If I could do college all over again, I’d definitely take lots more psychology classes. I’m so intrigued by how the human mind works, which is precisely why I love psychologist Karen Young’s blog, Hey Sigmund (great blog name, btw). Read this post and you will love her blog, too. Her no-jargon, straight talk on anxiety, depression, relationships and stress is super-relatable. If she ever writes a book, I’ll be the first one to pick up a copy. I ask her about mental wellness, why a growth-mindset is important, and the best part about being human.
* * *
What initially drew you to psychology?
People are fascinating. Within every life is a story, and every story is a complex, rich, extraordinary one. It’s not even necessarily about the big things, but about the day to day detail of being human. What we talk about over breakfast, what makes us happy or sends us crazy with hate. What hurts us, what makes us keep wanting to be better and what keeps getting in our way. Psychology is about people sharing their story, or important pieces of it and I love that. We can be so alike in some ways and yet so vastly different in others. Psychology is constantly evolving and trying to make some sort of sense of what we do and why we do it, but that task will be endless. Thankfully.
I love your blog, Hey Sigmund. What inspired you to start a site that discusses psychology in a jargon-free way?
Thank you! People do pretty amazing things with the right information. All of us have within us everything we need to be complete, but sometimes it’s buried under the noise of daily life or the rubble from things that once were. Sometimes people need a hand to scrape it away. Other times, the right information can strip through the layers to expose the strength, wisdom and resources that those people had all along. Everyone deserves the opportunity to find what they need within themselves, because it’s there. It’s always there.
What’s the most damaging misconception about mental illness?
That it’s about character. Mental illness is about chemistry, not character and living with a mental illness would be so much less of a burden if every single person on the planet knew this. The truth is that mental illness can happen to anyone and it has nothing to do with character. Some personality traits might make people vulnerable to certain mental illnesses, but those same traits are the traits that make those people likable, driven, successful. The strength that’s needed to carry on with a mental illness is immense. People with mental illness are some of the strongest, most likeable, capable people I know. I wish there was a way for everyone know that. Talking about it is a good place to start.
One of my favorite topics you write about is a growth-mindset. What exactly is a growth mindset and why is it important?
I love that you love that. It’s a favourite of mine, too.
A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence, ability and certain human traits are not fixed, but that they can be improved with time and effort. When people believe that they have the capacity to change, they are more likely to do what’s necessary to give effect to that. They’ll work harder, practice more, rise to challenges and be more persistent. The good news is that a growth mindset can be nurtured in anybody.
On the other hand, those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence, ability and certain traits come from natural ability or genes and can’t be changed. As you can imagine, with a mindset like that, people would be less likely to persist when the going gets tough, put in the hard work, or meet challenges because of the inherent belief that nothing will reall y make a difference.
It comes from the work of Carol Dweck and the research around what a growth mindset can do is remarkable. It’s been shown to improve learning, academic performance, resilience, protection against depression – just to name a few.
A lot of people suffer from mental illness, and yet we often find it difficult to talk about. How can a person quietly suffering from mental illness reach out? What’s the best way to approach a loved one you suspect is struggling?
Conversation is key. Start by asking and feeding back what you’ve noticed that has you worried, ‘You seem flat/down/sad,’ or, ‘You don’t seem to be yourself Can I do anything?’ Any question that avoids a ‘Yes/No’ response is ideal. Asking, ‘Are you okay’ is great – it shows that you’ve noticed, but it does run the risk of the person saying, ‘yes’ regardless of whether or not that’s a true reflection of how they are feeling. You don’t want to ask too many questions as to crowd the person but it’s important to let them know that you’re there if they ever want to talk.
Also, try to avoid talking someone out of feeling what they’re feeling. Avoid saying things like, ‘It’s not that bad’, or ‘What have you got to be stressed/depressed/anxious about?’. Even if this is said with loving intent, the truth is that people feel how they feel because it’s how they feel. If feeling better was a simple as believing that it’s not that bad, they would have done that already. Let them know that you can see that they’re struggling and that you’re here if they want to talk, or if they don’t want to talk but just want someone to be around.
In terms of our mental wellness, what are the three harmful things you wish people would stop doing?
Stop hanging on to things that are trying to let go of you. Hanging on to relationships, emotions or beliefs long after they’ve stopped working is one of the biggest ways people get in their own way.
Comparison. The more you compare yourself to other people, the more you’ll find things about yourself that you don’t think measure up. This is because we tend to look at the overall picture in other people, then choose pieces of ourselves to examine. Everyone has their fragile ‘pieces’, but if you look at the big picture, they’ll be hidden away. We need to look at the overall picture more with ourselves, rather than picking at the pieces that we don’t feel the love for.
Fear of failure. Fearing failure will always hold people back more than actually failing. If something hasn’t worked out as expected, it means that there’s been an attempt and a great opportunity to learn and grow. If we always act in such a way as to avoid failure, we never learn or grow or feel the edges of ourselves – and it can feel pretty awesome right there.
What are the three best things we can do for psychological wellness?
Oh there’s so many – but my top three …
Choose wisely the people you let get close to you. This is the biggest. I’ve heard it said that we are a combination, of the top five people we spend time with. Makes sense to me. The best relationships are the ones we allow ourselves to be open to – open to someone else’s wisdom, compassion, energy, love. But, by being open to the good, we can’t help but be open to the bad. Though everyone has their frayed edges, it’s how their edge rub up against yours. Sometimes it’s not even about the person, but the combination of people. It can be a little bit of wonderful, or it can be a red hot mess. Knowing when to let go is important.
Self-compassion. Mistakes are the lifeblood of growth, and as humans we are entitled to make our share. Actually it’s more than that, we have to make them! It’s how we learn and grow. It’s where we discover our limits and our edges and most often, the extraordinary things we’re capable of. But, if we don’t allow ourselves the grace to get it wrong now and then, we stagnate.
Gratitude. When we are grateful for what we have, we’re focusing on the good. When that happens, we feel positive, energised and content.
What’s the best thing about ‘being human’?
Getting to hang out with other humans. And being allowed to have frayed edges. Being human means being fallible, vulnerable, imperfect. Within that is untold potential and the unexpected surprises that come with trying again and finding a better way to be.
* * *
Karen is a psychologist, mother, Huffington Post contributor and coffee lover – not always in that order. You can find her on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook, as well as on her super-useful blog, Hey Sigmund. She lives in Australia and probably has a really cool accent.
You can check out my other Everyday Eleanor interviews in the archives. You know you want to.
Have you done something ballsy, like moved to a foreign country for work (or *gulp* love)? Flung yourself head-first into something people said couldn’t be done? Given up all your worldly possessions and joined the circus? I want to hear your Everyday Eleanor story. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.