melissa Coats, a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in anxiety management and sex therapy. Melissa strives to help her clients overcome issues regarding stress, sex, and self-esteem to lead a fulfilling and abundant life. Learn more about her practice and speaking availability at coatscounseling.com.

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

I consider myself very fortunate in that I have known since I was young what I wanted to do with my life. As soon as I found out that veterinarians don’t get to just play with puppies all day, I was also beginning to figure out how much I loved to hear people’s stories. My mother always told me “everyone has a story.” She wanted me to consider that I never truly had all the facts about a person, so judgment was unproductive. But it was also an incredible gift she gave me, to be able to appreciate another’s experience; their journeys, pains, triumphs, fears, loves, and lessons.

I had seen my own therapist from a young age and I always thought how incredible it would be to help people feel better. Not in a medical sort of way, but in a soul capacity. Come to find out, the journey to becoming a therapist is filled with all sorts of self-exploration and discovery. It is not always an easy process. But it felt significant for me to participate in the journey that I would one day ask my clients to take. For that reason, I am continually in my own therapy. I am completely and utterly in love with my job. It is after all, one of the biggest relationships we will have in our lifetime. I consider it a great honor that people trust me with their stories and allow me to be a part of a chapter in their lives.

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?

Most of my projects center around helping people overcome issues with stress, sex, and self-esteem. My groups, webinars, and products are designed to help people begin to be curious about their thought patterns and beliefs that keep them stuck in anxiety, unhealthy relationships, or their own negative self-talk. All of these areas of life intersect and affect one another and so it is important to pay attention to all aspects of our health including physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and sexual.

Throughout the year, I hold different therapeutic groups and workshops that focus specifically on boundaries, navigating sexual desire and spirituality, mindful living, and surviving relationships with people who have narcissistic tendencies.

I also am developing a series of worksheets to be used by therapists with their clients or for individual use in general on addressing negative thought patterns and transforming them into more productive narratives. There will be a series of worksheets for negative self-talk and a series for negative beliefs about sex available for purchase on my website soon.

Finally, I am always delighted to speak to groups about stress, sex, and self-esteem. I have spoken at various conferences and groups about topics such as boundaries, intentional living, sexuality and cancer, sex therapy, and anxiety. I can be contacted through my website to book speaking engagements.

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?

My journey with self-love, care, acceptance, and understanding has been ever-changing and evolving. I believe it will continue to be for the rest of my life. And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I used to believe that there was a finish line when it came to full self-love realization. There was this imaginary ribbon that marked the end of the race and after I was finished, I would understand myself and be able to care for myself without flaw or interruption. But that only created a pressure to complete my journey perfectly, which in turn, was counterproductive to accepting myself! That line did not exist and I would get so frustrated when I felt it slip farther and farther away from me. When I allow myself to accept this as an ever-evolving journey, there is room for grace, patience, and growth. All of those things are much more productive in my journey than perfection.

I remember specifically a time when I was in graduate school. I had a goal to graduate with a high, and unachievable if I wanted to have a social life, GPA. My first class, the professor stood in front of us and told us the first thing we were going to learn was self-care. I chuckled internally, probably rolled my eyes, and thought “yeah okay, I am not here to learn how to take care of myself, I’m here to learn how to take care of everyone else!” I am amused now at how wrong I was then. The professor’s first assignment was to schedule time to do absolutely nothing that I didn’t want to do. We were not allowed to work or take care of responsibilities. We had 30 minutes to do only what felt nourishing, not draining. I remember standing in my kitchen looking at the sink of full dishes for the entire 30 minutes until I could do them! I believed that since I had the day off, I needed to use it to get everything on my to do list done. I have since learned what an uphill battle that is and that it is necessary to put the to do list away sometimes. But that day it was a major win in beginning my self-care journey.

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?

As we are growing up, our brains go through different stages of development. The brain receives messages from outside sources and those messages help us learn how to relate to the world around us and what it will take to get our needs met. Then we adjust our thoughts and behaviors accordingly. This does not happen on a conscious level, but it affects the way we think about ourselves in the long run. We are not born thinking “my body is awful and who could ever love me?” We are born demanding our needs be met or we will through a fit! But along the way someone or something tells us “you are not ok the way you are” and we begin to believe that in order to get our needs met, we must constantly be striving to be something different. We learn that in order to be loveable, accepted, or attractive, we must fit one certain mold.

This has so many negative impacts on the mental, emotional, physical, and sexual self. Physically, eating disorders may develop, or we push our bodies to unhealthy limits. Mentally and emotionally, we can develop anxiety, depression, perfectionism, negative self-talk, and a variety of stressful conditions that we believe we must tolerate. Sexually, many people find it difficult to feel at home in their own body, let alone with another person. Clearly these messages can affect each aspect of our health.

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 biggest, most important relationship you will ever have in your entire life is with yourself. I am the only person that has to spend every moment of my life with me. If you think about it, we will spend the most time, energy, and resources on ourselves. Do we really want to spend that much time with someone who is critical, demeaning, hurtful and sometimes downright mean? Most of us would never let a critical and toxic friend or family member follow us around 24 hours a day! We would be anxious and irritable. It would be so difficult not to feel depressed or drained. But that is what happens when we are hostile to ourselves and cannot love ourselves for the beautiful mess we are.

On the other hand, consider what it would feel like to allow a supportive, uplifting friend follow you around all day. Someone that would encourage you to grow and give you love and grace when you make a mistake. That person would make us feel safe and respected. The good news is, just as we are able to be our own self-critic, we are also able to be our own biggest supporter.

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

We humans are very comfortable with what is familiar. Generally, we are not fond of unpredictability, even to the point that we will stay in uncomfortable situations because it is scarier than facing the unknown. So often I hear people asking “why do I choose the same type of person to date all the time?” or “why is it that my friends or partners remind me of my parent?” Subconsciously we will choose what is familiar and predictable. If we remain on that subconscious level, most likely things will only change when the fear of the unknown is less intense than the fear of remaining in the discomfort. But the good news is, we don’t have to remain on that subconscious level. We can work on being mindful about what draws us to our familiar place and be curious with ourselves about our own processes. It was Anaïs Nin that said “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

When we talk about self-love and understanding we 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?

One of the red flags I pay attention to when I think of self-exploration is noticing when I am being judgmental. Usually when we engage in judgmental thoughts or behaviors toward someone else, we are really trying to solve a crisis or inadequacy we feel about ourselves. This is often referred to as the “shadow” self from Jungian psychology. What we judge others about is really our own shadow that follows us around. We don’t always see it, but we can’t seem to get rid of it.

For example, I noticed how irritable I would get around one friend in particular that seemed scattered to me. He was always late, he lived at home with his parents, he was messy and unorganized and for some reason, this pushed all the wrong buttons for me. I would be silently judgmental toward him and I’m sure that sometimes my irritation leaked out and was probably quite hurtful. Around that time, I learned about this “shadow” concept and was all of a sudden staring my own shadow straight in the face. With help, I realized that my irritation with what I perceived as his flaws were really my own fears about being inadequate and imperfect. Perfection and order meant a great deal to me, and confronting my own messy emotions was too difficult, so I put those feelings on my friend instead. After a lot of personal work, I still find myself on the perfectionism train sometimes, but it is easier for me to cut myself some slack and get off the train before it runs off the tracks.

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)?

Again, I am the only person that will spend every moment of my life with me. If I am not comfortable being with myself or validating my own needs, my health will be negatively impacted in a variety of ways. We are social beings and we crave belonging and validation from the people we come in contact with each day. It is most certainly a very important part of life! However, if we cannot feel that belonging within ourselves, or practice self-validation, we will constantly be striving to fill a void.

I like to think of belonging and validation like a cake. The validation we get from others is like the icing; it’s tasty and wonderful and makes the cake look great! But we cannot live on icing alone, although we might try. We need something to put the icing on. Self-acceptance and validation is the substance that will sustain us when the icing is running low.

Also remember, this is a great ideal to strive for, but it is much easier said than done. We live in a society that often sends the message that we should never feel alone or there is something wrong with us. When we have spent so much time and energy trying not to be alone, it is very difficult to flip the script. But the more you work on self-acceptance and validation, the easier it will become.

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 can understand, love, and accept ourselves, we do not have to depend on others to do it for us. We often tend to think self-love can be selfish, but rarely stop to examine how it is helpful to the others in our lives. Sometimes, without any malicious intent, we put the responsibility for our emotional satisfaction on others when we can’t do it for ourselves. What we get from others is only the icing, we need the cake! Others can’t give us the cake. So when we neglect to understand ourselves or take self-care time, we unknowingly add that pressure to the others in our lives. This can be straining on our relationships. Take time to consider that self-love and care are actually kind, loving, and respectful to the ones you love.

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

Simply put, less judgment and more curiosity. This can be applied to both how we view ourselves and others. There is enough judgment in the world. What we need more of is curious, inquiring minds that are willing to learn. We need less “you are wrong and here’s why” and more “tell me about your experience, I want to listen.” We can practice this with others, but we can also notice when we are being critical of ourselves. We can flip the script from self-criticism to “tell me about your experience, what has you so afraid?” Being gentle with ourselves and others does not produce negativity, it produces connection.

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?

1. I schedule my self-care time. I still use a paper planner, but it can work with your phone as well. I treat my time with myself like I would an important appointment, because it is! If you use a paper planner, write it down (in pen!) and color code that sucker to mark it urgent. If you use your phone mark it !!! This works for me because when I notice myself getting anxious, irritable, or self-critical, I can look at my planner and see when the last time I did something nourishing for myself. Then I know, the time between then and now is too long to go without taking time for me.

2. Sometimes the mind has a difficult time being nice and self-loving. When that is the case and it is difficult to practice positive self-talk, I do something kind and loving for my body. Getting a massage, taking a long bath, stretching, even just a nice comforting gesture like wrapping a blanket around myself, can feel loving toward the body. When we do kind things for our body, we communicate to the mind that we are worth loving and it will eventually catch up.

3. I go to therapy. Even therapists need reminders to practice self-love! I use therapy as a way to take care of my emotional being so that I am not dependent on the others in my life to do it for me. It is so helpful sometimes to get the perspective of another person. A therapist can usually see what is in the blind spot.

4. I consistently evaluate my social life, both in person and on social media. I regularly check in with what feels draining about my social life and what feels uplifting. If there are social media accounts that are pushing the “shoulds” too often or posting things that spark feelings of shame or inadequacy, I hit the unfollow button. If there are relationships in my life that are challenging, I look into it. I ask myself what my contribution is to the challenge, if the boundaries need to be adjusted, or if there is a need in the relationship that is not getting met. Then I can decide how I want to handle the situation. It is not usually as simple as hitting the unfollow button! But there are plenty of things we can do to help make adjustments in relationships.

5. Practicing gratitude can be a wonderful way to infuse some positivity into our day. I usually try to write three things in the morning and three in the evening that I am grateful for. I recently adjusted this practice to include self-love. Each morning and evening I write one thing that I am grateful for about myself. It may feel counterintuitive and a little weird at first, but when you consistently express gratitude for yourself, you send the message that you are worth your own time and energy.

All of these things are wonderful and helpful to me, but I feel the need to add a disclaimer on this. I am by no means perfect at any of the strategies I just listed. Sometimes I miss days in my gratitude practice. Sometimes I let toxicity in my social life exist for way to long. And then I find myself being critical about not practicing my self-love perfectly. Which is entirely not the point! These are all helpful strategies, but be mindful about not beating yourself up if you don’t follow it perfectly. Be gentle with yourself and make adjustments to fit your own life and schedule. Self-love looks different from one person to the next.

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?

1. Dear Sugars Podcast: In the Dear Sugars podcast, Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond offer advice on a variety of life issues through a non-judgmental, empathetic tone. Cheryl and Steve field questions from their listeners that touch on some of the most humanly vulnerable experiences we can have, and they do it in a way that is without shame. This podcast has helped so many people, including myself, feel less alone in the world.

2. Where Should We Begin? Podcast by Esther Perel: In the Where Should We Begin podcast, Esther Perel guides us through her recordings of real life couples sessions and shares her insights for a better understanding of some of couples most intimate moments. I love how Ester shares her extensive knowledge in the field of sex therapy while also adding the voices of real couples facing real issues. What I appreciate about this podcast is the de-stigmatization that occurs when individuals can hear first hand similar experiences from people in relationships like theirs, as well as what a couples sex therapy session is really all about. As a mental health professional, I am all for anything that makes therapy less scary and more accessible to people who haven’t considered it an option before.

3. Self Journal from Best Life Co.: Being a type A personality tends to mean that I like structure and prompts when it comes to journaling and keeping my life in order. The Self Journal has a great layout for daily planning and gratitude practice. It includes areas for your schedule, lists, gratitude practice, goal maintenance, and my favorite, a daily reflection brag zone. The brag zone is wonderful to get in the practice of celebrating even the smallest victories and incorporating self-love. I love this journal because it does help keep me on track without getting overwhelming. I also tend to use the goal maintenance zones for self-care and acceptance practices in addition to more concrete goals I have for my life.

4. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson: In Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson describes common dialogues we all tend to find ourselves in with our partners and how to resolve and heal from conflict in these relationships. She offers wonderful insights from Emotionally Focused Therapy to help couples repair rifts in their relationships and be confident in knowing when they reach for their partner, their partner will be there. Hold Me Tight is a staple in my office for couples struggling to get back to each other emotionally.

5. Ending The Diet Mindset by Becca Clegg: In her book Ending The Diet Mindset, Becca Clegg covers a variety of mindsets we get stuck in that can have toxic effects on our health and self-love journey. These destructive mindsets have kept women feeling afraid, angry, and hesitant about their relationship with food. Becca’s proposal is that in order to improve your relationship with food, you must first improve the relationship with yourself. The journey through her book offers women the chance to uncover the underlying problems influencing the diet mindsets and gives the opportunity to practice self-love when it comes to food and the body.

6. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski: Come As You Are is wonderful for understanding female sexuality, and has been the best resource I have seen to date on the subject. Emily Nagoski has a wonderful, comprehensible way of explaining the science and research that has been conducted over the years around female sexuality, but in a fun and engaging way. It also helps women clear the misconceptions they have learned about their sexuality and their bodies, as well as understand some of their own patterns. This book is near and dear to me because it holds so many “ah-ha” moments. It is truly wonderful to see the clouds clear as women begin to understand their own bodies and sexuality. Please note this book is geared toward cisgender women, but it is a wonderful resource for men as well.

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…

I cannot fully express my sadness when I hear stories of trauma due to sexual violence, negativity, stigma, and shame. There are so very many misconceptions around sex and sexuality that lead to so much confusion when an individual’s experience doesn’t “fit the mold.” I encounter so many people who have felt lied to and shamed about their sexuality. Although sex positivity is on the rise, there are still so many traumatizing and damaging messages around sex that are unnecessary and hurtful. I would love for people to know that they are not alone in their feelings of shame and it is ok to shed the burden of negativity they have carried for so long.

Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?

My mother’s voice comes to mind when I think of the life lesson quote I carry with me. Leah always said “Everyone has a story.” Through my time as a therapist I have come to find that she was right and that stories are meant to be heard and understood. It is a gift when I can learn about someone’s experience and it always reinforces my desire to be curious with people instead of jumping to judgment. I help people tell and write their story. And in that process, they can validate that they have a story worth hearing and come to love the story they create. It has taken me a while to believe that I have a story worth hearing, and if I can help others believe the same, I will carry my mother’s quote with me always.

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

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