Why I Said Yes to Television

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According to my childhood diary, I wanted to be a psychologist since I was 9-years-old.  I have dedicated my entire professional life to the field of psychology. When I was first asked to provide consultation on a television show, my initial inclination was to decline. I was working full-time as a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist at a University, Principal Investigator on federal grants, training and teaching therapists regionally and across our country, doing a number of public speaking engagements nationally, and keeping a part-time private practice running.   Additionally, I am an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Executive Director of a trauma center which serves the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in addition to being the mother of three young children and trying to have some sort of personal life.  The story goes, while traveling in California, I met someone socially who encouraged me and then inspired me to try television as his company was looking for experts with professional and academic credentials.  Although I initially declined primarily due to the fact that it was far outside my comfort zone and my schedule was already out-of-control, with some prodding and pep-talking from someone who believed in me (with this man who is now my dear friend), I decided to take a risk and try television, after seeing there were experts before me with professional pedigrees who were well-established in the field.  In the end it wasn't that hard; I’m a person who says yes to opportunities.  You only have one life.  Thus, in 2015, I began working for a television show, Seven Year Switch, and entered a world unfamiliar to me in which I would become familiar with terms such as “call time,” “HMU,” “B-roll” “Jib,” “VTR,” and countless others.  Let’s be clear: I did not own a single headshot or a lip gloss.  All this said, my experience in the television world has been nothing short of wonderful.  I have met so many dynamic, smart, and friendly people from production assistants to audio-guys and gals to executive producers who work around the clock to produce these relationship docuseries. I have been struck by the manner in which I have been able to reach an audience via a platform I never imagined (e.g., television and social media) using in my professional world.  The downside of the negative messages I receive via social media and other outlets attacking my personal appearance, professional credibility, or ethics is far superseded by the rewards of working with incredible people, intelligent and dynamic colleagues, and the positivity we have from viewers at home. I receive calls and emails on a daily basis from fans of the show who were touched by one of our couples’ experience or who benefited from psychoeducational information provided on relationships, trauma, or communication strategies by myself or one of my colleagues on these different shows.

Reality Docuseries are Not Evidence-Based Treatments

I lecture and provide training in trauma, trauma-informed care and evidence-based practices and treatments across the country and have dedicated the majority of my professional energy to the dissemination of evidence-based treatments, nationally.  It goes without saying, but I must emphasize: Reality docuseries, or the exercises within them, are not  evidence-based treatments.  Notwithstanding the fact that arranged marriages have existed for centuries, Married at First Sight is a “social experiment” that was created in the context of a Danish television program. To be clear, “Switch Therapy” on Seven Year Switch is a concept that was created within the context of a television show.  It is no more of a therapy than “Donut Therapy” or “Walking in the Woods Therapy.”  When the show started, there was no “evidence-base.” There are no clinical trials supporting the effectiveness or efficaciousness of these approaches. “Switch Therapy” is not my terminology, but that of the production company. That being said, in my personal and professional experience, many of the individuals and couples who participated in Seven Year Switch benefited from this experience in extraordinary ways.  We have not “deconstructed” the "Switch Therapy" process so I cannot be clear what was most beneficial: Two weeks away from their spouse, 2 weeks of journaling and introspection, 2 weeks of no social media, telephones, television, or 2 weeks of being paired with someone who is also struggling in their marriage and who has the qualities you think you want in your spouse or qualities more similar to your personality… or the exercises and activities they did together.  I can tell you that most of them will tell me they do not regret doing television and were able to get positive benefits out of it, from learning new communication skills to obtaining clarity in their personal lives.  One young woman stated that particularly after watching it play back, the show, “saved her life.”

My Professional Role: When My Personal Integrity, Professional Ethics, and Contractual Obligations are in Conflict

Within my role as a consultant to cast and production, I have had to be clear about what my role is and is not.  I have contracts with a production company/Network, the ethical standards of my profession as a licensed psychologist, and own my personal ethics and integrity to consider within my role as an expert in this capacity. Just like conflicts in relationships in which your needs may conflict with the needs of others, there are times in which my professional and ethical responsibilities as a psychologist do not line up with the needs of production or those developing a television show.  At those times, I have actively voiced my concerns and we have always been able to come to agreements in a way that makes sense for everyone involved.  I have been extraordinarily lucky to have worked with a production company with heart and which is run by people with enormous integrity and care for others, who have in my personal experience, placed the well-being of individuals, couples, and families first – before the needs or demands of the actual television show(s), the majority of the time.

Within my Television Role, I Am Not a Therapist

It must also be stated that at no point should the role I (or others) provide be construed as replacing actual therapy.  We are NOT individuals' or couples’ therapists on these television shows or in real life.  We do not have a client/therapist or doctor/patient relationship at any point during production or any point, period.  Outside companies are hired to conduct the psychological evaluations of cast members. My role that I am hired to do as a “Relationship Expert” is to provide consultation to the cast of a television show and consultation to production on topics that fall within my expertise.  We provide support and consultation to the brave individuals who are willing to have their lives documented and I do believe that this consultation has helped many people.  It is noted that this is not therapy, nor should it replace real therapy and participants on these shows sign various consent forms acknowledging the roles and limitations of the "experts." Through these unique experiences, I have been privileged to meet many incredible human beings who are open and ready to take risks to find love, save their relationships, or find some clarity in their lives.  As an expert in trauma, I work with individuals to identify where their trauma histories may be interfering with their functioning and when I believe they are being triggered or distressed by the unique circumstances of filming – and I advocate for them to the extent I possibly can.  I also work to identify ways in which individuals may be impacted by their prior life experiences and make suggestions for self-care strategies to manage their current stressors. I work with individuals and couples to secure therapists in their communities (typically paid for by production, who encourages aftercare) and encourage them to seek the support of licensed professionals who can provide them actual therapy and with whom they can have an actual  confidential client/therapist relationship.

Although I did not seek out television, working in this industry has been fun, exciting, challenging, at times exhausting, but incredibly professionally stimulating and I am glad I said yes to the opportunity.  I have watched people fall in love, gain insight or perspective they did not previously have, and grow (and even grow up!) immensely within the wild world of filming a reality docuseries.  And, I do believe you can find love in extraordinary ways if you are open to receiving it.  These are real people with real lives and when they do find love, it's remarkable and an honor to witness it.  Never did I think I would be working within this context, but I am beyond grateful for those who believed in me and for the individuals, couples, other experts, production crew and viewers for making this opportunity thus far, the greatest experience of my professional life.

Protecting your family, psychologically, after domestic terrorism or shootings

In the aftermath of recent shootings and civil unrest, it can be difficult for children (and grown-ups) to concentrate or attend to daily life.  In families, keep in mind that adults set the tone for children and help to model healthy responses.  The following steps are suggested in helping yourself, your child(ren) and your family heal and to buffer the psychological and physiological impact of toxic stress that ensues subsequent to traumatic situations such as community violence, shootings, or other forms of domestic terrorism.

Suggestions:

1)         Turn off the television.  Unplug from your computer or smartphone – protect yourself from additional traumatization by television and radio media as well as social media exposure.  This is true for all of us – although we want to have more information about events, the images, misinformation, and media sensationalizing are contributing to increased anxiety in mainstream society.  Fear permeates our consciousness.  For those with prior histories of trauma, the impact of disturbing images and messages in the media can be even more traumatic, given the cumulative effect of trauma and adversity.  If you really need to know, use a reputable news station, or consider having one family member obtain the information to relay to others. Do not allow your children (especially young children) to watch or listen to any programming involving the shootings.

2)         Stay connected - to people.  The largest buffer to physiological and psychological impact of stressful situations is having adequate social support.  Be with your loved ones.  Hug your children longer.  Plan more family activities and playdates.  Reach out to friends. Turn off the news feeds on your phone, but pick up the phone and call someone.

3)         Talk about it.  Find out what your children know – and the source of this information.  It is possible that they have misinformation or distorted thinking about the events. Not discussing it can worsen the psychological effects in your child’s mind.  If they have incorrect information, gently correct any distortions in terms that are age-appropriate.  Give children the opportunity to ask questions.

4)         Expect a range of emotions – anxiety, sadness, anger, confusion – coupled with behavioral responses: irritability, sleep and appetite problems, defiance, clingy behavior, and other reactions.  These are common. Give your family time to heal and recover.

5)         To the extent possible, get back to normal.  Laugh and play. Continue with the usual family rituals and routines (e.g., books at bedtime).  Try to encourage your family to be active – take walks, exercise together, hit the playground or the bike trail.  Routines and rituals can be calming amidst chaos and exercise can greatly reduce stress and anxiety for everyone.

6)         Reassure everyone that they are safe and loved.  Sometimes, children may have thoughts, “you never know when someone could come into your neighborhood, home, school, etc., and start shooting.”  While this statement is accurate, it is not helpful.  A more accurate and helpful thought would be “people are doing everything they can do to make sure our homes, communities, schools are safe” or “shootings like this are extremely rare” or “we have skills we can use to keep ourselves safe.” This is also a time for extra nurturance and love – it is not unusual for children to seek out extra physical affection and want to be close to you.

7)         Practice family safety plans.  If you don’t have a realistic safety plan for use in your home and with your family for emergencies outside of the home, now is a good time to develop one.

8)         Acknowledge the helpers.  Point out those who are trying to help, community “heroes,” and those who are trying to keep people safe.  Even in the scariest and darkest of times, there are always helpers and heroes --- acknowledging the helpers reassures children.

9)         Seek additional help, when needed. If time has passed and your children are still struggling with anxiety or having other symptoms that are not typical for them or are not decreasing with time (e.g., nightmares, prolonged sadness, withdrawal, behavioral outbursts), seek help in the form of a child and family therapist or child psychologist skilled in providing trauma-focused treatment.

 

For more additional information and helpful resources, see www.nctsn.org 

 

Why I did a Social Media Digital Detox and why you should too

What I “learned” from doing a Social Media Digital Detox….

This time of year is busy for everyone, leaving us wishing we had a “pause” button or a slow down button or hell, even a rewind or do-over button.  For me, this has been an extraordinarily busy year, even for someone who has always thrived off of juggling multiple and competing priorities. It has been full of traveling, grant writing, public speaking, filming and most importantly: parenting.  A couple of months ago, I had been feeling increasingly more distracted, at a time in which work and family life needed more attention.  My children were all starting new school years, new schools, new sports’ teams; I was wrapping up filming and working on several large scale projects at the University.  Yet, I was feeling massively distracted.  I was juggling multiple balls, yet tripping over the balls I had already dropped. I knew I needed to make a change, I “just didn’t have the time to do it.” Which is the case – anything that is good for us, like yoga, we “just don’t have the time for” – at a time when we may need it most. On a beautiful fall day, I sat outside with my children playing while I was checking and posting on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat.  They were giggling and laughing – all huddled together.  I looked up and though I should have been amused along with them, I was overwhelmed by sadness, as I didn’t know why they were so delighted.  I missed the whole thing.  I was missing the good stuff.  Later that afternoon, my youngest pretended his sippy cup was a smartphone. On a long walk with my best friend (who has been battling advanced stage breast cancer) she stopped me in the road and said, “You need to get out of your head.”  And, there it was. She does not have a Facebook account.  Or Twitter. Or Pinterest. Or Tumbler, Instagram, you get the gist.  She has been through a hell most of us will never fully understand and is one of the most “present “people I know – the live each day like it’s your last types of girl – because she has to be.  She embraces all the good stuff because she does not know how long she’s actually going to have the good stuff.  In that moment, I knew I had to shake things up.  On that particular stretch of our street (looking at my beautiful friend telling me, the psychologist, that I had to get out of my head), I had a rare moment of clarity.  Those moments are hard to come by when you are multitasking at 100 miles a minute, fully caffeinated and so in control, you’re out of control.

I wasn’t present.  I wasn’t available.  I wasn’t focused.  In addition to my work as a psychologist, I am a preacher/ teacher/ entertainer who lectures routinely about stress management and mindfulness particularly for stressful and traumatic times, and yet I had forgotten that I’m not invincible or unaffected either.   I was distracted and was distracting myself – spending too much time buried in my phone and online.  How did this happen to the girl who did not know what Twitter was 2 years ago?  Or the girl who once thought Instagram was only for the Kardashian women sharing their scantily clad photos?  I decided to put the brakes on it, even though all of my publicist and public relations friends strongly advised me otherwise, particularly in the months building up to the second season of Seven Year Switch.  I planned to do it for 2 weeks.  Two weeks became a month.  A month became two months.  So, now I’m writing about it because I LEARNED SOMETHING. I don’t know if it is because I simply stopped logging in (I deleted the apps from my phone so I couldn’t just check on a whim) or by doing meditation (something that I started recently thru a great app of course!)

After a few short days, I noticed just HOW MUCH people in my life focus on social media – whether it’s the source of news, gossip, trends or the sole means of communication they have with people in their lives.  I also noticed my knee jerk reaction – when I’m bored, to log onto Facebook.  When I’m stressed out, to distract myself with Twitter.  When I’m lonely, check my Instagram feed. When I’m sad, all of the above so I may feel euphoric over someone else’s fantastic online portrayal of life.  When I am with friends and we are catching up (aka gossiping), we just pass the smartphone and social media feeds as they are some sort of tasty hor’dourves for our souls.

In cutting myself off, I became hypervigilant or perhaps hypersensitive – now I notice the power and prevalence of social media over-dependence, everywhere.  It just so happens that I decided to do this social media detox during the election.  An election which divided our country – but which divided families and friendships.  I missed all of it, but heard an earful from so many people about who posted what rant about Donald Trump and who posted similar ridiculousness about Hillary Clinton.  And people who “unfriended” each other because of their political views.  Doesn’t anyone read Emily Post anymore? Haven’t we learned that we shouldn’t discuss politics at the dinner table? Or that it is okay to agree to disagree with friends, family, and colleagues? People just got mean and some got meaner.  The barrier that social media creates – serves as a layer of pseudo-protection – where some people think they can say and do what they want with little consequence.  The platform that empowers so many with a voice can be hurtful. Your words are powerful.  Words matter.

My family members complained they hadn’t seen pictures of my children.  My response, well come and visit them?! Or I can text photos, you know, the old fashioned way. I did miss a few birthdays, anniversaries, and babies being born.  But not the birthdays or the babies of those closest to me.

Here’s what I found.  It’s simple, really.  But, it took me cutting myself off cold turkey to have this level of clarity about my distraction. Social media brings you CLOSER to those with whom you have lost contact or who are more peripheral in your lives, but the risk in doing so is that it undoubtedly creates DISTANCE between those closest to you.

It’s an incredible way to get information and to spread information.  How accurate that information is, however, is up for speculation.  Just ask Russia.  Most of us know on a base or logical level, it’s not real.  Like reality television.  It’s entertainment.  It’s a souped of version of what we WISH life would be or what someone wants us to believe.   Like if I took my mini-van and threw on on some 22 inch rims.  It’s still a mini-van but people act as if it’s not, because now 50 people “like it” so that must mean it’s legitimate and officially cool. Dr. Carl Rogers, a pioneer in my field, would have a field day with this.  Is anybody’s “real” or “actualized” self who they have up on Facebook?  My girlfriend gave me a sign around Halloween “This year I’m going to dress up for Halloween as the person I pretend to be on Facebook.”  We all know people for whom that would be a very amusing costume.

On the plus side, social media can bring you closer to those you have fallen out of contact with – so many of us have reconnected with people in our lives we have lost touch with and let’s be honest, probably would not have connected with them had we not found them on Facebook. Who needs booze-soaked class reunions anymore?  At the same time, we see increasing rates of “digital infidelity,” men and women communicating via social media outlets and engaging in emotional, sexual, and other forms of cheating.  One partner may discover that their spouse has been communicating with others or simply searching for other people – which could have painful consequences to their partner and their relationship.  The accused spouse may attempt to excuse this behavior: “I was just curious,” “I was distracted,” “It meant nothing.” They may be right.  It does not mean that this is now acceptable behavior for healthy, adult relationships.  Nor, do you have to accept it.

Your SMARTphone makes you stupider.  In fact, social networking can hurt you neurologically.  Psychological research indicates that for those who are distracted by social media, they score 20% or more lower on cognitive tests.  It makes sense – it takes time for our brains to process and encode information – if you are interrupted by political fighting or your aunt’s latest buffalo chicken dip recipe, you are not going to store information as efficiently. Too much time on social media sites can also INCREASE depression. Logging onto social media, while working, makes you far less productive at work – even for those of you who claim to also use social media for work purposes.  This does not count for some of my very dear friends and colleagues who make more than most of us will make in 6 months in a week due to their mere existence as social media phenomenon (which is a hell of a lot of work, I have learned), so please do not Facebook message me that you are annoyed with me for saying this.  Call me on the phone instead, loves. Plus, you and I know, that that is the “Fakebook” you, not the real you. The real you are a hot mess., just admit it.  And I’d take the hot mess you over the picture perfect photo-shopped emoji-laden portrayal of you any day of the week.

Excess social media usage can lead to detrimental effects on your time, your productivity, your wallet… and your mood and maybe your most important relationships.  The more time you spend on social media outlets, the greater decrease in your own personal happiness. So, you are slower, dumber, more depressed, less focused, and feeling less attractive due to the undeniable social comparisons (to everyone we are trying to “Keep Up With….”) we make that are just simply part of our genetic makeup as human beings. And, we waste our own “good stuff” in this process.  For example, how much time and emotional energy do you spend waiting for someone to respond to a Tweet, a post, or your latest rant?  Are you affected if no one “likes” your post? Again, you can’t get those moments back.  Try meditating instead.  Or take a walk.  Or kiss your husband.  Or call your mom and dad.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s a fantastic distraction.  And effective.  Just be careful that by distracting yourself from your problems, you are not distracting yourself from LIVING your LIFE and from those you LOVE.  You can’t get those moments back.  Sometimes, if your distraction is too extreme, you can’t get those relationships back.  I have worked with many couples who have had their social media dependency or digital infidelity wreak havoc on their marriage.  In those instances, Digital Distraction led to Divorce.

So here is what I didn’t miss:   lost time.  I cannot believe how much free time I was able to garner simply by cutting this distraction out of my life.  I was able to spend more time exercising, more productive time in the office, and most importantly, more time connecting with those closest to me.  I was able to ACTIVELY LISTEN.  I routinely teach active and reflective listening as a communication tool when coaching professionals, individuals, and couples – but what I have failed to emphasize is how we need to carve out the time for this active listening to ensue.  I felt closer to my children, my friends, my family, and more connected at work.  I felt closer to myself – more present, aware, and mindful.  And, just like with any other healthy life choice, doing this led to being drawn to other things that are GOOD for me and my family, like meditation, yoga, spending more time outdoors, family dinners and the list goes on.  Most importantly, this time, when my children were laughing I was laughing along with them – because I was there, actively focused, and present.

Undergoing my self-induced social media detox has changed my life personally, and professionally. I have routinely recommended to individuals and to couples to contain their internet activities and to dedicate certain times of the day (mealtime for example) to PUT THE PHONE DOWN. It was time I tried it myself – even helpers need a little help now and then.

If you don’t believe me, try it.  Give it a week.  Hell, give it 24 hours.  I’d love to hear if it changes you too. 

Going forward, I’m going to be mindful of my social media use to the degree that I can.  I love communicating with friends, family, and fans but I’m going to dedicate certain times of the day to do so and continue to practice mini-detoxes to keep me aware of its effects and help to balance me out.   And, if you love someone who has a heavy social media habit, tell them how it makes you feel.  Tell them that you miss them.  If they aren’t willing to put the phone on pause, I’d suggest, perhaps, putting them on pause.  You are worth their time and their full attention and they are worth yours.

Disconnect to reconnect to those who truly matter to you. 

 

(And yes my dears, I do realize the irony in posting this on numerous social media outlets.  Rest assured, all posting and checking feeds and tagging and blogging and tweeting and snapping is now only during personally designated times.)