Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset. The following is a transcript from a recent interview she had with KFIN's Breakfast Club's Brandon Baxter.
Q: Do people sometimes behave differently to you since you are a psychologist?
Absolutely, but hopefully only until they get to know me. It’s like if you run into your hairdresser and you know you’re late on getting your roots done, you just kind of turn and walk away. Or if you haven’t been to Weight Watchers and know you’ve gained weight… if you see your group leader, you might run in the other direction. People sometimes get nervous and end up saying really awkward things that make it even more uncomfortable – mostly for them, not for me. I think it’s totally normal.
Q: As a psychologist, what would you say is the biggest lesson you have learned in your own life?
Ugh. That’s a hard one, mostly because a) I’ve learned so much, and b) I feel like I’m literally still learning and exploring different parts of myself.
Q: What do you mean you’ve learned so much? About yourself or life in general?
Both. I was lucky to have had a lot of breaks and blessings along the way, and I’m a very hard worker in my own right, but I’ve also experienced a lot of loss. I think that a few of the hits I’ve had over the years have humbled me and made me realize that you can be blessed and work hard and life can still gut-punch you. Like recently, I had a health scare after a mammogram. It turned out to be okay after surgery, but I had the experience that so many patients have of laying in bed and thinking about myself, my family, and my mortality. We have had a suicide in our family, which, while absolutely devastating, did teach us all how delicate life is.
Q: That probably makes you better at understanding others.
I think so. I don’t think therapists have to have all the same traumas or life-changing events as their patients to relate. But I tell ya, I can relate more empathically to parents of strong-willed children now that I have my own little one. I can connect to health scares and those feelings on a different level now.
Q: So if you had to create a cheat sheet for us – things you’ve seen a lot of, or life lessons that patients could have learned earlier to save themselves heartache – what would be on it?
I would suggest that everyone learn what interpersonal boundaries are; especially how healthy boundaries protect themselves and others, and how they can ward off so many of the troubles that we get into without even realizing.
I am so good at keeping boundaries – I learned it from my mother. She’s never rude or inappropriate, has always done favors for people, and has served her community her whole life. But when her answer is no, it’s no. She is so confident in herself, and that confidence makes her powerful. People inherently recognize that they cannot mistreat her, misuse her, or manipulate her.
So, I have developed this motto: if you and I are in a conversation and one of us is uncomfortable, it’s not going to be me. I’m not going to let someone treat me in a way that makes me uncomfortable without bringing that to light. If you’re pushing on me and I can feel myself becoming uncomfortable – the way you’re talking to me, the emotional manipulation you’re using – I am going to very appropriately call that out so you and I are both aware of what is happening between us.
Q: Boundaries like “Don’t speak to me that way,” and learning to say no?
Exactly. Two great examples. Also, “This conversation is making me uncomfortable, so I am going to get off the phone or leave now,” or “I don’t know how I feel about this, and I need some time to think before I respond to your request,” or even “Thank you for the invitation, but I’m not going to be able to help at this time. I will get back to you if it works for my schedule in the future.”
We need to learn to say no and understand that’s enough – no more excuses or apologies are needed. We’re allowed to take a time out and calm down so that we can re-engage in a healthy way. We can exit a conversation when we need to, and we can certainly set physical boundaries like “Please do not touch me again.” It really does take practice to build confidence.
Q: What if we don’t say what we mean at first and then we dread doing it, or it continues, and we feel like we can’t stop it now?
Well, of course we’re talking about day-to-day interpersonal annoyances, certainly not criminal actions or sexual or physical assault – that is different and should be reported to the authorities. But I think practice is what makes it easier. None of us will always get it right the first time, but once you realize you are uncomfortable, you can say that. For instance, if you’ve agreed to do a favor for a friend or attend a party or serve on a committee but realize you don’t have time or interest in doing that. I would call that person or send an email and say, “I’ve had a bit more time to consider your request and how full my plate is (or my other obligations), and I am not going to be able to xx after all. I hope you understand and can make alternative arrangements.
Q: What if they pour on the guilt or even anger and say “No, I can’t. You told me you would do this.”
If someone isn’t used to your boundaries (or boundaries in general), they may have to work to get their mind around your boundary and they may do a little protesting. This is the second layer to boundaries. Keeping them firm when you’ve made a decision, despite the protest of others. When there is a disapproving response, simply say, “I apologize for the change, but it’s necessary. I won’t be able to help.” Look, good friends, decent people, will eventually respect your needs. The ones who don’t will clearly show you what you need to know about them.
Q: I love it. What else can we learn?
Learn to listen to other people by seeing the world through their eyes, not your own. Make your goal to listen and understand their perspective. And honor their perspective and feelings, even if you don’t agree. They get to feel the way they feel and shouldn’t be dismissed or made to feel stupid. Someone can feel hurt by what you did or said (or didn’t do), and sometimes you can see it, and sometimes it might be hard to wrap your head around. But especially in those hard-to-understand times, be curious about the people you care about and what it’s like from their experience.
Q: How can we do that?
You can say, “I hear that you’re really hurt, and that’s not my goal at all. I’m really struggling to understand what this means for you, but I believe you and I want to understand better. Can you tell me more about it?”
Q: Oh my gosh… that’s not hard at all.
Nope. But again, it takes being intentional and it takes practice. And when you don’t get it right – like if you start your own protesting behavior when they’re sharing – stop yourself and start again. “I’m sorry. I just caught myself reacting to you rather than listening. Please, can we start over? I’d like to understand.”
Q: Mind blown. Give us one more.
Here’s one: Good people can make bad decisions. People are not only good or only bad. We’re not black and white. There’s a lot of grey in the human condition. I see a lot of patients who tell me, “I’m so dumb. I thought he was a good person, but then he did this.” I just think it’s important that we see each other – and ourselves – as fallible, often selfish and self-focused humans. We can be fundamentally good and well-meaning people and still do hurtful things. For that matter, pretty rotten people sometimes do good things! But I think it helps to see ourselves and other people as having the full gamut of possible behaviors and potentialities.
Take a step back and realize that person probably did some good thing, which is why you liked them. Maybe what you’re seeing was normal (although disappointing) human behavior, or maybe what you’re seeing is that they really aren’t the kind of person you want in your life. Either way, they, like you, are guaranteed to not be perfect and will occasionally let you down.
Q: There actually are so many things that could’ve saved us so much heartache if we had learned them earlier!
I’d love to talk about more of them – and about some of these points in more depth in the new year. For now, I’m going to focus on learning to stand firmly by my boundaries even if others continue to try to manipulate me. I’ll also remember to give others some grace if they fail me, just like I want them to do for me when I screw up.
Most people are just doing the best they can with what they know; and hopefully they’re committed, or will commit, to a path of continued learning and growing.
And, another one I have to add: when you do royally screw up and hurt someone else, be mature enough to apologize quickly and take responsibility for what happened, even if it causes you shame or embarrassment to admit your fault.
If you or a loved one want to learn more about creating boundaries or managing complicated emotions, consider speaking to a therapist or related professional.
Our friendly and compassionate mental health experts at Families, Inc. are here to help. Give us a call or visit us at one of our 11 local clinics in Arkansas. Together, we can help you enjoy a healthier, happier life.