I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenn Kennedy, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Santa Barbara, California. Jenn specializes in working with couples, addiction and LGBT clients.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
I have a BA in public relations. I worked in several LA PR firms as well as in a technology company as in house PR. At 28, I returned to college for a degree in photography. I then started writing and shooting for outlets like Huffington Post, Shape, LA Confidential, The Advocate and Santa Barbara Magazine. I also penned Success by Design: Revealing Profiles of California Architects. For this book, I interviewed and photographed dozens of architects about their business strategies, specializations, transition plans and life lessons.
At 40, I returned to graduate school for an MA in Clinical Psychology. Today I work as psychotherapist in private practice. I specialize in couples, addiction and LGBT. I have advanced training in sex addiction and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) an evidenced based protocol to help folks with various types of trauma.
With the holiday season almost over, many people have been visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?
My “unhealthy” alarm goes off when someone reports negative self-talk after interacting with family members. They may return to past beliefs that they are somehow flawed, unloveable or even “broken.” That crosses the line to unhealthy, whereas difficult looks like you feeling annoyed or having to tread carefully.
Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. What advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?
Boundaries are your best defense! Know that many of the hurtful or insensitive things that come out of a family member’s mouth are not personal. They are rooted in them not knowing how to handle situations, feelings or having little awareness of how they effect you (and likely others).
Keep conversations light with those family members who make you feel less safe. And you don’t have to answer probing questions if you do not want to do so.
Remember you can escape by excusing yourself, changing the subject, or giving a hard, “I’d rather not talk about that” response.
We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?
Toxic is worse than unhealthy: it’s the difference between eating chips (unhealthy) and drinking gasoline (toxic). Toxic relationships are corrosive and demoralizing to your spirit. They leave you feeling low, lesser than, and burdened. Limit contact with the toxic family members. And when contact is unavoidable, bookend (see before and/or after) your contact with self care (exercise, relaxation, mindfulness) and people who make you feel good. Another suggestion is to see their toxicity as about them, not about you. Don’t get sucked into their misery, tricked into thinking you caused it or that you can change it.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
I have been working with an adult male client who has an enmeshed relationship with his mom. She wants to speak daily and inserts her opinions about a range of topics: health, career, (his) parenting, money, etc. His wife gets frustrated with her intrusions and this causes tensions for the couple. I have worked with him to set boundaries in various ways: speaking to her less frequently (2–3 times weekly); don’t seek her advice on trivial matters; consult with and back up his wife; be willing to disappoint mom sometimes. We managed his anxiety as he transitioned into a new relationship dynamic with mom, which took some time.
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although gatherings are only a few times a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?
- Limit time together. Set expectations so you have an out when dynamics get to be too much.
- Limit your alcohol intake. While it might seem like an appealing escape, drinking when you are facing tough family dynamics will likely lead to a worse outcome.
- Bookend: plan calming, peaceful or pleasurable activities before and/or after time with family to help your system return to baseline.
- Bring along a book (or magazine, camera, puzzle). Give yourself an activity that can help you get through the painful event without offending everyone (cell phone/social media).
- Find an ally. Hopefully there is someone safe or redeeming in your family constellation. Or perhaps that other is your spouse or partner. Interact with them to keep you centered.
What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?
Support can be either subtle or not. Signaling support can happen in small ways: eye contact, changing the subject if it feels detrimental, neutralizing the environment. It can also happen in more overt ways when warranted: setting the record straight if someone is saying something wrong or hurtful (about mental illness, sexuality, medication, etc.) or modeling a healthy boundary with the problematic family member.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
“Start where you are.” Often times, people want their life, their family of origin, and their relationships to be so different. That is possible by starting now with the tools you possess and a willingness to acquire more. Honor your strengths and build more through healthy outlets.
Self-care is the movement I feel would have to most impact.
When people take care of their own needs (rest, exercise, time alone, time with others, healthy eating, etc.) they are resourced to show up better in the world.
They are more likely to feel empowered, generous, compassionate, patient, etc. This self-care has a beautiful ripple effect on the world surrounding them.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?