In the world of mental health, open yourself to empathizing with those you at first fail to understand. Greet them without judgment, learn about their conceptions, their realities. Accept what suits you uniquely for your emotional well-being without putting up barriers to understanding others.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laurie Hollman.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child adolescent, and adult psychotherapy and is an expert on the Narcissistic Personality Disorder elaborately illustrated in her captivating new book, “Are You Living with a Narcissist? How Narcissistic Men Impact Your Happiness, How to Identify Them, and How to Avoid Raising Them.”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
As an undergraduate in political science, a major not generally chosen by women, I was fortunate to room with a young woman majoring in chemistry who had a best friend in physics. I’d never met girls with these abilities and ambitions. My world was opening up. However, they did not come from diverse metropolitan communities with multiple minorities of females, so I was at first quite a stranger to them. We were all good for each other because by knowing each other we were also knowing ourselves better.
I became a city planner and then a few years later a mother during the feminist era in the late seventies. I have a few indelible memories leading up to those years that at the time that I wouldn’t have guessed would stay solidly in my memory banks forty years later.
One college summer when I was working for a New York City Housing Authority traveling by subway to all parts of the city, I also wanted to take a course in statistics. I went to enroll at a technical college. I was told, “Girls cannot take courses here.” I said nothing in response, turned around feeling like I made a narrow escape from something forbidden I failed to understand: a problem that had no name.
My vernacular was filled with words like blockbusting, fair housing, keeping certain religions secret from realtors on certain streets, being chastised albeit gently for writing to foreign embassies to learn about other countries (someone found my requests sent in the U.S. public post office and forbid me to continue — did they think I was a young communist? And who were they and how did they find my youthful curious mail? This was the seventies, remember. Surveillance of private mail wasn’t even conceived of — by me.)
I took another summer job at a very respectable Urban Planning firm in New York City. This was a hard job for a young girl to get. Two weeks before my wedding, I said I wanted to discontinue the job. All my work was complete. It was common for girls to marry in their early twenties in those days. The older male director sitting behind his desk in his suit said, “No” to my request. I left his office without a word.
Whatever was he thinking? After I got married (I did have a wedding) I got a prestigious full-time job at a regional planning agency in New York. I was paid $7,000 for highly technical work after attending a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania for one year. I was proud of my position. Months into the job the young man working in an adjacent office was fired with several other staff members. When his work was added to my workload I thought this was recognition. It didn’t occur to me that my income was below the average in the first place and now I wasn’t even considered for a raise with additional work: a problem that had no name.
Only today as I’m writing this do I also remember when I graduated from undergraduate college with the highest grade point average in the Political Science Department I was awarded a colossal sum of $2000 as an award. That was and still is a lot of money.
Yet two years later when I was earning $7,000 a year doing my work and another man’s without a raise I never put together that the $2000 award which was real recognition didn’t jive with my current low salary when I had even more education and still perfect grades. Life was such a mystery. A problem with no name.
I know this is a long story, but I wasn’t happy at my regional planning job after many months though I didn’t clearly know why. Some of the work was quite exciting. I projected the population of the up-and-coming Welfare Island later called Roosevelt Island for example. Anyway, I went to the director and said I wanted to resign. He was flabbergasted.
“I would never have thought you weren’t happy. Your work is excellent. Please think this over.”
The next day he and other senior members of the firm took me to what for me was an exotic place for lunch. I’d never seen this kind of food before and didn’t know how to eat it. I watched the others and imitated. It didn’t occur to me to see this as a culinary adventure that I could enjoy, only that I was silently embarrassed by the ignorance I concealed. I was smart, a solid worker, but an unsophisticated, underpaid young woman who instead of cheerfully letting them know what I didn’t know, hid it and was glad when the bill was paid (not by me.)
Maybe if they continued to recognize my work and paid me fairly I would have felt respected. I admit I didn’t even know I was seeking respect. Being female was a conundrum. Taking me out to a fancy lunch didn’t give me something worthwhile. I left. A problem with no name.
Because of my intelligence and work ethic, it was easy for me to continue being employed even as a young woman during economic downturns. I enjoyed working, didn’t realize a memo stating, “Women can now wear pants suits” was actually comical, yet sad at the same time. I remember in those decades girls who climbed trees and wore “dungarees” were called “tomboys.”
A male employer I liked feared I would give birth right in his building a few years later and asked me to please take two weeks off before my due date. I didn’t see why that was necessary but then again, two weeks of free time would give me a chance to paint my little dining room (stupid decision — toxic fumes). This boss made for me with his own hands a wooden frame, beautifully stained to hold a petit-point canvas made for my first baby’s nursery by a female member of the staff. That felt good. I felt respected and even cared for. I did leave two weeks before my due date. (My baby was born four weeks later!)
When I had my babies in the late seventies it was an exciting time for the rise of feminism. Now the problem did have a name. “Sexism” was being linked to class injustice, racism, anti-Semitism, and colonialism.
I joined a “Consciousness Raising Group” of women who met weekly sharing personal female experiences. This was the first time in my experience women openly shared intimate feelings about menstruation (previously referred to as being “unwell”), sexuality, identity, and the emotions unique to each woman’s experience. I enjoyed nursing my baby while in the group feeling respected as both a professional and a new mother.
During these supportive confidential meetings, individual women participants realized they had been facing society-wide problems rooted often in newly understood power relationships that could be changed through a coalition of diverse women through collective action. These discoveries improved mental health wellness and cut out the confusion of past shames, doubts, and uncertainties as women.
Gender was being linked to self-empowerment. I was hopeful yet also while reading early feminist books I felt hidden anger coming out of me. Unfortunately, my bookcase that became filled with these books I no longer own are no longer in print which would have been enlightening for women in the “Me-Too” movement today. One of my favorite books was “Our Body, Ourselves.” I wish I’d saved it. It’s out of print as far as I know but may be found in old collections.
During this time there were also conferences solely for women about feminist issues providing private rooms where women were introduced to gynecological practices. I do not recall any options for being in a gynecological/obstetric practice with a female doctor. Women typically were receptionists and nurses in those practices and the men were the doctors.
Some of these male doctors I compliment, however, especially my obstetrician who encouraged my choice of “natural childbirth” and joined me in innovating “rooming-in” where my baby was the very first to be placed in my hospital room with me with a wonderful team of maternity nurses who prepared me well before I went home. This occurred in what was considered rural America. He was exceptionally responsive to my wishes as a woman. I will always be grateful to him for caring about me as an individual woman. Today these practices are plentiful even in the rural areas I first mothered in.
When I chose to enter the mental health profession as a young mother I was questioned extensively in an interview as to how I would manage children and study. I felt under suspicion despite my perfect grade scores in my major in college, post-graduate work in another field, and a very high Graduate Record Examination score in psychology that I was proud of. I was given the feeling I was attempting to break some unwritten code of how to live my life.
As it happens, after I was accepted into this competitive program, I discovered it was a full-time day Clinical Psych program that had no provisions for working mother’s needs. After all my preparation I turned down the acceptance for admission feeling it was hypocritical and unloving to ironically leave my preschool children while training to be a psychologist. While this was a momentous career decision for me, I never regretted it and was not held back in the mental health world.
In the years that followed, I did become a psychoanalyst where by then that training did include non-medical trainees and women which had been rare in the earlier days. The needs of women who were working outside the home and mothers working inside the home were respected and I received my Ph.D. at a more highly competitive program where courses were given in the evenings, allowing motherhood and work to be combined with study.
So, times were changing for women. Mental Health Wellness was being considered. And as I mentioned far too casually above being a mother was beginning to be considered “work” in the home.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
Continuing to explain what I shared above, it became no longer unusual as it had been for decades, for women who were psychologists and clinical social workers to enter the male medical world of psychoanalysis. While men still dominated the profession, women were taking a central role. I eventually became President of the psychoanalytic institute where I was trained and the youngest faculty member. As an aside, even before completing my doctorate, I was invited to be a faculty member at New York University. Times were changing.
A bit of an interesting story is that after working at a mental health clinic where the director was a woman, I opened a private practice. A female medical doctor, an internist, called me within a few months of opening my office to welcome me to the medical community but with strong advice. She wanted me to raise my very modest fee bluntly instructing me that it did not match my credentials and while I thought it may have been caring for those in need, I was undermining my worth in the professional world of women. She wanted to refer her patients to me but needed my fee to be more respectable in her professional eyes.
I took her advice and raised my standard fee but created my own version of socialized medicine for those who could not afford it.
As a young mother in private practice, I also took the advice of a long-experienced male psychoanalyst and psychologist who told me that I should work only the hours that fit my needs. Here was a man who understood mothers working within and outside of the home. He said that patients would work around my schedule and leave their workplaces to come for psychotherapy with me. That was his male experience that he encouraged me to make my female working experience.
To my surprise he was correct, and I was able to once again, maintain my motherhood as a top priority. I could work all day and yet be home when my now elementary school children came home from school fully participating in their lives.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I must say in response to this question, that I was able to prevent mistakes about how to combine motherhood with a professional life by eventually discriminating among advice from well-wishers who were insular in their thinking from advice-givers who recognized women.
But, because in the rather rural community that I lived at the time, there were few working and highly educated mothers I could have felt like “the other” or an “outsider” and so could my three-year-old who was rather alone in having to adapt to life with a mother who worked outside the home (even though my practice and ongoing coursework was when he was at school.) His friends’ mothers were different than his mother.
As the years went by I couldn’t forget that my children grew up in that milieu and so even when they were in high school I drove them to school not because they needed me and could surely have taken a school bus, but because I wanted that early morning time to chat with them. We all remember this time fondly. I was quite clear by this time that motherhood in the way I wanted it to evolve could be combined with full professional working life. And I was raising young sons who respected that while surely feeling loved.
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 topic of this interview is wellness in women, and I am about to narrow the topic to mental health wellness in women. Despite living in a fairly under-educated area as a young professional mother where I stood rather alone among non-working, far less educated women who depended on their husbands for income, I respected these women for the care and nurturance they gave their children that they also extended to me.
I saw them as working women — mothers at home. A rural community was different for me from the metropolitan working life I’d experienced earlier, but I had always felt like “the other” in some respects before–being a female first populated by male colleagues, being in a minority religion, and flying solo in most of my endeavors.
However, these women did not isolate me from their neighborliness despite our differences in education and they kept me in touch with the vast majority of women in the U.S. who did not or could not avail themselves at the time to higher education leading to aspirations and ambitions of their own. If I seemed odd to them, they never pushed me away. They were caring mothers, sharing my first priority, loving our children and supporting the emotional well-being of diverse women. We respected each other and our diversity. We welcomed each other into our homes, grew up as young mothers, and were there for each other as needed.
I understood more than ever difference among women as a source of emotional strength.
Thinking back, I recall three specifically kind women in my age group with whom I shared coffee, neighborhood walks, and even joined them in making a community quilt. They gave me something I needed: nurturance.
Diane gave me a baby shower with my second baby. She lived across our country street. I was so moved and grateful for her support. It was unexpected and so loving to receive this kindness from a young woman whose interests were so different from mine. She invited me to come to her astrology group — while I didn’t understand her beliefs, I didn’t let that be known. It didn’t matter. I was glad to be included. When I needed a friend to talk to, she always welcomed me into her kitchen when I knocked on her door without even calling first. I admired her food preparations for her family.
While I was always rushing when I cooked, I remember watching her slowly peel carrots in preparation for her stew. It calmed me. I learned to bake bread. (I could tell my professional friends found that annoying by the irritation on their faces when I made them sandwiches because they were so competitive and didn’t make bread, too! So how could I do something they hadn’t learned? Clearly, times have changed, and so many women care about what they eat and serve, and I don’t mean to say professional women in the eighties didn’t care about good food for their families, but I was learning how envy is so peculiar.)
Arlene and I created play times for our same-age children at each other’s modest houses and back yards, feeling the warmth we gave to each other’s children when we left them for a few hours under each other’s watchful maternal eyes. I trusted Arlene with my little children. I knew she’d be soft and warm, feed them, smile at them, make them feel enjoyed.
Sally’s children were older than mine, though we were the same age. I enjoyed her country home, laid out with comfortable furniture and a wonderful working kitchen. We walked to the bay together and I learned about her teenage daughter whom I cared about. She was aware my sons stood out academically and I think she knew I had high aspirations for them, perhaps unlike what she initially imagined for both herself and her children. But we were opening each other’s worlds in a way that comforted and encouraged us both.
You might think that the collegial support of only professional women I learned and worked with would have been enough. But I don’t think so. I knew what it felt like to be different yet welcomed. This was a valuable experience for me when I needed it. My neighborhood women weren’t in a rush. They weren’t competitive. They had a wonderful vitality they extended to me adding to my life. They didn’t push me away. Perhaps they were curious as was I about where I was headed but I was still a welcome member of the neighborhood. Maybe I was a woman they’d never encountered before but they accepted me anyway. I was most fortunate.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
My professional life centers on mental health. While women may be the majority of patients in psychotherapy even in contemporary times because they grew up thinking to nurture was their role and that to share feelings was for at least some permissible. However, even today everyday disorders of mental health are hidden among women, even supposed friends, like shame, competition, and the envy I spoke of earlier that still holds center stage.
My genuine nonjudgmental attitude has been felt by the widely diverse women I’ve treated. I hope I engendered that attitude in them so that it was internalized and passed on to their daughters and female friends.
Who is anyone to judge another?
Seems like such an obvious question that needs no answer, but how common it is to be critical of others different from oneself, to malign someone who feels different from oneself not about only politics, religion, sexuality, and feminism, for example, but about anxiety, depression, personality traits, how to love and be loved, how to find a partner to live with for better and for worse.
There are various forms of psychotherapy today. My training in psychoanalysis may become obsolete which would be a grave mistake because it brings a depth of meaning to our lives. There are so many misconceptions about brilliant Sigmund Freud who understood the unconscious was always louder in our minds than what we were conscious of, a man who mostly treated women and I believe if he lived today would understand new priorities and possibilities for girls.
Why do people forget that it was his daughter, Anna Freud, who was an early female psychoanalyst — a champion among those who treated children long ago. Many brilliant psychoanalysts contributed vast knowledge and understanding after Freud, differed with some of his precepts, but learned from him, too. Past theorists cannot foresee the world that’s coming but steer us forward into new discoveries about the mind including the highly active female mind.
One of my favorite quotes from Freud when he talked about how someone adapts to the loss of another is profound: “When the shadow of the object falls upon the ego…” He was referring poetically to when the shadow or internal memory of the lost person [the object] is played out unconsciously by repeating the behavior of the one who is missed by the survivor. If a woman surviving the loss of another unwittingly enacts the manner or behavior of that person for a period of time, she has empathically identified with this lost person, and by playing out that someone’s past behavior, she experiences a beginning of her recovery of emotional wellness. This identification with the lost person by imitating behavior makes the woman feel closer once again to someone who is gone. She does so unconsciously yet feels less pain.
An advantage of a long career is that I don’t forget the early thinkers who explored empathy, adaptation, self-esteem, and how to combine hard mental times with the pursuit of happiness. As I’ve continued learning new ideas, new forms of treatment, new neuro-scientific understandings of how our brains work (and sometimes don’t work so well), I’ve never forgotten not to judge others, regardless of what may seem strange, odd, fearful, threatening and even the cause of deep ill-will toward others that may be harmful until it is understood perhaps as a desperate struggle from within that is foisted without.
Wellness in mental health is a societal priority for women in all cultures. There is nowhere a woman can go and only find other women just like herself. Coalition is the way to move forward.
I hope this attitude that I hold has affected others, not only those I’ve treated, but those for whom I’ve written books to reach a greater audience. I strive to share with women that their behavior, the behavior of their partners, the behavior of their children, their behavior as mothers all demonstrated through various actions have emotional meanings.
Behavior is full of messages communicated in actions, in voice tones, in body gestures, in slips of the tongue, and experiences of déjà vu. Behavior on the outside is a mere picture of what’s coursing through a woman’s insides, her inner world. Knowing and believing this and sharing how to understand the inner world of women is my contribution.
When I believe, for example, that even a female narcissist can learn to love and be loved, it is with a belief in the plasticity of her brain impacted by the effectiveness of long-term true nonjudgmental empathy, never previously experienced.
Or, when I won’t give up on a woman in the throes of deep depression or severe anxiety because I share my faith in her; my faith that she can learn how to endure and modulate her emotional pain primarily by having another understand it with her and then perhaps in addition, backing this understanding as needed by behavioral interventions, psychopharmacology, and her ever-growing self-reflection that leads to comprehending the causes and often the longevity of mental illness.
Knowledge of the significance of mental health in the pursuit of happiness for women without shame, exhaustive self-doubt, terror, and an alarm is a mission I share with many others. It needn’t be ideal. It can be real If this knowledge is shared by women in society in an effort to benefit more women.
Hopefully, with ever-increasing knowledge about how women relate to each other supporting each other’s mental health wellness, the subject of this interview, society will reduce terror, fear of diversity, fear of others different from ourselves, and embrace our never-ending muddled minds that need care, nurturance, and deep tolerance for the emotional suffering of oneself and others as well as an appreciation for the vastness of the brilliance and vitality that can accompany it.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
1. Based on my limited experiences in my lifetime I suggest being open to a range of lifestyles with diverse people with diverse ideas. My stories above hopefully exemplify this notion. Women’s diversity is a source of strength when incorporated in your lifestyle.
2. I would like to encourage women to share their voices comfortably. We don’t all have to be extroverts. Introverts live a fine creative and productive life. So, consider all the many ways our voices can be heard, visualized, shared, and discovered.
Some of us enjoy being leaders in the public eye following dreams and aspirations and hoping to expand and share ideals joining a multitude of voices. Others are more private with their musical and visual creative artistic pursuits, their wide range of activities in the sciences and the arts, including classical and contemporary paintings, sculptures, and music, a vast array of published works, and private journals. A lifestyle that may include joining teachers and learners in our ever-expanding contemporary world seems exciting and fulfilling.
3. In the world of mental health, open yourself to empathizing with those you at first fail to understand. Greet them without judgment, learn about their conceptions, their realities. Accept what suits you uniquely for your emotional well-being without putting up barriers to understanding others.
4. Some women are risk-takers and greater change-makers than others. Each of us begins finding our way as little girls who grow into women. Embrace women of all stripes. If you like to travel, enjoy meeting others from cultures other than your own in person. If you prefer to live the majority of the time in your chosen adult community, then do so. Read, read, read in print, digitally, and with audio. Whatever suits you. Enjoy the expansiveness the internet brings to us all despite the security measures we must also understand and endure.
5. Make emotional health a priority for yourself and others. Stressful lives work for some who thrive on high levels of stimulation, but many want to temper their levels of stress without diminishing their learning capacity. Find out what works for you.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I want to support a movement of a coalition of the diversity of women who share and publicize the right to mental health services for all women in the name of wellness.
A movement that publicized the priority for younger and older women to continue their education throughout life for its own sake, as well as a mental health priority, will always open doors and take down walls. This is a way to combat mental illness that would surely bring more mental health wellness to more girls and women in society. Many movements share these ideals. I’m not needed to start a new one, but I surely support the effort.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
I didn’t really need 5 things told to me. One would have been comprehensive enough. That is as a young woman I was facing a problem that had no name, but it would be defined by brilliant female leaders to whom I should pay close attention.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
I don’t want to be redundant and thus I think it’s clear that while all these changes stay uppermost in my mind, I see my role to be most productive in the mental health field for women.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Listeners and readers are welcome to visit my website: https://lauriehollmanphd.com
Thank you for these fantastic insights!