“How To Connect With Yourself To Live With Better Relationships” With DeAnn Wandler-Vukovich

Kristin Marquet
Oct 8, 2019 · 17 min read

Understand the subtle but powerful influences that shape your choices. When you understand and work with those areas of influence as you work towards changing vital behaviors, you can dramatically improve your results. The so-called willpower trap for long-lasting change is a depressing cycle that initially begins with a big commitment towards change, followed by diminishing motivation and eventually terminates into repeating bad habits. And so, when it comes to long-term changes in our behavior, skill — not just will — plays a major role. When you add a little skill to your existing will, your odds for success dramatically increase. While in recovery, I learned that I needed more skills in distinguishing my emotions. I knew that drinking was as much a psychological as a physiological addiction. In the past, I would have normally had a drink or two every evening to “unwind.” While there’s nothing wrong with having a drink, I relied too much on it. In time, I learned to pay more attention to my signals of stress, and deliberately practiced skills to calm and focus myself — which made the compulsion to drink much easier to manage.


As a part of my series about “Connecting With Yourself To Live With Better Relationships” I had the pleasure to interview DeAnn Wandler-Vukovich. She has been a passionate suicide prevention community advocate, speaker, and educator, since attempting to take her life by shooting herself in the head, and is focused on ensuring the voice of lived experience is heard and valued. Having this unusual lived life experience, DeAnn, a former University administrator, now works on promoting mental health and wellness in the community and workplace, as well and raising awareness on mental health support needs in the workplace. DeAnn hopes to remove the stigma and promote open dialogue with top employers about mental health needs. She also aims to teach others how to take care of their mind and body again by giving support, education, inspiration, leadership, empowerment, and awareness to ensure they nourish themselves. She currently serves as on the Mental Health and Recovery Counseling Education and Training National Advisory Committee, as well as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Speaker & Conference Bureau Committee and is an active member of the Stark County Suicide Prevention Coalition. DeAnn has been trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and Mental Health First Aid. She is a certified Brain-based Coach through the NeuroLeadership Institute, is Narrative Coach trained, certified in Mindfulness and is near completion of her Registered Yoga Teacher training (RYTT200).


Thank you so much for joining us! Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you hope that they might help people along their path to self-understanding or a better sense of wellbeing in their relationships?

Yes and I’m super excited about it. In addition to being a workplace culture consultant, I’m also building an online educational business for individuals which focuses on topics and methods I’ve used in my recovery process — Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) methods, ways to rewire your anxious brain, Mindfulness, Meditation, Self-Management, and more.

It’s my hope that it will prove a valuable resource for those individuals who are embarking on an inward journey with the goal to find a new path to achievement while bringing more meaning to their lives. And while none of these methods will turn you into a Buddhist monk or secular equivalent, these simple, applicable methods will guide individuals on how to feel more empathy towards themselves and others, and how to take those small steps needed to live their life with the results that matter most. The best part is, you don’t need to have a near-death experience to learn these loving, compassionate reminders on ways to enrich our lives and our relationships with others.

Do you have a personal story that you can share with our readers about your struggles or successes along your journey of self-understanding and self-love? Was there ever a tipping point that triggered a change regarding your feelings of self acceptance?

Most definitely. After decades of operating as a high-capacity professional, I suffered from chronic stress and executive burnout. I was operating a sleep-deprived, smart-phone addicted existence and was the perfect epitome of a corporate warrior. This warrior mentality was further compounded with my military background (as a former Marine) — to suck it up and get s##% done; when the going gets tough — the tough get going, and on and on.

So, when professional and personal events let to situational depression, I tried to power through my newly found mental illness by brute character alone. Because I operated as a high functioning depressive, no one at my work, nor in my small circle of friends, was aware I was struggling. However, on the evening of my 52nd birthday, I lost that battle and attempted to take my life by shooting myself in the head.

Following my painful physical recovery and unlikely survival, I was admitted to the psychiatric ward. There, I realized that I had erroneously associated my value as an individual to my work title and salary. Thus, when my work circumstances changed, I suffered from a loss of identity. I no longer knew who I was or what my purpose was. While in recovery, I realized that I had constantly strived for outward expressions of achievement and forgotten the more important, intimate details to finding happiness. This life-changing event served as a pivotal wake-up call not just to my career, but to my life. Essentially, I had a break up (with my work), break down and a break-through.

As part of my ongoing recovery, I’ve had to learn how to wholeheartedly re-connect with and reclaim my real self. I’ve also had to explore and create a broader definition of what success means to me. Through this experience, I’ve learned to celebrate my journey and appreciate who I am, where I am, as I am.

According to a recent study cited in , in the US, only about 28 percent of men and 26 percent of women are “very satisfied with their appearance.” Could you talk about what some of the causes might be, as well as the consequences?

As a society, we’re focused on “how we look” versus “how we feel.” The media’s influence is a profound one and plays a significant role in people’s lives. Not only does it serve to entertain and inform us, it also sets unrealistic standards of beauty. Thus, we constantly strive to obtain a level of perfection that is unattainable. While many advertisers are starting to represent audiences more accurately — with different body types, disabilities, and more — it’s only a start. We still have a prolific amount of free mobile apps so that social media selfie-holics can airbrush and alter their bodies before posting. Essentially, the result is that people continue to link their self-worth to their looks.

This has been a particularly difficult life lesson for me. I was always aware of my physical appearance and took great strides to look my best. Following my injury, I now have an obvious scar on my neck where the emergent surgical airway (cricothyrotomy) was inserted, a large scar under my chin from the bullet entry and a scar on my forehead, between my eyes, from where the bullet exited. The first year following the incident was the hardest. I found myself not only comparing my looks to others, but to my former self. It was a lose-lose battle and I found myself in the toxic cycle of negative self-talk and self-worth.

With yoga and mindfulness training, I find I spend much less time fretting about my appearance, trying to fit in or worrying about how others perceive me. In a way, it’s been very liberating. I now consider these battle scars — scars of a warrior — one who fought through the darkness and came out a little stronger at the broken places.

It really is quite extraordinary; once we let go of our limitations, we are no longer hostage and can free ourselves from former conditioning and change our reality.

As cheesy as it might sound to truly understand and “love yourself,” can you share with our readers a few reasons why it’s so important?

I don’t think it’s necessarily that people don’t want to love themselves, they simply just don’t know-how. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught self-love or resiliency in school. Nor are we taught several other critical life skills needed to live a healthy and fulfilled life.

Self-love has little to do with vanity and more to do with how you feel about yourself on the inside. The reality is that our inner critics have waged war on us for far too long. We constantly place self-limiting beliefs on ourselves which no longer serve us.

In learning to live and accept who we are (instead of what others think we should be), we will discover a kinder, gentler way to live; we will be more present in our relationship with ourselves, as well as with others. To quote Tony Robbins, “It’s our inner journey that determines the quality of our outer journey. “

Why do you think people stay in mediocre relationships? What advice would you give to our readers regarding this?

Many people stay in a mediocre or bad relationship that is filled with insecurity and pain because they feel that’s the best they can do, because they don’t want to be alone, or because their self-worth and self-esteem is tied to their partner.

I genuinely believe that you can only find lasting love once you love yourself. Once you learn how to love and treat yourself, others will follow. You’ll find that you’ll move away from toxic relationships and towards relationships that foster and nurture your best self. And as you raise your personal vibration level of loving energy, you will attract quality relationships into your life. It is important to remember that it won’t happen overnight. You’ll likely have to detox from your unhealthy relationships, and you may be lonely for a while — but life becomes easier when we love ourselves and treat ourselves more kindly.

When I talk about self-love and understanding I don’t necessarily mean blindly loving and accepting ourselves the way we are. Many times self-understanding requires us to reflect and ask ourselves the tough questions, to realize perhaps where we need to make changes in ourselves to be better not only for ourselves but our relationships. What are some of those tough questions that will cut through the safe space of comfort we like to maintain, that our readers might want to ask themselves? Can you share an example of a time that you had to reflect and realize how you needed to make changes?

Are you living your own story or someone else’s story? I divorced my ex-husband when my three children were aged 10, 11 and 13 years old. As a single mom and head of household living in Southern California, it was imperative that I provide for them. Over time, I became so consumed with this agenda, and with the continuous goal of advancement and earnings, that I lost sight of what my life was really about — or should have been about. I continued this frantic work pace long after my children were grown and living on their own. It was only once I was in the psychiatric ward that I realized I had been living a story that no longer served me — and quite frankly, really never needed to be at the level it had been. I had to rediscover what was important to me and re-define my story in a way that would help me learn to think with purpose, gain greater confidence, and claim the joyful life I was meant to lead.

Which situations (factors or people) cause you to go into fight or flight when you’re not actually under physical threat? I took the time to thoughtfully and purposefully analyze the circumstances (and/or people) that caused a great deal of stress in my life. One of the biggest factors was my work environment. Although I had diligently tried to manage up and influence internal change, because I was working a role that didn’t match my previous experience and responsibilities, I was not in a position of authority to render the necessary changes to improve morale and company culture. After careful and honest reflection, it became apparent to me that the dysfunctional and triangulating management practices, along with the passive-aggressive nature of some of the executives, were not going to change. Ultimately, unhealthy workplace culture caused everything to be more difficult. Office politics, superfluous systems and policies and anxious, unhappy energy weighed everyone down. I came to acknowledge that the organization was not only hurting my career opportunities, more importantly, my health and well-being. Thus, I could either continue to suck it up and be miserable or I could make a change. Hence, I exposed the problem and campaigned against it, while I also made my exit strategy. While we all need to work in order to provide for ourselves and others, given the amount of time we spend in our workplace, it’s imperative we find positions within organizations who will value you and your contributions. Additionally, it’s healthy to perform a regular mental checklist to gain perspective of those situations and/or people which impede us from showing up at our best selves — and then find ways to either change the situation, eliminate it or improve it.

What gives me energy? Finding sources that give you energy such as your family, your spiritual wellbeing, exercise, friends, etc. is a crucial element towards loving ourselves. When we continuously put those needs aside and replace them for others, we are essentially telling ourselves that we are not important enough. Therefore, it’s crucial we learn how to incorporate some of those positive sources, along with our work demands, to create an integrated calendar in order to develop new, healthy lifestyle habits. As I committed to this practice, I found I was happier and more fulfilled.

So many don’t really know how to be alone or are afraid of it. How important is it for us to have, and practice, that capacity to truly be with ourselves and be alone (literally or metaphorically)?

It’s so funny, as I am the complete opposite. I love to spend time alone both literally and metaphorically. I enjoy doing activities by myself, such as going to a bookstore or going to the movies. The great thing about it is that I’m on my own schedule. It’s a time in which I get to pamper myself with my own needs and wants.

It’s also important that we give ourselves time for unconscious thought. This looks different for everyone — it may include taking a walk with your dog, going to yoga class, or laying on the beach. What you do isn’t so important as how you do it. In other words, find some time during the day/week to engage in free-flow thinking, self-reflection, and in creative pursuits to keep yourself fresh and invigorated.

How does achieving a certain level of self-understanding and self-love then affect your ability to connect with and deepen your relationships with others?

Too often, we lose our sense of self when we’re in a relationship. We tend to depend on our partner for happiness, validation, and more. The needier the relationship turns out to be, the more draining and toxic it becomes.

Once I learned to love, trust, and believe in myself, it played out in how I think, how I feel, respond and interact with others. Moreover, through ongoing mindful practice, I have learned that when I bring my whole self to my interactions with others, I am more present in my relationships and I build healthier connections.

In your experience, what should a) individuals and b) society, do to help people better understand themselves and accept themselves?

As a society, we need to reexamine the way we go about our business and our lives. We live in a rich, diverse society in which we promote cultural differences, sexual preferences, and more. We’re moving further away from being socially and racially homogenous and cautious of people who are different from us. Instead, we are encouraged to embrace and accept others for who they are. However, we still don’t focus on simply loving and accepting OURSELVES. Why is that?

It is my belief that we need to teach self-awareness at home and in our schools. As they grow and mature, we want our children to be able to think for themselves, cultivate their own ideas, and realize they can have beliefs and feelings unlike our own. In order to grow into self-aware, compassionate adults, children need to focus on developing their self-understanding. When processed with a supportive adult, questions like: What does failure look like to you? How do you cope? How can you tell when you’re getting angry? Do you feel it in your body? What do you like about yourself? — can help children better understand themselves, recognize and understand feelings and learn coping mechanisms to calm themselves and overcome challenges.

Whether you’re a child or an adult working through self-awareness exercises, by becoming more sensitive to these shifts, we have the ability to accept ourselves, as well as accept people who are different from us.

What are 5 strategies that you implement to maintain your connection with and love for yourself, that our readers might learn from? Could you please give a story or example for each?

1. Start where you are. Don’t waste time engaging in self-criticism with respect to any perceived special qualifications or training you may lack. The most important step is to create a roadmap to clarity, take action and build momentum.

2. Look for your sweet spot and find a routine that sticks. Look for routines and activities that dial into your best strengths. Because the intent is to operate in your optimal state, we have a better chance of success if we focus on activities we enjoy — things that don’t feel like a chore — but bring joy. In my case, despite my Marine Corps training, I hate to run. But there are other cardio activities that bring me joy such as dance and walking. These small shifts are the principal behind the positive change and in the power of habit.

3. You get what you focus on. Specific words, directions, and directives are what your brain needs as it learns a new way of thinking.

4. Understand the subtle but powerful influences that shape your choices. When you understand and work with those areas of influence as you work towards changing vital behaviors, you can dramatically improve your results. The so-called willpower trap for long-lasting change is a depressing cycle that initially begins with a big commitment towards change, followed by diminishing motivation and eventually terminates into repeating bad habits. And so, when it comes to long-term changes in our behavior, skill — not just will — plays a major role. When you add a little skill to your existing will, your odds for success dramatically increase. While in recovery, I learned that I needed more skills in distinguishing my emotions. I knew that drinking was as much a psychological as a physiological addiction. In the past, I would have normally had a drink or two every evening to “unwind.” While there’s nothing wrong with having a drink, I relied too much on it. In time, I learned to pay more attention to my signals of stress, and deliberately practiced skills to calm and focus myself — which made the compulsion to drink much easier to manage.

5. Watch your words. Words have power, as they create the world in which we live in. For most of us, negative thinking has become a habit, which over time, can become an addiction. Since the very words we use are our personal journey to happiness, I’ve committed to a daily practice of filtering unsupportive words. Furthermore, whenever I have a toxic thought, I’ve learned to challenge them. In doing so, I find that I am also eliminating the toxic emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that are tied to that belief system. For example, when I look in the mirror, I no longer see the physical beauty I may have previously had. Consequently, every day I make a practice of telling myself that I AM beautiful…I AM enough.

6. Learn to develop habit hacks. As I’ve mentioned before, yoga has played a huge role in my mental health recovery. For a period, I was able to commit to regular, ongoing practice of four to five 60-minute yoga sessions each week. But, shortly following our relocation to Ohio, I initially found myself in a caretaker role for my mother-in-law. Time for myself became a rare commodity and when I did have it, I was so tired all I wanted to do was sleep. With my normal routine out of whack, I had to incorporate habit hacks to ensure I still made time for me. So instead of 60-minute sessions, I would incorporate 5 minutes in the morning when I first got up, 10 minutes at lunch, and then 5 minutes of deep breathing and meditation before going to bed.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources for self-psychology, intimacy, or relationships? What do you love about each one and how does it resonate with you?

There are so many great books out there, but I’ll admit that I have five favorite books that I recommend to friends and family: Presence (author Amy Cuddy), The Self-Love Experiment (author Shannon Kaiser), The Now Effect (author Elisha Goldstein, PhD), and The Desire Map and Fire Starter Sessions (author Danielle LaPorte).

The first three books really focus on mindfulness and being more present in your daily life and your interactions with others. To quote Daniel Siegel, MD, “The way we pay attention to the here and now of our experience can free our minds, enhance our relationships, and transform our brains towards well-being.” What I absolutely adore about Danielle LaPorte is that lessons teach us to focus on how we want to feel, and then we set our intentions versus the normal approach of going after the stuff to have and accomplish outside of ourselves.

The combination of the five books set the benchmark for some life-changing, holistic, and rewarding self-work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Maybe we’ll inspire our readers to start it…

Ah! Great question! I would love to inspire a movement in which we reclaim the multidimensional lives that we were born to lead. In order to achieve that, we need to be in a state of wholeness and oneness. Hhmm … how do you fit that into a hashtag?

According to the HeartMath Institute, “When you are in a coherent state, your thoughts and emotions are balanced and you experience the ease and inner harmony.” Essentially, when we are in a heart-centered state, the wholeness we feel pushes away any feelings of want or lack we may have. This is where the magic happens. When we no longer look externally for happiness, and/or ways to relieve feelings of emptiness or deficiency, we are more fulfilled and at peace with ourselves and our surroundings. And when we embrace these feelings, we can’t help but want to share those with others. So, I guess my movement would be distilled to fourteen characters (not including the hashtag): #HeartCoherence.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you use to guide yourself by? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life and how our readers might learn to live by it in theirs?

Perfectionism is a serial killer of happiness. When we initiate a quest to achieve perfection, we invariably set ourselves up for failure. The result is a “never enough” feeling, negative self-talk and self-worth. And by whose definition is perfection? To quote Brene Brown, “Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.” It also stops us from being authentic and vulnerable. Overcoming perfectionism allows us the ability to let go of who we think we should be and being who we are.

Prior to my injury, I had this “image” of who I was supposed to be…successful, strong, confident, and independent. Afterward, when I returned to work, I tried to pass for my former self — to maintain this self-imposed image of perfection. But I was an imposter in my own body. I had lost “that person….that former C-Suite professional image” along my way to recovery. My life isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s kinda messy. But, that’s ok. It’s okay not to be okay sometimes. I’ve also learned to open to myself to experience vulnerability and have achieved greater self-awareness and more meaningful relationships along the way.

Thank you so much for your time and for your inspiring insights!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Kristin Marquet

Written by

Publicist and author based in New York City. Founder and Creative Director of FemFounder.co, Marquet-Media.com, and E-Nixi.com.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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