Pay attention to the messages you send yourself. Think of your thoughts like a radio station. Then ask yourself, if you were listening to this channel, how do you think you would be feeling? If we are sending ourselves messages of self doubt, negativity or worry, then we will feel that way in our lives. It is in our control to change the radio station to something that is sending messages of strength, hope and positivity. By simply changing the messages we hear, we can dramatically change our sense of well being.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kimberly Ann Lemke. Dr. Kimberly Ann Lemke is a licensed child, adolescent and adult clinical psychologist and author of “I Just Don’t Get My Parents’ Rules!” She works with a wide range of issues including, anxiety, depression, OCD, behavior change, parenting issues and is trained in CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia). Dr. Lemke has also written and delivered many professional workshops on mental health topics including stress and sleep and has conducted multiple TV, radio and other media interviews.
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?
I am pretty sure that being a psychologist is something that I was born to do. My mother recently told me a story about how she remembered me at four years old, setting up my dolls on our black couch and asking them how they felt and if they had any problems. The thing that amazes me is that I didn’t even know what a psychologist was until high school when I took my first psychology class. I remember sitting in class and thinking how much I loved learning all about how our brains worked and ways to help people. From that point on, I was hooked. I went on to major in psychology and pre-med in college and then knew that I would have to get a graduate degree to be able to impact the most people. I wanted all of my options to open to me in this field. I received my master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology with a minor with children and adolescents. The ironic part is that pretty much every day, I go into my private practice and have people sit on my black couch and ask them how they are feeling just like when I was four years old.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
About nine years ago, I saw an eight-year-old girl who was struggling with depression and was having a significant amount of behavioral problems at home. When her mother brought her in, the girl told me that she did not want to be there and that she would never talk to me. I was younger in my career and was used to children not wanting to be there, but typically after a few sessions, they began talking to me. Not this little girl. She continued to have behavior problems at home and would come into my office and not answer any of my questions, just like she promised. She would cross her arms and look at me, and then we would sit there together in silence for what felt like the longest hour of my life. This happened for months. I told the little girl that I would be there for her whenever she needed me to be, and she would reassure me weekly that this would never happen. I would fill her mom in on the sessions, but told her to hang in there so that we could prove to this little girl that I wasn’t going anywhere. The parents were wonderful and brought her every week.
One day, six months later, she talked to me about something. To this day I have no idea what the first sentence she spoke to me was, but we just started talking, as if it was no big deal at all. That little girl is now almost 18 and sees me several times a month just to check in on ways to manage stress in her life. She often brings up remembering sitting with me, thinking that I would surely get sick of her and give up on her. The fact that I didn’t and she is where she is at today reminds me with every new client that my job is just to sit with someone in their darkest moments. My job is not to push them, make them see things, lead them to new ideas, but instead to walk besides them and let them know they aren’t alone.
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?
Some of the diagnoses I work with frequently are anxiety, OCD and phobias. I believe that it was maybe my first month or so at a group practice, right out of school, and my boss assigned me a seven year old with severe anxiety. I had seen her just a few times, and at maybe our fourth session, I saw a spider crawling on the wall behind her. For anyone who knows me, they know that I am not a fan of spiders. That is probably an understatement on my extreme dislike of spiders. So, I am sitting in the office with a girl with a ton of anxiety, internally freaking out because a spider is behind her. I thought I was doing an amazing job hiding my own fear of this spider, until she turned around, saw the spider and asked if that was why I was being so strange. I told her I was not afraid and was going to take care of it. Apparently, I was not convincing, and she opened my door and in front of a packed waiting room and my new employer, she yelled out to her father and asked if he could come get rid of a spider because “the doctor is very afraid.” I was mortified. I was the specialist in this area and this little girl called me out in front of everyone! As an interesting side note, the father came in and said it was a huge spider and that he was even afraid to get rid of it. So after all that embarrassment I endured, I still had to take care of the spider on my own!
The lesson I took from this is to be real with people about your emotions. If I would have used that as an opportunity to be open and genuinely model with that child healthy ways to handle fear and anxiety, it could have been a very helpful and teachable moment. Instead, like many of us do, I decided that I was going to try and ignore the feeling and act tougher than I felt. In my sessions with clients, I often share this story so that they know that processing through a fear or an emotion is a strength and bulldozing through it or ignoring it is not a strength at all.
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?
It may sound cliché, but I wouldn’t be where I am today personally or professionally without the support of my parents. Growing up, the message I always received was that I could do what I set out to do. Throughout my education, I remember countless nights that I would go to my mom and have her quiz me for hours on note cards. I would break out into hives from the stress that I placed on myself, and my parents would always reassure me that I would be fine and loved regardless of grades. They would do anything it took to allow me to be successful in the path I chose.
I remember I had an exam that I needed to take that was only offered on one day in another state for entrance into certain graduate schools. The day before we were supposed to leave, planes were grounded because there was a snowstorm coming into Illinois. That night I remember standing in my dad’s office downstairs as we looked at train schedules to get us to the exam. As we were on the phone trying to buy train tickets, the woman said there were two left. As she went to book them, she told us how strange it was, but the last two tickets had just been taken and the trains were full. My parents and I then decided that we would try to get bus tickets and leave immediately if we could. When we called for bus tickets, we were notified that the buses would not be running due to the snowstorm that was coming the next day. In that moment, my dad looked at me and said that he would load up the car with emergency equipment in case we got stuck and that we would just have to start driving there. My mom was helping get stuff together, my dad was packing the car, and snowflakes started to fall. I remember in that moment that I had to be the one to make the decision not to go because nothing would stop my parents from doing what they could to help me get to this exam for my future career. All I could think of was the fact that planes and buses were not even running due to this weather, and we were about to brave the weather in a car. In that moment, I decided that it seemed like I was receiving countless messages from the universe to not go on the journey to this exam. It turns out that I ended up being accepted into the school that I wanted to, and a whole new door was opened for me. I learned in that moment that sometimes being in control means letting go of the idea that you are actually in control.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I believe that the work you do speaks for itself. When you have a passion for what you do and you are genuine with others, they can feel it. Many of the referrals to our business come from word of mouth and from colleagues and medical professionals who got our name from their own patients. In our industry, it is so important to know yourself and practice self care. We sit every day with so much sadness, pain and anxiety, and if you are not aware of what you have going on in your life, then you risk bringing your own stuff into the therapy room with clients. I believe that I have two jobs. One is managing the emotions that are expressed in my therapy room, and the other is managing my own emotions outside of the therapy room. It is critical to set boundaries around yourself and clients so that you can take care of yourself, even if it is hard to say no to people. I practice a lot of self care in my car as well. If I have had an emotionally exhausting day, I take the drive home to recenter myself before I get home and have to be in mom mode. I am in an industry of helpers; however, we truly have to prioritize our own mental health to avoid burnout. Knowing yourself comes in very handy here. For example, I know what music calms me and what music doesn’t. I know the people in my life that I need to go to when I just need to vent, and I know the people to avoid. I know that adult coloring books work for some, but for me, a person who likes to complete things, I see those pages and it is overwhelming! If you do not take time to learn things about yourself, then eventually burnout happens. Then we become useless to our patients and to ourselves and our families.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Create a place that you are proud of and that you want to work in. If you want a drama-free zone, then don’t bring in your drama. If you want to feel respected, then respect others. Take your experiences in previous work places and apply them in the culture you are creating. If there was a manager or leader that inspired you, identify what they did and bring that into your current environment. Conversely, if there were experiences that diminished your spirit or decreased morale, then be on the lookout for that and change it as soon as you see it. It is also important to be mindful of any people that you hire into your environment in any position. I have learned throughout the years that if my gut tells me something in an interview process with a candidate, then I need to trust it. We are in an industry in which we encourage our patients to communicate, and this is no different for myself and my staff. I want my colleagues to be able to have a voice and tell me about what they need from me or their workspace to feel supported. As a leader you need to be able to ask others their needs and also set aside your defenses or pride to hear them. I remember I had an old professor in graduate school that used to tell us that degrees and experience don’t matter to people; it comes down to who can take care of their needs. To illustrate his point he would ask us, “If your car breaks down when you are driving down the street and a successful doctor with multiple degrees drives by or a mechanic drives by, who is most important?” This has always stuck with me and keeps me grounded in any leadership position that I take on.
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?
The first step is understanding the relationship between awareness and control over mental wellness. Take a moment and visualize a standard pitcher of liquid. I will leave it up to you as to decide whether you want to picture it full of margaritas or iced tea. Having twins and running a business, I admit that I often picture margaritas. This pitcher is used to contain our emotions. Once we add too many emotions or too much stress into the pitcher, it overflows, and we feel overwhelmed and shut down. The key to improving our mental wellness is to always be aware of the level of your pitcher. Ask yourself the MAIN QUESTION: how much room do I have for additional stress today? Be aware of the level of your pitcher multiple times a day, morning, mid-day and night. For example, if your child was up all night, you are coming down with a cold, you are fighting with your spouse, your financial numbers at work are lower than expected, you have a last-minute project that was added to your plate yesterday and there is a personnel issue that you need to deal with first thing in the morning, your pitcher is about three-quarters full already, and you have not even gotten out of bed! Once you are aware of the level of your pitcher, identify what you are in control of and what you are not. Examples would be: Don’t pick up the phone if a friend calls who is typically draining. Don’t have a conversation with your spouse about some important issue. Don’t tell a co-worker or partner at work that you will help them with something on their plate. Don’t schedule a draining meeting with a client, boss, student, etc. But, DO give yourself permission to have a 60 percent day with limited expectations of yourself. By focusing on what we are in control of and accepting what we are not, we are able to make choices that improve our mood and maximize our performance.
Secondly, sleep is incredibly important to our sense of mental well-being. One of the main issues that I come into contact with daily at my practice is individuals who struggle with sleep issues. Of all of the mental-health topics that I present on, sleep issues is the most requested by far. Maximize sleep by monitoring your activities during the day and making sure that you are receiving sunlight, being active physically and mentally and stimulating your senses. At night take note of your surroundings and look for things that may interfere with your sleep: noises, temperature, pain, substances ingested, and stressors that you have encountered during the day that you save until nighttime to mull over. Identify what you can change, and change it. The activity that I ask everyone to do at my seminars is to list what they know or have heard is a good nighttime ritual for a child. After they have done this, I then ask them to circle all of the nighttime rituals that they also do for themselves. It is amazing how they look at me and then laugh because they are aware of how poor our nighttime rituals are as adults. If a child’s bedtime is 8 PM, no one would have the child be active up until 7:59 PM and then place them in their room and expect them to fall asleep by 8 PM. As adults, however, we are working on our computers or paying bills or managing some aspect of our lives right up until the moment that we need to go to bed. Adults need to add some of these strategies to maximize their sleep and mental wellness. Try things like taking a walk outside, breathing deeply, taking a warm bath, reading, turning down the lights, drinking warm tea, using a diffuser with calming oils, using lavender bath oils or lotions, or trying progressive muscle relaxation, just to name a few.
The third strategy to improve your mental health is to use your senses to ground yourself. I personally use this technique all the time and teach it to clients on a daily basis. Stress likes us to either worry about the things that have not yet happened or dwell on the things from the past. Peace, however, can only be felt in the present. Think about your five senses. What do I hear? What do I see? What do I smell? What do I taste? What am I touching? As you ask these questions, do not rush your answers. For example, if I see a glass and a pen in front of me, I take it a step deeper. I see a white cup with a silver rim and a blue handle. The handle has three ridges on it that are evenly separated. The pen is a red pen with white ends. The writing on the pen is partially worn off and the pen clip has a crack in it. I feel the warmth of the cup on my right hand and notice that my left hand is colder now. When you can stay present, you can reground to the moment and slow down your thinking. What I love most about this tool is that you can use it anytime and anywhere and no one will ever know you are doing it. I work with some very high-level CEOs and presidents of multi-million dollar organizations who have anxiety but still need to be able to lead meetings and not disclose their own anxiety. I tell them to use this tool by bringing a water bottle or a cup of coffee in with them because no one questions why someone has water or coffee. If they start to feel stressed, I have them take a sip of their coffee and feel the warmth as they swallow it. I have them take a long inhale of the cinnamon stick they have added to their coffee. They then feel the cup or bottle in their hand and feel the grooves or the lettering in their mugs. They then focus on the taste of the cinnamon or vanilla or just the coldness of their water. This will take them back and re-center them, and no one in the room has any idea of what has taken place.
The fourth strategy that helps optimize our mental well being is to consciously identify our emotions and name them. I often will have clients look up a “feeling wheel” if they are unable to name the emotion they are experiencing. So often what we try to do to stay mentally balanced is not think about what is bothering us. I call this the monster in the closet technique. If your child calls you into their room and says that they hear something in their closet, do you think telling them “whatever you do, don’t open that closet door and look” will help ease their mind? Now imagine the next night when they try to go to sleep. Do you think that they are more at peace because they didn’t open the door? I am hopeful that in this situation, of course you would tell the child that they were going to be okay and that you are going to open the closet door. Once you open it, the fear subsides. This is exactly opposite of what we tell ourselves to do as adults when we are stressed and facing our own anxieties and fears. Remember, the best thing you can do is open the emotional closet and just begin writing down your thoughts and feelings. Once they are out of our minds, we are able to look at them objectively and come up with strategies to deal with them.
The fifth way to improve your mental wellness is to pay attention to the messages you send yourself. Think of your thoughts like a radio station. Then ask yourself, if you were listening to this channel, how do you think you would be feeling? If we are sending ourselves messages of self doubt, negativity or worry, then we will feel that way in our lives. It is in our control to change the radio station to something that is sending messages of strength, hope and positivity. By simply changing the messages we hear, we can dramatically change our sense of well being.
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.
Retirement is a major transition in someone’s life. Often a main part of our identity is our career. When we retire, people often lose their purpose and a sense of who they are. Retirement is something that needs to be planned for. People often plan financially but tend to forget to plan for how they will weather the emotional storm. The key to a successful retirement is to begin building other pillars of your identity before you stop working. Think about a garden on the other side of a door that you can come in and out of. Once you retire, you can no longer go back through the door. While you are working, it is important to be paying attention to how you are taking care of the soil and what you are growing on the other side. For example, find new hobbies, build new relationships, think about volunteer opportunities, plan goals that you want to achieve after retirement, etc. When you retire and have been growing all these other parts to your life already, then you are excited about what awaits you. If you have left this soil untouched, then what often awaits you on the other side is dread, emptiness and a feeling of loss.
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?
The reality is that teens and pre teens live in a very electronic world. In order to connect with them, we have to use their language. There are tons of apps out there that I recommend to pre teens and teens. Apps for progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing are sometimes made entertaining so that kids buy into using them. For relaxation, I recommend Stop, Breathe, Think and for deep breathing I enjoy the app Pause. Hay House Vision Board can also be a fun way to get teens and children to change that channel in their head and focus on positive future thoughts. Also never underestimate the value of memes and quotes. I have pre teens and teens create new folders on their phone and fill it with quotes that mean something to them. I want it to be all in one place so that it is easily accessible when they need it. Similarly, I have them create song playlists, so that when they need to mentally shift to a healthier place, they can just hit play.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Inside the Magic Kingdom: Seven Keys to Disney’s Success by Tom Connellan was a book they made us read on my internship, and I still use it to this day. There is a section in this book that says “everything walks the talk.” The idea behind it is that everything and everyone is important in the environment that you are trying to create. When I tell clients to try certain apps because they are helpful, I make sure that I have truly tried them and that I can genuinely stand behind what I say. We value people filling their minds with messages that are inspiring, so every song that plays in our waiting room has been vetted by us. We have listened to the songs multiple times to determine the messages it could send to clients. We walk the talk by making sure that all of us working at the practice do any task needed, whether it is emptying dehumidifiers, vacuuming floors, or getting someone a glass of water if they are thirsty. Personally as well, practicing self care, trying certain strategies to help with stress, managing emotions and learning more about myself helps me walk the talk when I encourage my clients to do the same.
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. 🙂
What a big question. I love it. I think that our phones and tablets are wonderful tools, but I often feel that we are losing touch with our relationships and ourselves. I think that so often when we are looking at our phones, we are missing out on all that is going on around us. Just like I said earlier, we have to use the language that people are accustomed to, but I have often thought about how to help us connect more with each other and our senses through technology. I would love to bridge this gap somehow. There are apps out there that show us things for sale in our community or traffic apps where people report police or traffic jams that they see. What if there was an app that allowed people close to you to point out things that would help you use your senses? If I am driving by a tree and it has beautiful leaves, I can enter it into an app so that if you are driving past it, you could look up. If I am standing by a candle shop, and I go in and smell a certain fragrance that is calming, I can tell you about it. If I see an outdoor fireplace outside of a restaurant that is providing me with feelings of warmth, then I can put it in the app so that you can also feel it. As I drive around with my kids, I have also thought about how we could make this a fun task by looking for things that cause us to use our senses and then pointing it out to others. In my imagination, there are pictures that could be taken, coordinates given and conversations that could begin to happen. Make sense? Notice my pun there?☺. Hey, maybe that could be the name of the app!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I had a colleague once say to me, “It is not time that will tell, but what you do with time that will tell.” This saying has truly been my guiding light personally and with clients. The meaning behind it is that it is not time that is important, but rather what you are doing with that time. Personally, I was going through a divorce and just hoped that time would heal my heart and things would just somehow get better. When she shared this thought with me, it reminded me that if I wanted healing, then I had to be spending time healing my own heart. If I wanted to grow from this experience, then I had to be using time to learn about myself and do the work. If I wanted to feel stronger, time in and of itself wouldn’t give me that, but I had to use the time to focus on my health and begin working out again. If I wanted to feel connected with others, then I had to take an active role with my time and build old friendships and let go of unhealthy ones. It takes small steps to create change in our lives, but when we use our time to take those steps as opposed to sitting on the sidelines of our own lives, we end up places we never dreamed we could go.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Please feel free to follow me on Facebook at I Just Don’t Get My Parents’ Rules (@parentsrules), on Twitter @DrKimberlyLemke or on my website www.drkimberlylemke.com.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Thank you so much! This has been a wonderful interview!