To be aware of what your most challenging experience is. During a session with a former client who was fighting late-stage pancreatic cancer, I noticed that he seemed defeated, expressing that he felt like a burden to his wife and kids and that he seemed ready to escape and die. I asked him if that was how he felt and he burst into tears of relief that he now didn’t have to experience this troubling emotion alone. I told him that I knew that if I was in shoes, I would have the same feelings. However, I suggested that maybe he could still use the time he had left to complete the relationships with his family, and even acknowledge these difficult feelings.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Strock, Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, teacher, humanitarian and author of “Awareness that Heals”. With more than 50 years of experience as a psychotherapist, Robert has developed a unique approach to communication, contemplation and inquiry with a focus on helping others become agents of change in their own lives and communities. In his career, Robert has promoted national and international conversations on healing, has been an invited speaker at the UN, featured in global documentaries, and leads a thriving private practice. He has served the entertainment industry throughout his career, with clients that have included Barbara Streisand and Leeza Gibbons. For more information, visit www.robertstrock.org.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
When I was a little boy, I noticed my mother giving me guidance, telling me things like “study hard”, “have good manners” and oftentimes delivering this direction with a tone of voice that was annoyed, irritated and critical. Though I was young, I found her tone bewildering as I thought the world was about being loving and kind, and reflecting that in the way we spoke to one another… even at that age. This reflective experience of my youth repeatedly made me wonder if the whole world was that way largely, or not. This set up me for a career in psychology and psycho-spiritual growth very early on.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
At the very beginning of my career and during my master’s program, when I was just 22, I was asked to be an intern at a halfway house that accommodated 130 schizophrenic patients. In a typical year, this care center would experience about five suicides. It was obvious that my colleague and I couldn’t manage the clinic alone. So, in 1971, we visited 10 LA area universities and returned to the clinic with 50 masters in psychology interns committed to 20 hours a week each for counseling. In total, we supplied 1,000 hours a week of counseling. This led to 25 of us living together, in a close-knit community and I was supervising all 50 interns at just 22 years old. This was the only period that Beverly Wood Aftercare Center had no suicides. And we had fun! It was enjoyable because of the loving community we built and the empathy we employed daily, with who we called the members, rather than “patients”.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
When I started seeing my first celebrity client, I only owned three pairs of jeans and five shirts. This client was someone who was meticulously observant and after one week of therapy, he made a comment. As you can imagine, I was wholly embarrassed, wrestling with my identity, lack of belongings and attachment to blue jeans. I ended up taking my girlfriend at the time to buy me a whole new wardrobe!
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?
After my experience at the Beverlywood Aftercare Center, my colleague and I started a residential treatment center for teenagers called The Family Home. There, we had an extraordinary supervisor, who taught us two major lessons. The first was that he taught us to make a practice of metaphorically putting our hands over our eyes. He taught us that if we have 20 patients and take on 5% of the patients’ issues and problems as our own, we become 100% a patient ourselves. However, by covering our eyes metaphorically, we learn to not get caught up in how we’re being perceived by the patient or caught in their issues and rather learn how to trust our own feedback. Of course, if their feedback was good we would take it in, but he was talking about the accusations and resistance that was irrational. The second learning was that all of our staff was making a mistake in thinking that being nice and good and loving was healing when oftentimes, the teenage boys at the home saw our niceness as a weakness. We needed to develop the capacity to be assertive, seen as strong caring human beings and set boundaries.
I learned from another teacher much later in my career that trusting my silence and responding to clients with natural spontaneity was much more effective and communicated trustworthiness. By picking up cues and leaning into my intuition and instincts, my questions and guidance were received far better with the client, as it came closer to our hearts.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
My advice is to realize that our main function is to empathize and invest in our client in a stable manner every time they come to us. Ask enough questions about who their best self is and what their best guidance is in their eyes in any given various situations. That way, you will be able to have your client interacting with themselves, between their greatest challenge and what their best self would suggest. Take the pressure off by believing that you have to try to provide all the right answers. Instead, evoke the best responses possible from the client. And tell your clients that if you’re laying a moral trip on them to fire you — enjoy the laugh! Of course, there are times where you have to question whether their guidance and best self are really going to work in that particular situation, and we need to make sure that they really agree that they will own it as their guidance — not ours. When we are comfortable being directive in ways that they have empowered us as representatives of their best self, we can bypass unnecessary stories, resistance and keep the focus on what is most important.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
The best guidance I can provide to a leader is to teach them to reveal that we’re all human including ourselves, expose it as it is beneficial to whoever we are guiding, and do so as courageously as possible. The key is to reveal a part of your struggle by being a leader, what some of your challenges are and how to deal with them, in order to humanize and model the experience of whatever your work is. This will deepen the humility, trust and courage to be your natural self and encourage the same out of your fellow workers.
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.
- To be aware of what your most challenging experience is. During a session with a former client who was fighting late-stage pancreatic cancer, I noticed that he seemed defeated, expressing that he felt like a burden to his wife and kids and that he seemed ready to escape and die. I asked him if that was how he felt and he burst into tears of relief that he now didn’t have to experience this troubling emotion alone. I told him that I knew that if I was in shoes, I would have the same feelings. However, I suggested that maybe he could still use the time he had left to complete the relationships with his family, and even acknowledge these difficult feelings. After doing this, he immediately felt enormous relief and not isolation anymore. It turned out that he was able to share this life lesson with all of them, including hugs and tears, and the importance of doing the best that you can. He let them know that he was on the verge of withdrawing, which wouldn’t have been his best self and that instead, he wanted to use every minute to be close to them and to develop a kinder, softer voice inside himself as well as share his life lessons as he faced his death. He even let his teenagers and wife know that even in facing death, he, and perhaps they too, can find purpose by not withdrawing but by staying engaged in a realistic, healthy way.
- To try and find the place inside you that cares for yourself. A client that was running a University program was angry at her husband and believed that just expressing that emotion was helpful. When I asked if she really believed that this was the best way to handle it, she said simply, yes. I asked how it generally worked out, and she laughed and said “not so good,” with a smile. I encouraged her to think about what she really wanted as a result of expressing her emotion. After reflection, she realized that she exhibited anger in an effort to prompt her husband to ask her more deeply about what she was going through, instead of tuning into her needs and inner place of self-caring. She changed her pattern gradually to pause and ask herself “what am I needing,” rather than “what am I angry about not getting?” By focusing on her needs and asking with a greater degree of kindness, her relationship with her husband changed. It is a good lesson for all of us on how to address our anger. This isn’t simple, but it is an important process to develop in ourselves.
- Ask yourself: How can I realistically best care of myself, my thoughts, my actions and my qualities? Every time I am upset, angry, hurt or scared I ask myself this question: How can I best care for myself given that I am feeling this way? It is important that we focus on the present and near future so that we can give ourselves both gentle and realistic guidance, and that we don’t get lost in focusing on the impossible. Tangible small steps that are viable as long so we don’t get caught up in platitudes or unrealistic future wishes like “I want to have a great job”, “be more attractive” or “be happy.” Instead we need to focus on the things we can tangibly do like calling your friend or therapist, using online resources to look for a job, allocating time to rest, take a nap or work out. By focusing on what we need pragmatically when we feel challenging emotions and trying to communicate from the heart rather than from a place of anger, fear or insecurity, we can create healthy actions and conversations with self and others. The tangible present and near future are our friends when it comes to helping ourselves, especially when we’re realistic and can find that golden place inside that wants to care for ourselves and significant others.
- Visualize or actualize, taking those steps. Over the years there have been recurrent moments where I have felt that the time and effort that I have given to someone has not been equally reciprocated. In one situation, I was dealing with an individual who I had substantially assisted in the writing of her book. Soon after, I found myself in need of a contact of theirs to further the development of my proposal to provide a permanent homeless housing solution for Los Angeles. Despite my good intentions and all the help I provided on her book, she refused to provide me with the contact details. I asked myself the question of how I could best care for myself and I visualized asking her to reconsider. I made a final effort to ask sincerely from my heart with a soft tone if she would reconsider. She refused again. I believed strongly that her holdback was due to holding on to her power, so I decided that it wasn’t worth injuring our whole relationship by repeating my efforts. Every situation is different and there are many situations in which I would have continued to pursue. It is so important that this question of self care is seen as fluid and that there are no clear cut answers as each situation we face is different.
- While actualizing, implore your friendly mind to adopt the most heartfelt and wise tone of voice or attitude. When I wasn’t able to have what I believed I was entitled to, I settled myself with the words “Good for you as you went for exactly the amount of communication that you thought was most beneficial without creating injury. I am sorry that you didn’t get what you wanted, but of course, you realize this is going to happen a lot.” Challenging moments are the times that you most need to listen to your friendly and realistic guiding thoughts. You must deem this as the wise thing to do during an emotional crisis. That is the gold standard. Our wise thoughts are often more important than our feelings. This is a lifelong lesson.
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.
Yes! It’s important to pre-visualize your top actions, activities and pursuits that will bring a sense of well-being to you before you reach the retirement stage. If you’re fortunate enough to retire without struggle, try to see this period of time as a pinball machine where you’re given a free game. In this game, you get to choose which of your activities, hobbies, and relationships will bring you the most satisfaction, enjoyment, meaning, or sense of purpose, depending upon which of those qualities is the most important for you. Of course we all need to prepare ourselves to face aging, so it is helpful to support others and perhaps our friend’s parents to guide ourselves to discover the kind of support we’ll need as we age.
If you’re not able to have an easy retirement because of monetary stress, develop the capacity to have a friendly mind, and foster self-compassion and gentleness rather than being caught in being negative to yourself. Even if you made mistakes, requiring you to work longer than expected, don’t stay in the reaction of blaming yourself. Guide yourself to work in a way that is necessary and balanced and remind yourself all you can do is the best that is realistically possible at any time and that this is the golden standard for all of us, no matter what stage of life we are in.
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?
Rather than or in addition to focusing on almost exclusively being “normal” in today’s culture, or fitting into the right clique or pursuing success, stay aware of what you’re experiencing emotionally, and how you can best support yourself. Develop the capacity to care for yourself or with the support of a guide or counselor, both by studying and exposing yourself to some kind of growth path. Ideally, bring a friend or two along with you to reveal how important our inner world is relative to the outer world. No matter what your dominant interests are, this emotional intelligence will help you with intimacy and self-compassion.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
The book that’s made a significant impact on my life is Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. This was particularly impactful because despite being in a concentration camp, he focused his will and heart on the best attitude possible under seemingly impossible conditions, which inspired me to adopt the same mentality during my time of greatest crises. Though, nothing like Victor’s journey, I have suffered in my own right with a very difficult reaction to kidney transplant medications. His story helped me recognize how to stay above water, to not get lost in emotion and to develop my will and intention to stay focused on what I could do rather than dwelling in my chemically imbalanced feelings. It was clear that no matter what I felt, I could still be my best self and be useful when I felt exhausted, depressive and agitated.
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. :-)
Our current and past societies have driven us to identify success and wealth as the number one priority. If we could shift our focus to use wealth and success as an indicator of greater natural responsibility to care for others and the planet, we could change the repetitive human tendency to have war, alienation, economic imbalance, global warming and racism. We could use this scale of wealth to allow us to recognize that the rich need to lift up the poor directly with continuous opportunities to develop their own survival as part of a natural expansion of human nature. Now that would be really rich.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Your response to your feelings is more important than your feelings.
When I was incapable of feeling good virtually at all for six years as a result of my kidney transplant medication, sleeping for only one hour a night for six months, my response to staying focused on what I cared about and my intention was critical. This meant that when I needed to rest, I did and when I could focus on clients or family or friends, I made that a priority. I trusted the development of my friendlier guidance that was achievable and was careful to recognize this during this challenging time, I did the best work on myself. I told myself statements like, “You know this would be difficult for everyone and I trust deeply that you are doing the best you could ever hope for.” I really knew and believed this to be true, even though my exhaustion prevented me from feeling good. This response-driven approach saved my sense of purpose in life, even when I couldn’t feel it because of being chemically imbalanced.
Remembering that our response and our thoughts matter more than our feelings allows us to naturally learn to live and guide our selves, even when we don’t feel good or can’t feel good.
Our society has idealized feeling good, which of course all of us want to feel. But, the older we get, the more we realize that this is not always possible. These can be the most heroic of times when we don’t feel good but we can still think and act good in the ways that make the most sense to us. I wish this for all of us.