Self-caretaking, Self-Nurturance and Self Respect. Self-nurturance and self-respect are difficult for many people because they confuse self-nurturance with selfishness. By self-nurturing and self-care taking, you are creating a healthy lifestyle and healthy relationships. You are getting your needs met, which means that sometimes you set limits and do not give others what they want. Learning to evaluate each situation and deciding if you will meet your need or someone else’s need can be challenging. However, to meet others’ needs without considering your own will, over time, become increasingly toxic.
The term Blue Zones has been used to describe places where people live long and healthy lives. What exactly does it take to live a long and healthy life? What is the science and the secret behind longevity and life extension? In this series, we are talking to medical experts, wellness experts, and longevity experts to share “5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life”. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Steven Sultanoff.
Dr. Steven Sultanoff is a master psychologist with a specialty in health and well-being. With over 35 years of experience as a clinical psychologist, professor, trainer, and professional speaker focusing on the psychological characteristics that enhance longevity, he has highlighted the therapeutic benefits of humor as a special passion. Along with his expertise in the relationship between emotions and cognitions, he is an internationally recognized expert in the health benefits of humor and how humor shifts emotions and cognitions, and creates social bonding to increase wellness. His website, www.myCEmatters.com offers articles and blogposts featuring a variety of wellness topics particularly therapeutic humor, as well as offering links to his online continuing education programs.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
My education initially was pretty traditional. I received my doctorate at UC Berkeley which is a traditional research institution. My internships were also fairly traditional, but along the way I became increasingly interested in the wellness side of psychotherapy as opposed to the disordered side.
As I matured as a psychologist, I pursued being a therapist, professor, trainer, continuing education presenter, and author. While no one wrote in my High School Year Book, “Gee Steve, you are funny guy,” I became intrigued with the power of humor to heal by reducing distressing emotion and enhancing uplifting emotion, reducing negative thinking and enhancing healthy thinking, reducing unwanted behavior and increasing desired behavior, and creating powerful social bonds and healthy social interactions. Along with all of these psychological and social benefits of humor, I discovered that there were physiological benefits as one experiences humor. We know that humor increases tolerance to pain, lowers cortisol (the stress hormone), lowers blood pressure, increases antibodies, is related to lower risk of heart attack, and more. This broad range of impacts fascinated me, and in the mid-1980’s I began to develop a specialty in therapeutic humor. I continued my traditional journey becoming a practicing psychologist, professor, trainer, clinical director at a mental health training center, etc., while at the same time pursuing my passion for therapeutic humor and wellness.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
While this is broad, it has to be the Kobayashi Maru test at Star Fleet Academy. For those of you unfamiliar with Star Trek lore, the Kobayashi Maru test is a simulation where academy cadets are tested with a “no-win” scenario. The goal is to determine how cadets react to a no-win scenario. James Kirk (later to become captain of the Enterprise), rather than be defeated by a “no-win” scenario, re-wrote the program. That is the central aspect of my career. I have “re-written” the program time and time again when I have been faced with a no-win situation.
A life changing example of the countless times I re-wrote the program was when I was told repeatedly that I would not get hired California in the type of job I was seeking and that I needed to move out of state, get a few years of experience, and return at some future date. Rather than accept that no-win, I pursed and created alternate opportunities in order to build a career that I wanted. While there were certainly twists and turns along the way particularly dictated by opportunities, I was able to “defeat” the no-win scenario and create a unique career. The final result was not the original direction I had sought but resulted in a unique alternate direction.
In another example much more similar to the James Kirk solution, while I was in college, I wanted to enroll in a specific psychology course which was “controlled” by the department. This meant that in order to take the course one had to receive permission from the department. Even though I met all the criteria to enroll, the department secretary, who controlled the “secret” code for admission to the course, refused to provide me with the code. Since each course at the university had its own unique code and almost all of the codes were public, using the public codes as a data base, I was able to write a simple algorithm that would potentially “solve” for the secret code. Using my algorithm, I solved for the code and proceeded to enter it into the enrollment computer. It failed to work. Then, using the data that it had failed, I was able to adjust my algorithm. My next attempt worked, and I was able to enroll. Not only did my algorithm allow me to enroll in the course I wanted, it provided me with a solution for all of the secret codes for all of the courses at the university.
When faced with a no-win scenario in either my professional or personal life, I have always created “work arounds” that “solve the problem. This has been a cornerstone of my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Oh my…how much time do you have as I experienced many mentors who added dramatically to my personal and professional success. Perhaps the most dramatic was my graduate school mentor — Tony. First, he gave me an opportunity when I was very young, naïve, and inexperienced. Then over the six years we worked together, he observed me in many roles (therapist, instructor, trainer, etc.) and provided clear and specific feedback to enrich my growth. As I matured, he modulated his feedback to meet my level of competence. He was supportive and helped me learn where I needed to learn and grow. He also taught me his process of mentoring so that I could later apply it as I became a mentor and trainer.
Even as a child I was an “out of the box” thinker and while not “artistic,” I have always been very creative. That part of me was enriched by another mentor-Jay — who gave me an opportunity to fill in for a creative thinking instructor who at the last minute was not able to fill his teaching contract within a unique gifted education program. With Jay’s training and guidance, I was able to further nurture my creative thinking and problem solving skills which have enriched every aspect of my professional and personal life.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Being a Creative Thinker. I am a master at figuring out often with creative workarounds. As I noted, I was always creative. However, it was through Jay’s program that I learned the well-known Creative Problem Solving Model developed at State University of New Your, Buffalo. The fundamental to this process is to expand ones thinking or approach, and then narrow ones thinking. I learned to enhance divergent thinking and then refine through convergent thinking. This process of diverge and converge cuts across all problem solving domains such as gathering information, problem definition, solution generation, etc. This process has been central to all my personal and professional experiences including providing psychotherapy where I helped clients expand their vision to see the possibilities (even absurd ones) before assuming there were no solutions.
- Being Empathic. I see myself as very empathic. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy. Most people are sympathetic, but few are empathic. Being empathic means, I am able to non-judgmentally listen to others, understand (truly understand) their perspective without imposing my bias, accept that they have a right to be who they are, and being able to communicate that understanding and acceptance to them. Being empathic is part of the fabric of my being. I understand and respect others’ rights to be who they are. People tell me that they experience my empathy in our interactions.
- Engaging and Nurturing my Sense of humor. I embrace a great deal of the “funny” around me. I am able to balance understanding the serious nature of some events and the humor that may also be part of that seriousness. I understand empathic humor and hostile humor and offer empathic humor when I share humor with others. Probably the most significant use of humor in my life is with my wife. We share a great deal of humor (teasing and otherwise) which has greatly enhanced our relationship and oils the gears of our interactions.
Empathic humor in the personal and professional world bonds relationships, diffuses tension, and shifts negativity. My sense of humor tends to be more “cerebral” than visual or slapstick. I love word play and exaggeration humor. Everyone has their unique sense of humor and can nurture that in ways that are congruent with who they are as individuals.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about health and longevity. To begin, can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fields of health, wellness, and longevity? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
My focus throughout my career as a psychologist (and even before becoming a psychologist) has been on wellness. However, for the past 35+ years I have been particularly interested in the therapeutic benefits of humor. Therapeutic humor is misunderstood and is often confused with laughter. Over the years ongoing research has supported the effectiveness of humor to enhance living, health, and well-being. Today, I am known for advancing the field and adding new concepts to the field. I am among the first to propose the intentional and purposeful use of therapeutic humor for health wellness.
In the late 1980’s, I created the first (and only) model of how humor is therapeutic and impacts emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and physiology. Two years ago, I added a new component to the model. This component (relational fusion) incorporates the social, interactive benefits of humor. My path has been to uncover the health benefits of humor and help people understand those benefits including emotional, cognitive, social, behavioral, and physiological impacts.
I have written chapters and articles on the health benefits of humor as well as presenting countless seminars and addresses on the healing power of humor. I have appeared on television over the years and am currently streaming in a segment of “What’s Your Ailment” (Topic) with host Maria Bamford. I am frequently quoted in the media and maintain a humor based website at www.humormatters.com and a continuing education website. www.myCEmatters.com (which provides access to many of my articles and blog on health, wellness, and humor).
Seekers throughout history have traveled great distances and embarked on mythical quests in search of the “elixir of life,” a mythical potion said to cure all diseases and give eternal youth. Has your search for health, vitality, and longevity taken you on any interesting paths or journeys? We’d love to hear the story.
If there is an “elixir of life,” nothing comes closer than a fully integrated sense of humor! As mentioned, the experience of humor has a powerful wellness impact on our emotions, thoughts, actions, social bonding, and physiology. Nothing I have experienced in life has had a broader impact on health and well-being.
While my appreciation of humor dates back to childhood (even though I was not a particularly funny child), I know almost the exact time when I became fascinated by humor in psychotherapy. During 7 years in my doctoral program, I cannot remember humor being mentioned even once. Then, a few years after graduation, in December, 1985, I attended a major psychotherapy conference featuring the world leaders in the field of psychotherapy. As part of the conference, there was a panel discussion on the therapeutic aspects of humor. The panelists were all internationally known masters in the field. The ballroom, where the panel was held, had over 500 attendees leaving standing room only. There seemed to be great interest. However, I left the session very disillusioned by the lack of substance by the presenters. They obviously knew little about humor. Their discussion was a series of anecdotes sharing when they had used humor with clients, but they had no sense of “why” they chose to share humor and no understanding of how humor was healing. Their discussion lacked substance and purpose for implementing humor into the psychotherapy process, and they had no understanding that, like all clinical interventions humor, must have intention and purpose in order to be implemented effectively.
Fourth months later in April, 1986, I attended a humor conference where there was a session on “humor in psychotherapy.” Once again, the discussion lacked any substance. The speakers did not understand the rationale for the use of humor. While “experts” extolled the benefits of humor, no one seemed to understand how or why humor could be therapeutic.
These two sessions intrigued me, but in those days with no internet or social media, I had no direction to pursue my interest. One day a few years later, I was wondering the halls of a local university, and I saw a brochure for a one-day conference for the American Association for Therapeutic Humor (AATH). I live in Southern CA, and the conference was in November in Chicago. Of course, who wouldn’t want to be in Chicago in November! I immediately registered and went to Chicago where I truly found my people. As they say the “rest is history.” I became very involved as a member of the association and years later served as president of the association. All along the way my creative juices were flowing, and I was writing, mostly brief, articles on a wide range of topics on therapeutic humor. Increasingly I became the ”go to” guy for expertise on therapeutic humor.
The more I learned about humor, I realized how powerful it is and how wonderful that it is so accessible, free, and healing. As a psychologist to learn about an uplifting way (as opposed to a traditional clinical way) to help clients relive distressing emotion and negative thinking was exciting.
Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Live A Long & Healthy Life”? (Please share a story or an example for each)
1 . Sense of humor. A sense of humor has 5 major wellness benefits that add to health and eventually to longevity. These 5 benefits are emotional, cognitive, social, behavioral, and physiological.
As you experience humor, you experience “Mirth” which is the emotional component of humor. Mirth is the experience of joy, delight, uplift that often accompanies the experience of humor.
As you experience humor, you experience “Wit” which is the cognitive component of humor. Wit provides perspective. Perspective is one of the most powerful inoculants against ill health. Research clearly indicates that negative thinking is toxic. Wit as it activates perspective minimizes the toxic effects of negative thinking. Wit is the “getting it.”
As you experience humor, you may experience “Relational Fusion” which is the social bonding that is likely to occur with the experience of humor. Research clearly indicates that social connectedness has many longevity and health benefits. Humor creates a social bonding which, among other things, helps lower stress.
As you experience humor, you are likely to act in new and creative ways. Longevity is linked to creativity as those who are creative find ways to maintain their well-being.
While the experience of mirth, wit, and relational fusion all have physiological benefits, the research in this area is minimal. However, laughter, while a physical response to humor, is well known to activate multiple physiological benefits associated with longevity. Deep, heart-felt laughter reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), lowers blood pressure, and increases infection fighting antibodies.
A simple way to use humor to relieve emotional distress is to visualize a time when you laughed so hard you fell down, cried, or even wet your pants. Such a visualization immediately reduces emotional distress replacing it with mirthful uplifting emotions.
Another simple way to activate humor is to look for the humor around you. As a child my father would drive down a street in my rural hometown. The street ended facing a graveyard. In order to continue you had to turn right or left. There was a sign straight ahead in front of the graveyard that read, “Dead End.” It always tickled my father to see that sign, and today it tickles me.
To live a long and enjoyable life, integrate humor into the fiber of your being. Allow humor to guide your perspective on the world. Learn to offer humor in playful ways.
Humor is part of my fabric. While I mostly use humor that is “cerebral,” I also carry props with me everywhere I go. In my wallet I have my official university ID card with me sporting a clown nose in my photo. I also carry an “Elvis” driver’s license which I use when I pick up rental cars, check into hotels, and yes, even sometimes, at security at the airport. Most staff are delighted and have fun with it. My intent is to bring a little joy and pleasure into a moment of connection with a service provider; especially someone in, the often tense, travel industry. While this is not my intent, I often get room or car upgrades after using the license.
I also carry “thumb lights” (magic lights that fit on the thumbs and can be activated with a red light when desired). These are really fun especially when I get X-rays. I purposely wear a white shirt, and after the X-ray, I ask the technician if the machine was set properly as I am feeling a bit tingly and radiant. As the tech assures me the machine is safe, I press my thumb to my chest and the red light (in the dark x-ray room) brightly flashes and illuminates my shirt. The tech initially is stunned and then delights in “prank,” and I believe it does not end there as that humorous moment carries forward when the tech shares the experience with co-workers and family.
One of my favorite props, and I could tell you countless stories associated with sharing it with others, is my No-L pin. The pin itself is about a 2” round pin with an outer red circle with a red slash through the middle accompanied by a green “L” inside the slash. Imagine a “no smoking sign” only a large, green “L” replaces the cigarette in the middle. During the month of December, I wear my “No-L” pin everywhere I go.
I get lots of reactions. Some people disregard it, perhaps thinking that I am protesting something. Others inquire as to what it means. I never tell what it means. Instead, I encourage that person to figure out what it means. It becomes a fun projective as people share guesses such as No Love, No Life, No Laughter, No Lottery, No luck, etc. I share with them that it is exactly as it is. They generally look confused so I prompt them a bit. I might say, “What does a red circle with a line through it mean?” They generally reply, “No.” “That is correct,” I respond, “and what is in the center.” They reply an “L,” and again I reply, “that is correct. Now put them together.” At that moment, for many, the Christmas Tree lights up (so to speak). They experience the joy of “getting it.” Others inquire, “What is ‘No-L’? to which I say, “Say it quickly!” Generally, that does the trick and they get it. I imagine by now you have figured it out. Of course, it is a “No-L (Noel)” pin. Noel meaning Christmas. The result is almost always delight, and it does not end there. I ask the person if they would wear such a pin, if they had one. For those who would, I reach into my pocket and offer them a No-L pin of their own. Sometimes I run into that same person a year or two or more later, and they are wearing the pin! By the way, I buy No-L pins by the hundreds so that I have them to give away every Christmas holiday season.
2. Gratitude. With gratitude you will live longer AND enjoy the journey much more. Gratitude adds contentment to life’s journey.
Gratitude sets one on a path of contentment, which eliminates the stress and toxicity associated with negative thinking about what we have or do not have. Each day I look to my environment and see so much for which I am grateful. I am grateful for the birds that flock to my backyard, as a senior I am grateful for the services that are granted me, I am grateful for my home and family, I am grateful to have water to drink and food to eat, I am grateful (at my age) to be able to continue to play softball at a competitive level, and of course, I could go on and on. By focusing on what you have as opposed to what you do not have, you create an internal environment of satisfaction and contentment free of emotional, cognitive, and physiological distress.
3. Perspective. Perspective provides an opportunity to all of us to “not sweat the small stuff” and realize that most of the “stuff” in life is indeed, small stuff. One of the most powerful tools for longevity is realistic, and perhaps somewhat positive, thinking. Those who are realistic thinkers with a slight nod to the positive, are the healthiest. To “Live Long and Prosper” (as I quote Mr. Spock) one is best served with an attitude that includes embracing, “this too shall pass,” and that in the scope of life it is simply not that big a deal. This reminds me of the “Ziggy” cartoon where Ziggy is lying on the psychiatrist’s couch and the psychiatrist says, “It is not that the whole world is against you; There are BILLIONS of people who don’t care one way or the other.” Reframing Ziggy’s perspective from “everyone is against me or does not like me” has shifted to a broader scope of life. I realize that I have survived and managed all of life’s “crises” and situations. One way or another I (we) always make it through. Of course, sometime “making it through” will indeed, be dying, but that too is part of the process of keeping perspective.
4. Empathy. In some ways it may seem that being empathic is counter-intuitive to one’s longevity. After all, by being empathic one is focusing on others well-being and not on oneself. However, being empathic of others (among other benefits) develops a very strong bond in a relationship. Relational fusion is enhanced when we are empathic with others. It is well established that relational bonding directly influences longevity.
On a personal level, when I “feel” empathic with my wife I am “knowing” her at a deep and meaningful level. I feel an emotional fullness that is extremely pleasing, and she feels understood. I believe this is life extending, but I do not know if this will actually lengthen my life. I do know that it feels very fulfilling in the moment thus enriching the journey of life.
5. Self-caretaking, Self-Nurturance and Self Respect. Self-nurturance and self-respect are difficult for many people because they confuse self-nurturance with selfishness. By self-nurturing and self-care taking, you are creating a healthy lifestyle and healthy relationships. You are getting your needs met, which means that sometimes you set limits and do not give others what they want. Learning to evaluate each situation and deciding if you will meet your need or someone else’s need can be challenging. However, to meet others’ needs without considering your own will, over time, become increasingly toxic.
Set limits with others by listening to what they want, and then deciding if you are willing to give them what they want. If you give someone something they want that is unpleasant to you (for example, driving them to a distant airport in traffic), accept that you have chosen to give them this gift. If you choose not to drive them, then accept you are self-care taking by not doing something that is unpleasant for you. By not giving them what they want you learn to set self-nurturing boundaries (e.g., saying “no”).
Except in some extreme circumstances, it is critical to take care of you so that you are able to take care of others. Even during an airline emergency, you are always instructed to place your oxygen mask on first before assisting others. If you cannot breathe you cannot help others to breathe.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with my loving and warm mother. I have always been one to consider what others want, how important they are to me, and how what they want might conflict with what I want. With this evaluation, I decide what I want to do whether to give to another or not. In either case, I am basically deciding what “I want.” What I want may be to give you what you want, or it may be not to. In either case, I realize that I always do what I want (whether the outcome is for you or for me).
Now, back to my mother. I recall a conversation where I told her that I always do what I want (and in my heart of hearts, I believe this to be true), and she responded, “Don’t you think that is very selfish?” I replied saying that I did not see it that way. I see myself as a giving person, but I give when I want and do not give when I do not want to. She could not embrace that philosophy. Perhaps reading this you, too, are having difficulty seeing my perspective on this. If that is true, of course, that is okay. You have a right to your perspective and your viewpoint. My belief, however, is that this perspective I am offering is self-caretaking and self-nurturing and will reduce distress that inhibits longevity. For that reason, give it some thought even if you ultimately disagree.
Can you suggest a few things needed to live a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning?
As noted above, a sense of humor, gratitude, and perspective are associated with happiness and joy. Gratitude, empathy, and self-caretaking are associated with meaning.
Some argue that longevity is genetic, while others say that living a long life is simply a choice. What are your thoughts on this nature vs. nurture debate? Which is more important?
One way of viewing our genetics is to see the “nature” as the pre-determined road map and the “nurture” as the journey of learning along the road. The road map directs you forward, but you are “nurtured,” grow, and learn as you experience the journey. There are hard wired genetics which are pre-determined and soft wired genetics that allow for nurturance learning. This “learning” eventually becomes “auto-pilot,” and, while the auto-pilot may appear hard wired, it is learned. Driving a car is a great example of auto-pilot learning. Our hard wired genetics gives us the capacity to maneuver in our environment and therefore, the potential to drive a car. After practicing driving, eventually we drive without thinking. This is true for many physical and psychological processes. Our autopilot allows us to “do” many things every day without thinking. In addition, our thinking, which, actually for the most part determines our emotions, runs to a great extent on auto-pilot. Our beliefs, bias, and perspective are mostly driven by our early, learned, auto-pilot thinking.
Through nurture learning we learn how to manage and function in our specific environment. As we learn the skills to navigate the environment around us, we become more and more integrated at an auto-pilot level.
To say nature or nurture is more important is to misunderstand human existence. Nature and nurture are genetically encoded to work in tandem. The nature part is a generalist preparing us for universal challenges. Survival challenges would fit this category. We are programmed to eat, drink, create shelter, avoid natural danger (e.g., predators), etc. The nature part helps us to “specialize” within the environment in which we live. We are programmed to build shelter for survival, but the type of shelter is determined by the environment in which we live. Where there are predators, we may build fortresses compared to “lean-tos” that may be found in a safer environment. In the arctic we may build igloos while in the tropics we might have a thatched hut.
We need both our nature and our nurture. Without either we would not survive.
Life sometimes takes us on paths that are challenging. How have you managed to bounce back from setbacks in order to cultivate physical, mental, and emotional health?
My father died of a sudden heart attack when I was 17 (a junior in high school). Of course, this was a major setback (or perhaps redirect) on the path of life. Emotionally, I coped very well. However, while I was bright and socially engaged, I was a naïve teenager living in a small, rural town of 12,000 residents.
My mother knew nothing about college and was at a loss to provide any guidance. While there were lots of family friends, for whatever reason, no one stepped up to guide me toward a college experience. I was very academically successful, and in fact, in the top of my class. I was also athletic, playing four years of varsity tennis and active in student government (I was student government president my senior year). I was the newspaper photographer and sang in two choruses. My high school life was full, but I had no clue about pursuing a college. It would have been my scientist father who would have guided me and helped me navigate college choices and applications. I was lost.
My college selection was haphazard, and I ended up selecting a mediocre university because it had an excellent journalism program. Of course, I was not sure I was interested in journalism, but that was the choice I made. My skills were always in math and science where I excelled. Once in college, I received abysmal advice from academic advisors and was misdirected away from my math and science passion. Oh yes, I failed to mention that in my naiveté, as I sat the first day in my first journalism class, the professor said, “If you cannot type 40 words a minute. Get out of my class.” I picked up my books and ended my journalism career. It was not until years later that I discovered that I could have taken a different Journalism 101 section and pursued a journalism career.
My four years in college were in most ways a waste of time although academically I was outstanding and got the typical academic awards. However, I was lost and did not even select a major until my senior year. At the beginning of my senior year, I looked at the courses I had taken over my first three years and asked myself, “Given all my coursework, what major should I pursue?” As you might expect there were lots of math and science courses on my transcript including a year of calculous and biology, courses in chemistry, ocean engineering, marine biology, physics, environmental science, and more. However, there was an insufficient number of courses in any one area to put together a systematic major and graduate by the end of my senior year.
As I journeyed through the math and sciences, my electives were mostly in psychology. Even my psychology electives were more “science” and research oriented including developmental psychology, experimental psychology, physiological psychology, etc. There was not one course in my program in applied psychology. There were no counseling or clinical courses at the university. You might have guessed where this is going 😊
If you guessed I ended up a psychology major, you would be correct. Once again, my naivete came forth as I did not know what to “do” with a psychology degree. The only option (or so I thought) was to pursue a graduate degree. I looked back at my psychology courses and selected an area for graduate study. I decided to pursue social psychology. It did not “feel” right, but I was directionless and again had no guidance.
Along this journey I maintained my emotional health by pursuing learning which has always been a passion. The learning however, was not taking me on a systematic journey but on a scattered one.
I had attended a mediocre university, had no direction, and little passion for what was before me. I did have, however was my creativity, motivation, and outstanding academic performance.
Then my life took a major turn. It was Christmas break of my senior year. I had already begun applying to social psychology graduate programs when I was sitting on the beach in Miami, and a gentleman sitting next to me struck up a conversation. He asked about my university experience and my direction. I am sure he sensed my lack of passion for my next step. He said, “To me, it sounds like you might be interested in clinical or counseling psychology.” I looked at him and with my naïve nature bursting forth, asked, “What’s that??” Yes, I was a psychology major who graduated with lots of courses in psychology but had never heard of counseling or clinical psychology. Remember there were no courses in these topics at my university. As it turns out, the man on the beach was the department chair of a psychology department at a small university in Philadelphia. After our discussion, and a few more after that, he offered to write me a letter of reference for graduate school.
Malcolm Gladwell in his masterful book, “Outliers” suggests that there are basically three elements for success. These elements are 1. Being capable; 2. Working hard; and 3. Having opportunity. I was capable and had worked hard in college. The man on the beach (the professor) guided me to make an educated selection for graduate school and provided me with an opportunity to have a chance to be accepted at a quality program. I investigated both clinical and counseling psychology and discovered that this could be an area of interest. I then began applying to clinical psychology programs.
I was accepted at several programs but decided to head west even though I had never been off the east coast. While I have mentioned that I was a naïve kid from a rural town, I was also very independent, capable, and able to make things happen. I picked up, what was at the time called, a “drive-away-car” (one that someone wants transported from one location to another), loaded it with all my possessions, and began my 3000-mile trek from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay area.
The death of my father and the subsequent five years including my four years in college were incredible setbacks to wherever I might have gone if my father had lived. However, I kept myself focused and pursued learning so that by the middle of my senior year in college, and with the guidance of a stranger on the beach, I found a direction. The next seven years in graduate school were amazing.
How did I manage to navigate the academic and college setbacks? When my direction was uncertain, I kept moving and looking for alternatives. While my life’s path is very different than I imagine it would have been had my father lived, I have been able to create a lifelong professional life filled with success (as I define it), passion, creativity, and variety, and on that path countless times I embraced the Kobayashi Maru philosophy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
For me one ultimate truth is: “You are always doing the best you can given whatever circumstances are before you. If you could have done differently at that time and in that circumstance, you would have.” There are aways “reasons” why I made a specific choice at a specific time, and it was the best choice I could make (at that time) even if now, in hindsight, it appears not to have been the best choice (afterall hindsight is 20/20). It was the best choice given what I had available to me at that time. My choice to attend my undergraduate university was one such choice. It was the best choice at the time, and of course, that choice set me on a path that eventually landed me where I am today. If I were to change the selection of my undergraduate university, I would not be where I am today!
While there may be things I “regret” doing (or not doing) or wish I would have done differently, I accept that at that time I was doing the best I could give all the influences around me. While I do not have a specific example, this philosophy has allowed me not to feel guilty or punish myself for life’s decisions. There are always good reasons why I (or anyone) did what I (they) did at the time. It was the right decision at the time given the circumstances. I believe this to be an incredibly healthy perspective and have helped others embrace this fundamental truth of life.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
My movement would be to teach and train people in how to be empathic (understanding of others) and how to communicate that understanding to others. That would also require teaching people to truly listen to others’ perspectives even when they do not agree with them. Some of this is currently happening in the social-emotional learning world, but I would like to see it expanded.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
I currently have 2 websites. www.myCEmatters.com focuses on training for therapists but also includes a growing blog on health-related topics as well as a collection of articles I have written on therapeutic humor. My other website is www.humormatters.com which shares information on therapeutic humor, as well as lots of humor.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.