Dr Robin Buckley of Insights Group Psychological & Coaching Services: 5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Another strategy for mental wellness comes down to words. What words do we use in our self-talk? Do they undermine us or strengthen us? Specifically, the words I’m referring to which fall in the first category are pressure words which create feelings of guilt, self-doubt, or stress: should, must, have to, need to. When we say these words to ourselves, it doesn’t feel good. Some people describe the feeling as similar to when an authority figure is standing over them, telling them to do something. If you don’t believe it, try standing in front of a mirror and telling yourself to do something using these words. “I should go to the gym”, “I have to go to the gym”, “I need to go to the gym”, “I must go to the gym”. Watch your facial expression and how your body responds to those words. It isn’t likely a positive reaction.
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. Robin Buckley.
Dr. Robin Buckley has her PhD in clinical psychology. She is an author, public speaker, and certified professional coach who works with executive women and high-performance couples. Her proprietary coaching model uses a business framework and cognitive-behavioral strategies to support women and couples in creating and executing concrete, strategic plans for developing their careers and relationships.
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 fell in love with the topic of psychology in my first class at Marist College, and followed this passion into my graduate work. Specifically, I was fascinated by the concept that the brain controls much of what we feel and do and because of that, we can learn to manage our thoughts to get the results we want. My initial work was within traditional mental health settings but the part I did not align with was the framework of mental health services from an intervention perspective. I wanted to support people in a preventative manner, particularly with individuals who were motivated to engage in their improvement. A colleague introduced me to coaching and I began my training, seeing coaching as a way to blend my education and love of psychology within a preventative, self-directed model. Over time, I expanded my work from individuals to include couples because many of the executive women I worked with regularly discussed issues within their relationships which hindered their satisfaction with their lives. I wanted to create a method to support these high-powered, driven couples in a way that was different from traditional couples’ therapy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
While not flashy like some of my experiences, one of the most interesting opportunities I’ve had in my career was being fortunate enough to chair the dissertation of a woman from Saudi Arabia. As a chair, I guided her in her research, but it allowed me to learn about the Saudi culture. As an intelligent, highly driven woman, whose background included an American upbringing and ties, and who was an advocate for women’s rights in The Kingdom, I think I learned more from her than I offered as her chair. I am lucky enough to follow her on social media and she continues to do amazing things. She has led the charge on the discussion and promotion of controversial topics within her culture such as breast cancer awareness and breastfeeding, as well as women’s right to drive. Modia provided me a first-hand perspective on a culture that I had never taken the time to learn about, and often in all honesty, when it came up I discounted because of how women were treated. I admired and continue to admire all she does, not to run away from a situation which isn’t the ideal, but to stay and work to change it.
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?
I was invited at the last minute to a black-tie event by a mentor of mine whose husband had gotten sick and couldn’t join her. My mentor suggested it would be a great opportunity for me to network and create some visibility for my coaching practice. The event was to honor a philanthropic couple who were known for their charitable giving as well as their long-term “love story” according to what my mentor told me. I was excited to go and didn’t bother to research anything about the event. When we arrived, my mentor rushed me over to meet the guests of honor. To my surprise, it was a couple who was working with me on the dissolution of their marriage through couples coaching. Here I was, standing in front of the couple, while my mentor gushed about how amazing their life and their “perfect” relationship was. Needless to say, it was awkward for the three of us, but luckily it wasn’t apparent to anyone around us. One month later over lunch, my mentor asked if I had heard the shocking news about the couple’s separation. Since it was public at that point, I honestly replied, “I did hear about that”…I just didn’t fill her in that I had heard about it over a month ago from the couple.
After that, I learned to take the time to do my research. I never attend an event or accept an introduction without researching who I’m meeting or what the event is.
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?
The one that still makes me smile actually occurred at the very start of my training, in the interview for my doctoral program at Hofstra University. I had graduated from college magna cum laude, and assumed that because of my grades and hard work I would have my choice of graduate programs. This was not the case; instead, I was rejected from every doctoral program I applied to due to lack of research experience. My ego was badly bruised. My dad told me to pick my top program and write a letter to the director, explaining why he should interview me. I ignored my dad for a couple of weeks, but then figured I had nothing to lose and sent the letter. One week later, I received a phone call from the department secretary, asking me to schedule an interview with the director. My dad drove me to interview, three hours from our home. I was nervous but determined to show why I was a good candidate for the program and assumed the director would be interested in hearing my reasons…I was wrong. Looking back, my assumption is that the director was testing me. He barely looked at me during the interview and kept working on papers and on his computer while I was there. The interview wasn’t more than 15 minutes. He kept cutting me off when I would answer his questions. In short, it was the worst interview of my life. I was frustrated, and angry, and demoralized. I rushed out of the interview, head down, barely holding back my tears. Not looking where I was going, I ran straight into the divider between the heavy doors leading out of the department. When I got outside and my dad saw the large bruise and swelling bump on my forehead, he asked, “What did they do to you in that interview?” I barely spoke during the long drive home, trying to figure out my next steps. Five days after the interview, I received a letter from the director, dated the day of my interview, accepting me into the doctoral program.
My first take-away came from my mom who told me after getting the initial and multiple rejections, “Maybe this is the best thing for you to learn that even by doing everything you can, sometimes you don’t get what you want and then deciding what do you do next.” I didn’t like my mom’s assessment at that time, but it did build into a life perspective that when things don’t go my way, I find another solution or option. My second take-away was from dad. Because of his advice, I learned to keep fighting for what I want even when it’s hard…or even if you get beat up by a door frame.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take the advice we regularly offer to our clients. Coaches and individuals in the mental health fields have terrific strategies we share with clients, but we can forget to apply the strategies to ourselves. One of the most important is to take the time to appreciate all areas of our life. While we love the work we do, how do we make the time to separate from our work and focus on other areas of life we enjoy — family, friends, activities? How do we make sure to silo our professional role so that we can focus on being a parent, a spouse, a friend without our role as coach or therapist spilling into those personal roles? Friends often jokingly ask if I’m “analyzing” them when we are together. I try to assuage their worries by telling them that I don’t coach for free, but it is also a reminder to myself to stay in the one role and appreciate the present.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
What I hear from the executive clients I work with is that a positive work culture is fostered through appreciation. How do you, as a leader, appreciate the unique skills and talents that your team members offer? Do you take the time not only to show appreciation, but to do so in a way that the individuals value? As an example, there is some terrific research on what each generation values when it comes to professional benefits. Of course the research is based on generalizations, but within each generation as a group, certain values influence its perception of reward. Baby Boomers, for example, appreciate status and money. They are valued when they are shown appreciation for their efforts through bonuses, raises, or title promotions. Members of the Millennial generation, however, are focused on freedom. They feel appreciated when they are given more time off or flexibility in their work schedules and hours. As leaders, we can show genuine appreciation by learning what truly inspires or feels good for our team members, and then building these strategies in to grow the positive and productive work culture we want.
I’ve also witnessed an interesting change over the last decade in regards to hiring criteria. More leaders are looking beyond the traditional criteria such as GPA or college diploma. As they hire team members, they are looking for character and experience. Some leaders are including discussions of applicants’ volunteerism or charitable interests in interviews and application questions. Others are looking at work experience that isn’t necessarily related to specific position to be filled. More and more I’m hearing from leaders that they want team members who fit in with the culture of the organization because skills can always be taught. That focus on fostering the work culture through character criteria versus academic standing is a fascinating approach to building a team.
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.
I appreciate how you termed it “mental wellness” because this is a big part of what I talk to clients about. To me, mental wellness is a preventative approach, focusing on achieving and maintaining optimal functioning. This is different than traditional mental health approaches which focus more on an intervention model — addressing mental health issues when there is a problem or crisis. It’s easier to develop healthy habits and stick with those habits than trying to break unhealthy, detrimental habits, particularly if a person is in the middle of a crisis situation.
- A theme to the steps I often help clients with is focused on the connection between cognitions and behaviors. What can we do to manage our thoughts in order to feel or act in ways that we want feel and act? One way is through a concept called priming. We do this unconsciously all the time. One of my favorite quotes is from Deepak Chopra who said, “Our brain is always eavesdropping on our thoughts. As it listens, it leans.” This sums up priming. We teach our brain the direction we want it to go. We teach it what to focus on. A simple example would be when we are car shopping. At some point, you make a decision about the type of car you’re interested in. In my case many years ago, I wanted to buy a Jeep. I suddenly started seeing Jeeps everywhere I looked. I never realized how many Jeeps were out there. Did the Jeeps suddenly appear? Of course not. At a subconscious level, I told my brain to focus on Jeeps, and my brain complied. It paid attention to every stimulus, in this case a Jeep, to support my interest. We do this in all areas of our lives. If you are annoyed with a co-worker, and start telling yourself or those around you how horrible that person is, your brain will find examples to support your perspective: she left her dirty coffee mug in the sink, she showed up to the meeting a minute late, she didn’t respond to your email until the next day. Additionally, your brain will discount any information which does not support your perspective: she brought flowers in for the receptionist (your brain’s translation: she was probably kissing up to the receptionist), she held the door to the elevator to let you get on (translation: she felt guilty for not responding to the email), and so forth. You told your brain what to look for, and it did. To use priming in a way that supports mental health, ask yourself what you want to focus on or how do you want to feel. If, for example, I want to feel a regular state of happiness, I purposefully pay attention to the things in my day which make me happy. I’ve told my brain what I want it to look for, and now it will, particularly if I actively practice this to get my brain in the habit.
- Another strategy for mental wellness comes down to words. What words do we use in our self-talk? Do they undermine us or strengthen us? Specifically, the words I’m referring to which fall in the first category are pressure words which create feelings of guilt, self-doubt, or stress: should, must, have to, need to. When we say these words to ourselves, it doesn’t feel good. Some people describe the feeling as similar to when an authority figure is standing over them, telling them to do something. If you don’t believe it, try standing in front of a mirror and telling yourself to do something using these words. “I should go to the gym”, “I have to go to the gym”, “I need to go to the gym”, “I must go to the gym”. Watch your facial expression and how your body responds to those words. It isn’t likely a positive reaction. Some clients have reported that their facial expression is sad or dejected. Some notice that their shoulders slump, or their voice becomes monotone. The trick is to replace these pressure words with words which empower or strengthen you — “will” or “want”. If we used the same example — “I will go to the gym” or “I want to go to the gym”. That’s a different feeling. “Want” and “will” are words of choice and decision and power. Now, some clients will argue they don’t want to do something like go to the gym. In those situations, ask yourself why you do a certain activity. Maybe it’s to get stronger or healthier. Maybe it’s to be a good role model for your kids. Or to look a certain way. So you change the statement to “I will go to the gym because I want to be healthier.”
- Ultimately, these two strategies feed into the third strategy towards mental wellness — functional control. For many of us, we try to maintain control over things that are not really under our control or which aren’t healthy for us to control. That’s where we can ask ourselves the questions about control in our lives. Is this situation really something we can control? Is it something that is healthy for us to try and control? I use the term “functional control” to address those things that we can and are beneficial for us to control. For example, at the last virtual event at which I was a keynote speaker, I felt myself becoming frustrated and anxious about the event and initially couldn’t figure out why. I was comfortable with the topic. I like being on stage. It was an organization whose mission I believed in. When I sat down to think about it, I realized that I was feeling unsettled because I wasn’t familiar with the technology platform the organization was using. So I asked myself, “What is under my control?” I practiced with the platform before the event. I met with the IT person to ask her to supervise all technology aspects, leaving me to focus on my presentation. I acknowledged that sometimes technology issues happen that were not under my control and at this point in society, people were accepting and understanding of that. I focused my energy on those things that were under my functional control and let go of those details which were not within my control.
- A fourth strategy to develop and maintain mental wellness is the establishment of a goal. Yes, it’s important to identify and write down our goals in order to achieve them, but establishing a goal also allows us to use the goal as a litmus test for our actions. A client I’m working with has recently started a new job, one that has a lot of potential for her to move up in the organization. She felt herself developing anxiety around this great opportunity, even doubting whether she should take the position, because of her tendency to let others get too personal with her at work. “I seem to attract all the needy people who just want to talk to me…I don’t want to know about their personal problems; I just want to focus on work and doing a good job” to get promoted. When I asked her what her goal was at the new job, she used that final statement as her goal: focus on work, do a good job, get promoted. This becomes her litmus test every time she engages in a conversation or exchange with someone. When someone is talking with her, she can ask herself, “Does this interaction work towards my goal, or does it pull me away from my goal?” Essentially, will this interaction allow me to focus on work, do a good job, and eventually get me promoted? If it does, great. If it doesn’t, my client can decide to politely end the conversation to refocus on her goal.
- The final strategy for mental wellness is asking for what you want. Society teaches us that asking for what we want is selfish. To borrow from Oscar Wilde, selfishness is not about living as you want to live; selfishness is when you ask others to live as you want to live. So when a client of mine told his wife that climbing Mount Everest was on his bucket list and he wanted to train and work towards this goal, that isn’t selfish. When he began training, which sometimes required him to be away from her and their kids, he asked her what she needed to make his time away easier on her. He was the primary cook in the house, so he hired a delivery service to provide prepared meals while he was gone, so she didn’t have to deal with that task in his absence. When he was home, he changed his diet to align with his training goals. What my client didn’t do was demand his wife and family go on the trip with him, or “deal with it” when he had to go away, or change the whole family’s eating regime because he changed his own. My client asked for what he wanted, did not let his want impact his family, and ultimately achieved his goal. When I asked his wife about her perspective on his training and trip, she responded that she loved seeing how excited her husband was and that his excitement spread through the family and impacted his performance at work. I’ll never forget her quote: “When he finally told me what he really wanted, it seemed to spark all the best parts of him.” And that is exactly what asking for what we want can do. It creates a situation in which we manifest our passions, tap into our strengths, and become our optimal selves. And from that, everyone in our lives can reap the benefits. My client’s wife started sharing and going after her wants. Their kids were enjoying the happiness their parents were demonstrating. My client was even offered a promotion during his training period which was ironic since one reason he was afraid to ask for his want was that it might be too much of a distraction from his job. Instead, asking for his want built his energy and released stress, which ultimately allowing his brain to problem solve better and think more creatively.
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.
As you know from working with people planning for or in retirement, the most important strategy for mental wellness in this stage of life comes down to one word: purpose. Prior to retirement, people don’t necessarily have to think about their purpose. Their professional or personal responsibilities provide a purpose. They go to work. Raise their kids. Take care of parents. Get together with friends who are often connected to work or children. When retirement comes, much if not all of the things related to their purpose are gone. Without establishing a new purpose, individuals often feel listless or without value. This is especially true in cultures which don’t value older individuals as contributing members of society. They are seen as “past their prime” or “nonessential”. By identifying their purpose, older individuals can discount these societal stereotypes and focus on their value and impact.
The other aspect which changes with retirement is a regular routine or schedule. This sounds wonderful to most new retirees, but over time this can also lead to a feeling of disconnect or lack of purpose. Their days don’t need to be as busy as they once were, but having things to do or look forward to in a consistent way helps with the feeling of purpose.
One significant strategy for mental wellness in retirement is also to keep positive. There was a great research study started in 1986 by David Snowdon, loosely called The Nun Study. In it, Snowdon researched a group of nuns, looking specifically at Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. There were lots of interesting findings in the study, but the most interesting related to the concept that the positive someone was, the less likely that person would demonstrate symptoms of dementia even if there were physical symptoms of dementia. Thnk about that! Our ability to focus on and stay positive could actually slow down the manifestation of symptoms of dementia of Alzheimer’s. And this then circles back to the earlier discussion about priming. While on this topic, a final strategy that I regularly tell my own mom: stop calling yourself old. While you can’t stop the natural aging process, you don’t have to help it along. Telling your brain that you’re old primes your brain to act and confirm the thought you gave it.
Okay, one more. Maintain social connections. This is so important as it contributes to our sense of value and connectedness particularly at a stage in life where there might be more regular experiences of losing friends and family. Finding groups to interact with. Learning from others. Using technology to stay integrated within society as it changes are all important ways to maintain our biological drive for socialization.
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?
Absolutely! The easy one is to let social media and technology be part of your life, but not your life. Between the social comparison of the “ideal” self or life, the need for attention, and the addiction to immediate gratification, kids are having a disconnect with reality. They miss out on actual experiences. They are more focused on how they visually present a situation rather than living the situation. Their self-esteem and self-evaluation is based on glamorized images which are unattainable. In addition, technology is giving them access to topics and images that they aren’t developmentally ready to process. At a time when their frontal lobe development is slowing down and that area of their brains isn’t fully developed, society is expecting them to effectively and healthfully manage this inundation of stimuli. That is not going to result in mental wellness.
Getting kids out in nature is also a significant tool for mental wellness. Connecting to nature, even if it is laying in a hammock, reading a book (not on an electronic device), outside, counts. Look at the research from any of the countries which incorporate nature into educational environments and you can see the positive results. It taps into different parts of the their brains, and I believe, helps balance some of the effects of technology use.
Finally, and this one seems obvious, take care of your physical body through sleep, exercise and nutrition. Kids at these stages need more sleep than research says they get. They need some physical movement each day and they need a majority of their food intake to be nourishing. If their physical bodies are healthy, that will support their mental health. More and more research is finding this to be true, particularly in regards to gut health so kids doing these best practices helps them now as well as establishes good habits for later in life.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Big Magic”, is one that I read many years ago and which continues to stick in my thoughts. The idea of the book is about creativity and letting creativity exist simply as an outlet for joy rather than trying to force or control it. Essentially, the theme of her book resonates with concepts I love from Deepak Chopra and the cognitive behavioral training I had in my doctoral program, but she presents the ideas in such a lovely, conversational, and personal way. My husband gave me “Big Magic” at a time when I had written a book for our daughters, based on a qualitative survey originally meant for family and friends but which ended up traveling the world. I organized the responses into themes and sent the manuscript off to publishers. After several rejections, I stuck the manuscript in a drawer and gave up. After a year, my husband handed me “Big Magic” with the question, “Why did you write the book?” He knew the answer. I wrote the book with the idea that at some point, our daughters would be older and wouldn’t necessarily want advice from their mom but maybe they’d accept advice from other people. After reading “Big Magic”, and remembering my “why” for “Voices from the Village”, I self-published. My daughters got the first two copies and based on the highlighting and post-its in their copies, I know they read it. Goal accomplished!
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. :-)
The movement would be called Kind Matters, the idea that kindness can change the world, one small, kind act at a time. Think about it. You don’t have to love, like, understand or even respect someone to simply be kind to them, but sometimes by being kind, you can create opportunities for the other things to happen. I’d also want a media station devoted to feel-good stories: news stories of kind acts, movies and music of positivity, talk shows which discuss positive and kind ideas and stories. This goes back to the idea of priming we discussed earlier. If there was a media source promoting these ideas, similar to “Some Good News” John Krasinski did during the quarantine, people could choose to watch and listen to it to prime their brains to see kindness and goodness in the world or to participate in these types of actions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Besides the Chopra quote I mentioned earlier, my other favorite is from Nelson Mandela. He said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” You asked for a story about how this quote was demonstrated in my life but I honestly I don’t have one story about the relevance of this quote because it impacts me every day. Each activity I do, I take as an opportunity for me to achieve my goal, or to grow and develop which might be towards my goal, or it might mean a refinement of my goal. To me, thinking about this quote only in terms of my bigger experiences limits the impact of Mandela’s words. It also wouldn’t develop the cognitive habit of seeing everything I do in this perspective since I’d only be applying it in random or infrequent ways. I want to experience success or growth every day so I keep these words in mind every chance I can.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!