Invest Time and Energy into Your Relationships. One of the biggest determinations of successful aging is actively engaging in supportive emotional relationships. During our working years, many of us haven’t had the ability to be as emotionally connected and present with spouses and loved ones as we would have liked. Now is the time in life to rebuild those bonds and invest the energy into strengthening emotional ties.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana McNeil, Founder of the Relationship Place. Dana McNeil is a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist and is the founder of a group practice called The Relationship Place located in San Diego, California. Dana’s practice specializes in couples’ therapy and utilizes an evidence-based type of couples’ therapy which is known as the Gottman Method. Dana’s practice works with all types of relationship issues from pre-marital counseling, dealing with the aftermath of extra marital affairs, partners working through addiction recovery, military deployed families, parents of special needs children, LGBTQ, and polyamorous clients. Dana has been featured in publications such as the Business Insider, Authority Magazine, Eat This-Not That, Oprah Living, and is the resident relationship expert on Cox Communications’ nationwide show “I Do”.
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?
My prior career before becoming a therapist was working as a property claims insurance adjuster for a large national insurance company. Part of my job was to travel to affected areas of the country in the wake of catastrophes such as hurricanes, floods, and tornados to provide on-the-ground assistance to clients whose homes had experienced damage.
As you can imagine, these clients were traumatized by their experiences. They were often in shock, and some experienced guilt about having survived when so many in their community hadn’t.
Many of them also didn’t have access to mental health care.
I soon realized that before I could settle their insurance claims, I would need to provide my clients with support and empathy so they could process their shock and be able to participate in meaningful conversations with me about their property claims.
I found a great sense of purpose in listening to and validating my clients’ experiences as they shared how they had survived their trauma. I saw how helpful it was to them to debrief their feelings. My calling to be a therapist came from the sense of connection and being able to experience how valuable it can be in someone’s life to provide a safe place to process emotions and vulnerabilities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I work as a volunteer for the Red Cross as a disaster mental health provider. The unit leader for the local chapter I work with and I have become wonderful friends and confidants. She and I were having a chat one day about our specializations in our individual practices. She shared with me that she works with first responders and was having a hard time finding good referral sources and the best kind of couples’ therapy for her clients who need more support. As it turned out, I practice an evidence-based method of couples’ therapy that works well with the kinds of clients she serves. I am also the daughter of a fire department captain, which provided me a unique perspective about the home life of a first responder and how their line of work impacts their partners and families.
Because of my life background and the therapy work I practice I became a good fit as the referral source for the fire relief assistance program for my city’s fire department. I still am amazed that you can think you are showing up for one thing in life and the universe takes you in a completely unexpected direction. I feel humbled and blessed to be able to provide service in unexpected ways to my community that simultaneously reverberate back to me and enrich my own life while serving others.
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?
Being human, I make at least one mistake a day, and the best gift is when I can find the humor in it.
One of the most humorous mistakes I made as a green therapist was freaking out when a cockroach ran across my shoe during a session. I was working as an intern at a non-profit organization that didn’t even have the funding for my clients and me to have office space to meet for sessions. My clients were in long-term residential care for substance abuse recovery, and many had lived very difficult lives being homeless and living on the street prior to coming to stay at the recovery home.
In the hopes of finding some privacy, my clients and I would meet in the breezeway outside of an elevator hallway that connected two buildings.
One day, as I was trying my best to convey to my client that I could relate to their difficult living conditions and portray myself as “worldly” in the ways of street life, a large cockroach crawled across my open-toed shoe.
It quickly became apparent to my client and myself that I am not a person who was accustomed to dealing with the creatures my client likely had to face on a nightly basis.
My lesson from that experience is that I don’t fake or embellish that my life experiences or imply that my privileges are not different than a client if that is the truth. I am myself with my clients, and I don’t apologize for having led a different life.
What I do hope to convey to my clients is that they are the experts of their life and I am a safe place to talk about what it was like for them to have survived it. I will provide my clients support and empathy and be free of judgment.
While my clients may be experts on their own lives, I learned to let them know that I as a therapist am an expert on coping skills and techniques to help them avoid relapse. I let them know that I didn’t need to have mirrored every aspect of what they had been through in life in order to help give them tools to make their lives better moving forward.
It was an important lesson to learn early in my career and one I have carried with me working with every client population.
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?
I had the most amazing supervisor when I was in training to obtain my licensure. During the journey of training to become a new therapist, it’s not uncommon to experience what we call “imposter syndrome.” My supervisor would patiently sit with me as I expressed my worries about my clients’ seeing me as a fraud.
She beautifully normalized my experience of worrying that I wasn’t in any position to provide relevant or helpful guidance because of my awareness of my own faults and issues. She helped me find the unique strengths that I had as person that I could bring into my therapy sessions with clients that conveyed my genuine admiration and gratitude of having them choose to work with me. She also helped me understand that about 80% of the work I do with clients comes from their feeling connected to me as a real person that they feel comfortable opening up to.
My supervisor also helped ease some of my over-achiever attitude about wanting to “fix” every client that came to sit on my couch. What I learned was that I can’t work harder than my clients. I can provide the tools, the support, and even lend my clients hope when they have lost their own. But I had to allow my clients to decide for themselves when it’s time to make changes and if they have the courage to begin. I will be here every step of the way, but I can’t do the work for them. I have carried this piece of advice with me throughout my career.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I am a big fan of creating a morning ritual that sets the tone for the day ahead. My morning ritual starts with a slow launch into the world by spending time by myself journaling, reading, eating a healthy breakfast, and ten minutes of mediation.
This quiet wake up routine is followed by taking my dog for a walk while listening to a podcast and then about 20 minutes of yoga. I use an app called Insight Timer that has guided meditations that cover almost any topic or emotion I might be dealing with on a given day.
These practices are a non-negotiable part of starting my day. Yes, they absolutely require that I get up earlier in the morning and the trade-off is that I have taken time for myself, so I am able to start my day grounded and fulfilled.
I think I am doing not only myself but my clients and employees a service because taking this time gives me the opportunity to prepare to be fully present with the people in my life.
I am also a big fan of recognizing the things happening FOR ME in life, versus the things that are happening TO ME in life. My husband and I spend a few minutes each day telling each other the five best things that happened in each of our day. This works several purposes for us, it allows us to connect about the day each person had, changes the negatives of the day into a focus on the positive, and allows us to notice each day something amazing that the universe provided to make our lives better.
Time spent with quality friends reminds me that I am not alone in the world. Being a therapist can be a little isolating based on the nature of the one-way conversations happening in my office. Connecting with people who you have invested the time in creating deep and meaningful relationships with is one of the best self-care techniques you can do. Accepting that it’s not about how many people you know but how deeply you feel seen and appreciated makes all the difference in life.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
We often spend more time at work than we do at home so by default our co-workers become part of our family. I only want to spend time with people that make me a better version of me and vice versa. There is not enough time in the world to work with negative attitudes or people who can’t be team players. No matter how much money an employee may bring into my business, if I don’t admire their character and what they stand for then I don’t want them as part of my practice.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In some cases, retirement can reduce health, and in others it can improve health. From your point of view or experience, what are a few of the reasons that retirement can reduce one’s health?
Many older Americans are faced with the dilemma of how to age gracefully and successfully. The advance of age is often accompanied by the potential for development of physical limitations or illnesses. In order to experience positive aging, the individual in this life stage is challenged with the simultaneous goals of avoiding disease, ongoing life engagement, and maintaining high cognitive and physical functioning. Simplification of this life stage involves the ability to sustain joy, love, and learning.
When retirement-age adults are unable to maintain a balance in their social supports and productivity their overall health becomes impacted. The MacArthur Foundation of successful aging has found that older adults with the most social ties showed less decline in functioning over time. Without these important social ties and connections or a sense of contribution or purpose it is difficult for retirement aged to maintain healthy mental health.
Can you share with our readers 5 things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Productivity in later adulthood helps maintain healthy functioning when goals are meaningfully selected and tasks are performed that work to optimize a person’s capacities and utilize abilities to find new means to achieve the goals. Favorable outcomes are found when the same person adapts to the cumulative changes associated with the passage of time while simultaneously experiencing a spiritual connective and sense of meaning or purpose in life.
Tips to optimize mental health during retirement:
1) Volunteer or Find a Part-Time Job.
Now is the time in life to investigate and dabble in those areas of interest you have never had the ability to pursue while you were working full time. With the ability to set your own hours and invest energy in worthy or interesting pursuits you will open more of the creative parts of yourself. Also, having a commitment of your energy and time continues to create a sense of purpose and engagement in pursuits that lend to living with a sense of value.
2) Pursue a Hobby or Take a Class.
Continuing to cognitively grow and mentally challenge yourself is one of the best ways to keep a healthy and active mind. Taking the time and discipline to master a topic of interest allows the neuro pathways in the mind to continue creating links and expansions that impact cognitive decline.
3) Invest Time and Energy into Your Relationships.
One of the biggest determinations of successful aging is actively engaging in supportive emotional relationships. During our working years, many of us haven’t had the ability to be as emotionally connected and present with spouses and loved ones as we would have liked. Now is the time in life to rebuild those bonds and invest the energy into strengthening emotional ties.
Exercise works to provide both physical strength and bone density as well as providing psychological benefits that improve mood and overall mental wellness.
The chemical known as endorphin is produced while exercising and helps reduce anxiety and depression and adds to one’s sense of self-esteem.
5) Share Your Wisdom with the World.
One of the most impressive aspects of being an older adult is your ability to hold a perspective about life that is often balanced and wise. The beauty of this stage in life is that you can now share incredible insight about the challenges you have persevered through and relay information as to how these lessons in life could be applied to others who face similar difficulties. Consider writing a blog or giving talks to your community about these life events. These outlets allow you to share these nuggets of wisdom to those who may be inspired by your navigation of life.
In your experience, what are 3 or 4 things that people wish someone told them before they retired?
Everyone has a different experience, but retirees have many of the same thoughts:
· I always looked forward to having more time to myself to do the things I want to do. But this can also mean more idle time, boredom, and a lack of a sense of purpose.
· After retirement, a feeling of irrelevance can set in. The world continues on, technology advances, and I find it challenging just to keep up.
· I’m feeling older and less energetic. Those things, or the way we did things “back in my day” don’t seem to hold as much value to the younger generations.
The most important thing about aging and preparing for retirement is to strive to keep a positive attitude. Positive emotions benefit the tasks of successful aging by nurturing existing strengths such as optimism, kindness, generosity, originality, and humor.
Finding a way to exercise a person’s inherent signature strengths frequently and wisely can transform retirement life to a higher and more positive plane. If you have always had an ability to find the humor in situations or been able to notice the positive things happening in a situation, then find a way to incorporate those traits into this stage of life.
Working daily to acknowledge the blessings that older age provides in the form of wisdom, perspective, and life experience serves and sets the tone of the journey of successful aging in a positive direction.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I have always loved the book called “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. I first read her book when I was a teenager and it was the first real “self-help” book I recall ever wanting to read.
The idea of it has stayed with me all my life and informs the way I approach life. We all have fears and we all have things that we are scared to fail at or that will end up in embarrassment.
What makes the difference between a person who is ruled by fear and the person who faces it is what we choose to do in those tender fear-based moments.
The book opened the idea for me that I should let myself feel the feelings, acknowledge them, honor, and respect the value fear has on how I feel in the moment. Once I notice it, I then have a choice about what to do with it once it is on board.
For me this was an early introduction to acceptance of difficult emotions and created the ability for me to notice that feelings are not things but merely information. I have choices to accept or reject how what I am feeling will define me and rob me of opportunities. I allow myself to invite both negative and positive feelings along on the journey without giving any of them power to define the outcome.
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. :-)
When you are feeling defensive, find at least one thing you can take responsibility for.
People often tend to become defensive in order to protect themselves when getting into a conflict. I would advocate for a movement to help people notice when that happens and to do something about it.
By finding even one thing that I did that led to the disagreement and taking responsibility for it, I can completely defuse the negative energy of the moment.
I am not saying one should take responsibility for the whole issue or say they are at fault for the disagreement but finding something they did that contributed to it will help prevent escalation of the conflict. It doesn’t cost anything to say for instance, “I am sorry. I was distracted and wasn’t listening as carefully as you deserved,” or “I’m sorry. I didn’t eat lunch today and I’m sounding edgy.” Taking the first steps to bring down the stress level of a potential conflict also just feels good because it says, “I notice my part in things and I want to take responsibility for what I contributed to the conversation going sideways.”
This simple but powerful act helps to start to defuse any situation and models vulnerability and intention to reduce conflict and start repair attempts.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is by Byron Katie who has said, “Notice that everything is happening FOR me, NOT to me.” What she means by this is that everything happens exactly as it should in the right way, the right time, and in the right moment. Because if it wasn’t as it should be, then it wouldn’t be happening at all.
The only way to avoid suffering is to find a way to accept the reality of a situation. We can’t always avoid pain. Sometimes it is inevitable, but we can avoid suffering. The suffering comes from the way we think about a situation. If we get caught up in thinking that a situation should or shouldn’t be happening, then we are caught up in suffering.
The relief starts to come when we accept the situation as it is happening and become present in the moment. Only in presence can we see the next indicated step clearly. The next indicated step only materializes when we stop wasting energy and emotional space on denying or attempting to stop what is the reality.
This way of viewing the world doesn’t come easy, and I often must remind myself to accept what the reality of a situation is because I don’t like what is happening. I honestly believe that when we can accept our current moment then we are more likely to spot the blessings in the moment in ways that prove the universe did show up and look out for us.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Dr. John Gottman! I practice the theory of couples therapy that he developed over 40 years ago and I would love to sit down and pick his brain about some of the questions that sometimes arise for me in sessions. Nothing better than hearing it from the original master of the theory, although I would likely be so star struck that I might not be able to put together an articulate sentence.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!