5 Steps For Deeper Connections

Check out this piece I collaborated on for WOMN MAG: http://www.womnmag.com/lifestyle/5-steps-deeper-connections/

The team at WOMN frequently attends events where small talk is prevalent. People might chat about shoes, or the girl in the room who resembles a supermodel. But are we really only connecting with each other over surface opinions? We believe shared and different interests can be a tool to dive deeper and forge authentic bonds.

With the recent debates and election, we realized the political mode of asking questions to size up and one-up. When meeting someone, why can’t we lead with authenticity? What is the best way to do this without interviewing, interrogating, or overstepping?

WOMN is not a political platform, but we firmly believe in community and accomplishing more together. Whether you are a new mom thankful to the person who held the door for your mammoth stroller, or the loner on a park bench who encounters a genuine smile, sometimes the most impactful moments start with a stranger.

As holiday events and gatherings quickly approach, we’ve sought out tools to foster community beyond the surface. We consulted relationship expert and therapist, Ana Santaolalla, for attainable, simple steps toward meaningful conversations this season. Her ”east meets west approach to healing the modern mind” is a realistic, refreshing perspective on the human need to bond, and ultimately reach our highest potential. Ana recommends keeping these five steps in mind:

Intentional Connection. Be purposeful about your goal to connect. Go into a gathering with the mindset that you want to bond with others in a worthwhile way. Mingling with everyone will likely result in little more than small talk and exhaustion. Focusing on getting to know one or two new people is much more likely to forge new bonds.

Authenticity. Be real, be genuine, be yourself- that is, your true self. Many of us have been socialized to care immensely about how others perceive us. The desire to be liked is natural, but it often leads us to act in ways that are incongruent with who we truly are. When we are congruent, what we feel and what we say match. This authenticity brings with it a sense of calm and ease. Meaningful connections are rooted in honesty and openness. Share something amazing- even awkward or frustrating- that happened to you that day. Transparency in such areas is relatable, as well as liberating.

Be present. Be in the moment, aware of the sensations you are experiencing. If you are having a conversation, focus on that, not what is happening across the room. Are you feeling nervous, bored, excited? Being present allows you to pick up on other people’s cues more effectively, and to fully experience your own feelings. This awareness can remain internal, or something you share with a new friend. Sharing what you are feeling is a vulnerable act, and vulnerability is a pillar of connection.

Curiosity. A genuine interest in bonding with someone sparks the desire to ask questions, to learn more. Typical conversation starters can be invasive or competitive. Instead of asking someone what they do for work, how about first asking how their day is going or what they did that day? Extroverts generally enjoy talking about themselves and their experiences. Those who are introverted may not share as much, but your gentle curiosity will encourage openness, and a deeper interaction.

Listen. Although it sounds obvious, listening is probably the single most powerful tool in helping us bond with another person. Truly hearing someone means taking in their words without using that time to think of what you’d like to say next. It’s also important to listen without judgment, or comparing your own experiences. Take in what is being said, and be attentive to nonverbal cues such as eye contact or facial expression. When we really listen with intent, we enter someone’s world. We begin to have empathy for them, which in turn enriches our own lives.





On Pleasure, Pain, Happiness...

Our natural tendency as humans is to avoid pain and seek pleasure. We go to great to lengths to protect ourselves (hide from bear) and feel good (kill and eat rabbit) - all necessary for survival in the wild. Yet not so helpful in creating the enduring happiness many modern homosapiens search for. Most of us are lucky enough to not have to fend for our survival on a daily basis. Which gifts us with time for creative exploration, and interpersonal, or spiritual evolution.

Regardless of where we are in our lives, clinging to pleasure and averting pain are unsustainable ways of being. Especially if happiness is the ultimate goal. Feeling good and feeling like shit are impermanent states, and our natural tendency to want to keep things feeling good ends up having a paradoxical effect. We chase something that is unsustainable and run from the inevitable. Happiness stems from allowing the experiences of pleasure and pain to arise and pass like clouds in the sky. Observing our tendency to cling and reject and bringing awareness to this very moment.

Feeling Fear

In my work I find that fear is the feeling that causes the most terror in people. Feeling fear is scary! It makes sense that we avoid it - fear triggers a a series of survival-based physiological responses: fight, flight, freeze (most recently added to the list: feed). Which release adrenalin and cortisol hormones, making us feel temporarily amped, and wiped out later. Because we are wired for survival these responses are habitual, and if we've endured trauma in the past, we are often more reactive and hyper-vigilant to perceived stressors in the environment. Yet for most of us trying not to get eaten by a bear isn't a daily issue. Instead we may be stressed and anxious about Ebola, not having freedom in a relationship, being honest with ourselves, feeling raw emotions, rejection, death, finances, getting cut off on the freeway, or deciding what's for dinner. The list goes on....We are chronically reactive and chronically stressed by our thoughts. 

I'm offering that we practice bringing conscious awareness to feelings of fear, invite the worried emotions in, rather than avoid, numb, run, hide, and mask what we are feeling. Feeling our feelings helps us heal and relate more authentically with ourselves and others. When we flee we miss out on experiencing each moment fully. 

As Tara Brach, encourages:

"Letting go into fear, accepting it, may seem counterintuitive. Yet because fear is an intrinsic part of being alive, resisting it means resisting life. The habit of avoidance seeps into every aspect of our life: It prevents us from loving well, from cherishing beauty within and around us and being present to the moment. This is why Radical Acceptance of fear is right at the center of our spiritual awakening."

"The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less I find myself wishing to rush in to fix things. As I try to listen to myself and the experiencing going on in me, and the more I try to extend that same listening attitude to another person, the more respect I feel for the complex processes of life. I become less and less inclined to hurry in to fix things, to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go. I am much more content simply to be myself and to let another person be himself." - Carl Rogers

Interview in AllTreatment


What therapy modalities do you use in your practice?

My approach is eclectic in that I borrow from a variety of modalities in order to tailor treatment to the unique needs of each client. I am highly influenced by psychodynamic and humanistic psychotherapy, attachment theory, and interpersonal neurobiology.  I have a background in yoga and mindfulness practices and maintain a integrative or holistic approach to therapy; which emphasizes the role the of mind-body connection in mental health. I am also trained in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and have had great success using this model to treat trauma.

When should one seek treatment?

I think individuals, couples, and families should seek treatment when they are unable to solve the problems they are faced with, on their own, or simply would like to improve their relationship to themselves and others. A few common issues that can be effectively addressed in treatment are: low mood, lack of motivation, irritability, stress, substance abuse, sleeping/eating problems, difficulty with communication, marital discord, and parenting challenges.

What relationships exist between mental health and substance abuse? What services do you provide for someone suffering with either and/or both?

I think there is a direct relationship between mental health and substance abuse and believe both issues should be addressed in treatment. Substance abuse is often a indicator that their may be a untreated mood disorder such as anxiety or depression. People suffering from mental health issues often use alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate. It is important to provide client's with education about how substance use negatively impacts mental health symptoms and hinders treatment progress. When working with individuals suffering from co-occurring disorders, I utilize a harm-reduction approach and mindfulness practices, in conjunction with 12-step support, and psychiatric referrals if necessary.

Ana Santaolalla is a Marriage & Family Therapist Intern in Pasadena, California. For more information regarding Ana’s services, please call (323) 682-0113.








Paradoxical theory of change: When we stop trying to change what we are, when we really accept all parts of ourselves, it is at that moment that change begins to happen all by itself.

Check your HHH

Aligning head, heart, and hand is something that we work on in order to discover greater peace and ease. These parts of ourselves are interlinked and biologically wired together to shape our experiences. I like to think of them as three close friends with different strengths that work best in a collaborative group context. When approaching a problem take a moment and check in. What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What actions are you taking/not taking?

Notice if the mind is dominating and running the show or perhaps the heart is getting too much airplay and not letting you think. Or maybe you are moving quickly and doing so much that you are disconnected from the joy and wisdom of the heart and mind.

Maybe check your head, heart, and hand next time things get confusing.

The breath is always your anchor.

What brings understanding is love. When your heart is full, then you will listen to the teacher, to the beggar, to the laughter of children, to the rainbow, and to the sorrow of man. Under every stone and leaf, that which is eternal exists."
 - Jiddu Krishnamurti