The Company You Keep: Warning Signs of Toxicity

Waving the red flag on a white background. Vector illustration

When we are raised on trauma and/or dysfunction, we are disproportionately surrounded by wounded people. Some wounds can result in a person being deeply compassionate and helpful, but other wounds can result in a person being abusive or mimicking the relational patterns of their abusers.

To truly heal and create a peaceful life, we must carefully and thoughtfully choose the people we allow close to us. In this effort, I have created the attached screener to help you assess for toxic behaviors in the people around you and the people you are considering bringing into your life.

The screener is not all inclusive, but it captures many of the high frequency behaviors of wounded people who are (or might be) apt to harm others.

Download your free copy here: Warning Signs of Toxicity 

Bonus – This companion handout helps you objectively assess your willingness to accommodate certain toxic behaviors: Who Would I Have to Be?

“… to be in any sort of relationship where you do not express yourself, simply to keep the peace, is a relationship ruled by one person and will never be balanced or healthy.”
― Bronnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing

Emotional Proctoring: When the Emotions and Needs of Others Rule Your Life

The concept of codependency is often relegated to addiction literature, but it has tendrils far beyond addiction. Further, codependency is commonly described as some sort of blind enmeshment that leaves the codependent person feeling they must just be pathetic. Not only is this a potentially condescending oversimplification of codependency, but it lacks the nuance of how it manifests in people who otherwise present as strong, capable, and gritty.

(For a broad description of codependency, visit: or

As a trauma specialist, the form of codependency I’m most likely to see has to do with caregiving and rescuing, and quite often, this caregiving and rescuing is emotional as much as it is logistical. In other words, my codependent patients tend to feel responsible for other people’s feelings. This can take many forms:

  • Feeling hijacked when someone else is in a bad mood
  • Feeling tense when someone’s mood shifts
  • Feeling responsible for cheering others up
  • Feeling like they’re not allowed to be happy unless others are
  • Personalizing other people’s negative moods
  • Believing they caused or contributed to the other person’s bad mood
  • Feeling they must problem-solve other people’s misfortune (aka: rescuing)
  • Trying to anticipate and get ahead of someone else’s feelings
  • Feeling like a failure if people didn’t enjoy themselves
  • Allowing other’s feelings to crowd out their own
  • Believing their needs or feelings cause other’s negative emotions
  • Feeling like they aren’t sacrificing enough for other’s happiness
  • Replaying interactions to examine how they could have prevented the other person’s bad mood
  • Feeling responsible for keeping everyone’s mood even
  • Feeling responsible for mending tensions between other people
  • Feeling responsible for whether or not someone else can love them
  • Believing they’re not worthy of taking up emotional space in relationships
  • Believing they must single-handedly investigate and resolve other’s passive-aggressiveness
  • Feeling others lashed out at them for a valid reason
  • Feeling automatic compassion for people who hurt them
  • Believing they must tolerate and be patient with other people’s mood swings
  • Feeling responsible for investigating and communicating the problem
  • Feeling responsible for reading between the lines
  • Feeling obligated to meet or match other people’s moods
  • Feeling it’s their job to initiate hard conversations
  • Feeling guilty for not dropping everything for someone else’s misfortune
  • Believing other people’s needs are more legitimate than their own
  • Feeling obligated to be responsive to other’s toxic communication or behaviors
  • Feeling selfish for not responding to other’s moodiness
  • Etc.

These types of emotional codependents might be thought of as emotional proctors. define proctors as someone whose job it is “to supervise or monitor” or someone “charged with…the maintenance of good order.” Emotional proctors conduct constant surveillance of the emotions or potential emotions of people around them, and emotional proctors feel responsible for keeping everyone’s emotions in good order. Meanwhile, their own emotions are silent, invisible, and ignored – seemingly outsized and overpowered by the emotions of people around them.

Emotional proctors tend to unconsciously choose partners and friends who are essentially emotionally unavailable. I say “essentially,” because their partners and friends are often highly emotional, but there’s no emotional reciprocity that can nurture and sustain a healthy relationship. Rather, the partners and friends tend to be highly invested in their own emotions (consciously or not) and don’t show much interest in the emotional life of the emotional proctor. In other words, there’s a lack of exchange in emotions, which is prohibitive of emotional intimacy.

(For more on emotional intimacy, visit:

How emotional proctoring develops

Overarchingly, emotional proctoring develops due to not having your needs met in childhood. In other words, you were taught that your needs, emotions, boundaries, etc. weren’t important or weren’t a priority. This may have been a neglectful oversight from your caregivers, or they may have doled out overt punishment when you had needs, showed emotions, or behaved like a typical child. Additionally, you may have been parentified and forced to grow up too fast. In short, you were taught that you weren’t allowed to have needs, and/or if you did have needs, they somehow negatively affected others.

On top of your needs being neglected or punished, you were taught that it was beneficial to attend to other people’s needs. Sometimes this comes in the form of being able to make a parent laugh when they are agitated, or it may have been providing comfort to a sibling after they were abused. In whatever form you learned it was beneficial to manage other’s emotions, it was a survival tool and coping strategy that you unconsciously carried forward into adulthood.

Given the critical formative and developmental nature of childhood, these lessons become deeply conditioned in you and shape how you subsequently experience and interact with the world.

(For more on how emotional neglect and/or abuse can impact your emotional life, the following books are recommended: Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb, PhD and Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay Gibson, PsyD. For information on parentification, visit: or

Who takes advantage of emotional proctors

So what type of person would take advantage of an emotional proctor? First, let’s be clear that the average, reasonably healthy person wouldn’t allow the emotional proctor to single-handedly bear the burdens of all emotions in interpersonal relationships, so a healthy person would either attempt to draw the emotional proctor out of their emotional foxhole or would distance themselves from the emotional proctor due to their emotional unavailability. Thus, it would take an emotionally unhealthy person to take advantage of an emotional proctor.

In my experience, there are two broad types of people that glom on to emotional proctors: the projectors and the parasites. There can be overlap in these two types. One person can be both a projector and a parasite and may move fluidly between these two sets of tactics. For clarity, however, I’ll describe them separately.

Both projectors and parasites choose emotional proctors, because they need someone to blame and someone to solve problems for them…and need someone who will readily accept this blame and responsibility. They also both have psychological structures that make their emotions dominant in a relationship, so they need people around them who don’t take up emotional bandwidth in the dynamic.


Projectors are quintessential externalizers, which means they blame external sources (i.e., people or circumstances) for their misfortunes and discontentment. (For an overview of externalizing, visit: Since projectors are blamers, an emotional proctor in their orbit will be assigned blame, accept blame, and feel responsible for the projector’s discontentment. The emotional proctor will likely be wrapped around the axle – filled with tension and negative self-talk – until they feel they have successfully resolved the issue and made the projector feel better.

Since parasites are also externalizers (as described below), the key distinction here is that the projector doesn’t overtly present as a victim. Rather, the projector presents as capable, independent, and hardy, but they lash out, anger easily, exhibit irritability, and aggressively confront others whom they blame for their discontentment.

There is often an overt or covert power differential between the projector and the proctor. This isn’t typically a defined or ratified power differential. Rather, it’s a power differential that is a byproduct of the blame/responsibility dynamic (and/or emotional abuse) between them. As a result, the emotional proctor is likely to defer to the wishes and whims of the projector – in an effort to keep the projector happy. This blame-then-deference dynamic is what creates the power differential.

(For more on emotional abuse, visit:


Parasites are individuals who view themselves as victims and, therefore, feel entitled to the support and efforts of other people. (For some intel on the victim personality, visit: or Parasites feel justified in taking from others to even the proverbial score in their enduring victimization, so they won’t hesitate to capitalize on the caregiving and rescuing of an emotional proctor. In fact, the parasite feels entitled to it, and proctors jump to lend a sympathetic ear and comforting shoulder.

As noted above, parasites are also externalizers, as they don’t tend to have good self-awareness and typically blame other people or circumstances for their (perceived) unjust fate. Unlike the projector, however, the parasite presents as a helpless, unfortunate, moody martyr. Thus, their tactics for using the emotional proctor look different. Rather than being explosive, for example, the parasite is more likely to whine, tell endless stories of their victimhood, and play on the heartstrings of the proctor.

Resultantly, power differentials and emotional abuse are less obvious – but only because they’ve gone underground. The proctor is unknowingly in an endless loop of trying to help the parasite problem-solve and feel empowered, but all the while, the proctor doesn’t know that the parasite isn’t angling to solve their own problems or feel empowered. They’re merely angling to have the proctor accomplish those things for them. When a proctor finally realizes this and takes a step back, the parasite merely views them as one more victimizer (and may seek revenge) and moves on to find their next proctor.

What to do about it

First, let’s be clear that there’s no law saying you can’t be an emotional proctor, so if you don’t want to dial down these ways of relating, that’s your choice. We see and support you. For those that are looking for change, read on.

  • Learn about where your proctoring comes from. Recommended reading includes: Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb, PhD and Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay Gibson, PsyD. Quite often, understanding ourselves generates organic change.
  • Assess the cost. Are you fatigued? Do you feel lonely? Are you getting sick more frequently? Develop an inventory of the consequences of your proctoring, and ask yourself if this is how you want to live. Better yet, ask yourself how you’d feel if in 10 years, not a single thing had changed. Most humans are motivated by immediate gratification, and for emotional proctors, that “gratification” is the relief of discomfort. You can challenge that gratification habit by panning back and assessing the longitudinal consequences.
  • Think about someone you love. Imagine them in precisely the same situation, and ask yourself what you would want for them. Proctors don’t typically have a clear bead on themselves and don’t see themselves as having the same rights or needs as others, so it’s often more effective to make assessments and decisions based on what they want for someone they love.
  • Study human rights. Read the UN’s definition of human rights (found here:,and%20education%2C%20and%20many%20more.). Inventory your conceptualization of basic human rights, and study how you feel when you witness someone’s basic human rights being violated. Emotional proctors are natural empathizers, so studying human rights violations is a powerful exercise. Next, ask yourself why, out of more than 8 billion people on this planet, you are the only one not worthy of the same human rights.
  • Put the shoe on the other foot. When someone is syphoning your energy and emotions, ask yourself if you would put them in the same position as they’re putting you in. Would you make your emotions someone else’s problem? Would you erode someone else’s agency and autonomy to get your needs met? If not, why is it ok for them to do that to you?
  • Learn to identify and name your emotions. Proctors are veritable experts of emotions, but here’s the rub: They’re experts at other’s emotions – not their own. Since proctor’s emotions have been chronically neglected and/or punished, they have little expertise in their own emotions…and even less expertise in expressing them. Proctors must study their own emotions and practice saying them out loud to safe individuals.
  • Work on boundary setting. Emotional proctors notoriously have little to no boundaries. In fact, they don’t feel entitled to have boundaries, and/or they see boundaries as aggressive toward or intrusive upon others. Proctors need to devour articles, books, and videos on boundary setting to become resident experts, after which they need to begin to practice setting boundaries. (Note: New skills are hard, so we’re often clumsy in the early stages. Accept this clumsiness as an inevitability to help inoculate you to the discomfort you’ll certainly feel as you embark upon setting healthy boundaries.)
  • Don’t take the bait. Projectors and parasites don’t use healthy tactics to get their needs met. They might drop vague breadcrumbs – expecting you to dig for more information. They might make whiney or self-disparaging statements – digging for reassurance. They may say things in excessively angry or dramatic ways – then wait in silence for you to act out an equally angry or dramatic support response. They may act moody or isolative in group settings – expecting you to peel away from the group to attend to them. They may give you silent treatment – expecting you to initiate conversation and dig for what’s wrong. They may act like their life is irreparably damaged if you don’t do exactly what they wish. (There are so many more coercive tactics!) Regardless of the tactic, don’t take the bait. You’ll be crazy-uncomfortable, but don’t react in the way they are trying to coerce you to react. If you do, you reinforce their toxic tactics and you relinquish your autonomy. Insist upon clear, healthy communication and full participation in interactions.
  • Hone your radar. Work on developing a method of spotting projectors and parasites early on. Reread the above descriptions of projectors and parasites, and watch for signs and symptoms of these behaviors to reduce the number of projectors and parasites you bring into your orbit.
  • Conduct controlled burns. If you find yourself surrounded by projectors and parasites, you may have to do a controlled burn to prevent a proverbial wildfire. Assess which toxic relationships you can live without, and work on ending those relationships. (Note: You don’t owe an explanation. Sometimes it’s best to just let the relationship peter out.) Save your energy for working on the most valued and salvageable relationships in your life.
  • Learn to be an equal. Emotional proctors are expected to be super-human – having zero emotional needs and asking for no support, but this super-human pedestal actually results in the dehumanization of the proctor. Work on learning how to be a fleshy mortal just like everyone else. For example, if you and a group of colleagues or friends get bad news, be in that bad news with your peers. You don’t need to save the group and dehumanize yourself. You’re allowed to be pained alongside and equal to them.
  • See more than you save. Most emotional proctors feel invisible, so when I ask them if it’s more powerful for them to be seen or to be saved, they unequivocally say it’s more powerful to be seen. Then why are they out there trying to save everyone? If proctors are more moved by being seen, the natural conclusion is that they merely need to see others. Leave the saving to the lifeguards.
  • Find an ally. Proctors are lonely, and they have unhealthy interpersonal habits. Finding an ally in healthy and/or likeminded people can serve as a rally point for accountability, as well as a vector check if you’re not quite sure what to do in a situation. We humans are wired to be part of a community, so this work is a lot easier if you’re not doing it alone.

Joye Henrie, PhD

April 2023

What’s the difference between the various types of mental health professionals?

There are many different types of mental health professionals, and we understand that the string of letters behind our names can be confusing. I developed the table below to offer some transparency and clarification on the various mental health professionals.

A broad (but imperfect) distinction can be made by thinking about two categories: medically trained vs. not medically trained.

  • Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, for example, are medically trained, as they attend medical school and nursing school, respectively. Thus, they are equipped with physical medicine knowledge that qualifies them to prescribe psychiatric medications. This educational background is important, as they are trained to understand interaction effects of various drugs, physical conditions that can masquerade as mental health conditions, and the nuanced uses of medications based on symptoms, medical conditions, etc. These mental health professionals also receive training in conducting psychotherapy – but to a lesser degree than nonmedical mental health professionals.
  • Psychologists and clinical social workers, on the other hand, are not medically trained. Our training emphasizes conducting psychotherapy, differential diagnosis, etc.

It is common for patients to have both a medically trained and nonmedically trained mental health provider if the patient is engaged in psychotherapy and is being prescribed psychiatric medication at the same time. In this case, the nonmedical clinician would be the one providing psychotherapy, whereas the medical clinician would be the one prescribing and managing the patient’s medications.

People also often wonder what the difference is between, for example, a psychologist and a social worker. The only skillset difference between the two is that psychologists are trained and licensed to conduct psychological testing and assessment, whereas a social worker is not. (Note: Psychological testing and assessment can be used for many things. In short, it is a structured, standardized, and reliable method for assessing learning differences, dementia, neurodivergence, personality, etc.) Otherwise, psychologists and social workers have the same skillsets.

Two other differences between the various types of mental health professionals are (1) the length of time required to achieve the credential and (2) the culture of the career field.

  • Length of time – Psychiatrists and psychologists, for example, are required to obtain a medical degree or doctorate to be eligible for licensure, whereas a social worker or professional counselor is required to obtain a master’s degree to be eligible for licensure. In my experience as a psychologist, however, my extra schooling did not provide extra education in how to do therapy or how to be a therapist. Rather, my extra schooling taught me how to interpret statistics, how to design a research study, and how to critically analyze research outcomes. Therefore, my extra schooling didn’t equip me to be a better clinician.
    • I have met extraordinarily gifted clinicians that are social workers, and I have met lousy clinicians that are psychologists (and vice versa), so I wouldn’t select a therapist for myself or a loved one based on credentials. In my experience, we truly learn to be clinicians in supervision and practice, which means an individual of any credentialing type has the potential to be great, mediocre, or lousy.
  • Culture of career field – Psychologists and social workers, for example, tend to have vastly different cultural experiences in their educational and professional journeys. In the culture of psychology, we’re generally not supposed to admit if we have our own wounds, whereas social work programs promote self-disclosure. The psychology field emphasizes rigor, legalism, and specificity, whereas the social work field emphasizes essence and intent. The social work field emphasizes being person-centered and fighting for patients at all costs, whereas the psychology field emphasizes accuracy and facts – despite the human cost.
    • We joke at our clinic that it’s essential our fields work together, so we can polish down one another’s rough edges and bad habits.

You might see other letters listed behind the names of mental health professionals (i.e., beyond the ones listed in the table below). It would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list, but for the sake of orienting you to them… A psychologist might have ABPP listed behind their PhD/PsyD, which means they are board certified. A social worker’s board certification might be listed as BCD. There are also various specialty certifications that a clinician may or may not list in their title (e.g., CWT = Certified in War Trauma). If you are curious about the extra letters, a simple web search should reveal their meaning.

Many of the mental health credentialing types are governed by different licensing boards, which I’ve listed in the table below for the State of New Mexico. These can also serve as a guide for which board to look for in other states. Any consumer complaint should be submitted to the board governing the specific clinician in question.

Relatedly, most credentialing types are beholden to a professional Code of Ethics, which is specific to their credentialing type. For example, psychologists are bound to the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, which can be found here: . You can easily find the web-based Code of Ethics for the credentialing type in question. These Codes are important, as their ratified standards are enforceable by the respective licensing boards.

Title Typical Degree Type Typical Practice Functions
Regulatory Authority
Psychiatrist (MD, DO) Medical doctor with specialized training (e.g., residency) in mental & emotional illnesses Prescribing psychiatric medications, Diagnosis
New Mexico Medical Board
Clinical Psychologist (PhD, PsyD) Doctoral degree in psychology Psychotherapy, Psychological testing and assessment, Diagnosis
New Mexico Board of Psychologist Examiners
Clinical Social Worker (MSW, LMSW, LCSW) Master’s degree or higher in social work Psychotherapy, Diagnosis
Board of Social Work Examiners
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP, DNP) Master’s degree equivalent or higher Prescribing psychiatric medications, Diagnosis
New Mexico Board of Nursing
Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LPCC) Master’s degree or higher in psychology, counseling, or related field Psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Marital and Family Therapist (LAMFT, LMFT) Master’s degree or higher with specialized training in marital & family therapy Psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) Master’s degree or higher in counseling or related field Psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Licensed Professional Art Therapist (LPAT, ATR) Master’s degree or higher Uses forms of art to aid patients in emotional exploration
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LADAC) Associate’s degree or higher in an Addictions Counseling related field Substance abuse-related psychotherapy
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Licensed Substance Abuse Associate (LSAA) Tier 1: Associate’s Degree; Tier 2: Bachelor’s Degree; Tier 3: Master’s Degree Substance abuse-related psychotherapy; must have a clinical supervisor
New Mexico Board of Counseling and Therapy Practice
Pastoral Counselor Associate’s degree or higher in an ecclesiastical field Spirituality-based counseling
Ecclesiastical groups
Mental Health Technician (MHT) High School Diploma or GED or higher Ancillary paraprofessionals; may conduct limited, supervised clinical interviews, co-facilitate groups, administer screeners & psychological tests, & manage administrative tasks
Employer responsible for proficiency
Certified Peer Support Worker (CPSW) High School Diploma or GED or higher; is a current or former mental health consumer Providing support & skill-building
Office of Peer Recovery and Engagement


Joye Henrie, PhD

February 2023

PTSD Handouts

December 2020: In summer 2019, Dr. Henrie created approachable and informative handouts on PTSD. (Thanks to MT Ault who cleaned up the handouts with with her Photoshop skills.) Too few know about the sweeping physical impacts of PTSD, and with these handouts, we hope to begin remedying that.

(Note: We authorize free public use of these handouts with appropriate source credit.)

Why Would a Therapist be Silent During a Pandemic?

Like nearly everyone, I’m keeping an eye on health-related news, taking extra hygiene & sanitation precautions, & wondering what our collective future holds. I switched to virtual therapy & am staying away from people. Beyond my announcement that we were moving to virtual therapy, however, I have been professionally silent on the topic of COVID-19, yet this is precisely the circumstance in which many folks want to hear a therapist speak. Perhaps they’re yearning for guidance, words of comfort, or a touch point from which they can determine whether or not they’re doing this whole thing “right.” Yet here I’ve sat…outwardly silent.

In my earliest training as an Air Force officer, I was introduced to Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act; pronounced eww-duh). There are layered virtues in Col Boyd’s approach to decision making. It encourages us to be critical/objective thinkers, to not act rashly in ways that can cause harm, but also to ultimately act…to not be frozen in fear or indecisiveness. In daily life, we OODA loop repeatedly, & we may have to OODA multiple facets of the same situation.

Case in point, I first had to OODA the question of when to move to virtual therapy. I first observed what was unfolding…keeping tabs on world, national, & local news. I had to devote proactive attention to orienting to relative threat, proximity of said threat, & my responsibilities to my patients. I then decided on March 15th to offer virtual therapy to my at-risk patients & acted on that plan. I OODAed again to make the decision on March 17th to move to 100% virtual therapy.

Panning back, I’ve had to OODA whether to publicly comment on COVID-19, &, if so, what to say. I’ve watched corporations’ commercials. Some are lovely…while others’ are tone deaf. I’ve watched the emergence of a new breed of ads on social media…companies capitalizing on people’s fear.

And I’ve watched an avalanche of therapists’ recommendations for staying calm (etc.) come in through every communication source I access. I’ve fully read many & have casually skimmed many more, & I keep getting hung up on how non-universal & trite a lot of the material is. Don’t get me wrong: There’s helpful advice in SOME of it for SOME people in SOME situations. But the operative word is clearly “some.” There is no panacea in this…no solution for all people, all mental health statuses, all sets of contingencies.

This has heavily influenced my silence. As I observe & orient to the current pandemic, I think of my years of working privately with individuals & their highly variable situations & psychologies…even when they share a diagnosis. They each need to hear something different from me & at different paces & for different reasons. A practicum supervisor once said to me, “In clinical psychology, as in comedy, timing is everything.” These thoughts always give me pause when I contemplate a public statement. What I say has the potential to help one person while hurting another.

I don’t want to be guilty of being tone deaf about the widely variable situations & mental statuses of individuals who may come into contact with my words. And I certainly don’t want to cause harm.

One of my patients recently said, “It’s hard to figure out where to land in of all this. I don’t know. On a scale of zero-to-apocalypse, where are we?” I was intentionally silent initially. I allowed it to be a rhetorical question & just sat with them through the uncertainty. I know this patient well enough to know it wouldn’t be helpful for me to rush to fill the air space. Fact is, we’re all uncertain, so it would’ve been disingenuous for me to provide false or ill-informed platitudes. I let them know that they are part of a human community that is similarly concerned & uncertain….& that even in our uncertainty, we’re in this together.

Another patient (a medical provider) went from describing their concerns about their vulnerable patients, epidemiological projections, & the availability of PPE….to pondering aloud about large scale societal & economic impacts. I abruptly stopped them & forcefully told them that they don’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to contemplate that right now. I know this patient well enough to know that this internal rabbit hole would be destructive, & that they have historically responded well to overt redirection. I affirmed their concerns but advised them that – for their own sanity & the viability of the service they provide to the public – they needed to preserve their fuel to focus on caring for their patients.

Bottom line is that therapy isn’t conducive to one-size-fits-all advice. While diaphragmatic breathing might calm one person, going for a run might calm another. And while some people currently have the mental space & available time to do both, some of our essential workers or at-home caregivers have the mental space & available time to do neither. Who am I to tell them that they’re doing a pandemic wrong? When someone is in abject survival mode, who am I to give elementary “solutions”? Sure, I encourage self-care & self-compassion as much as the next therapist, but when someone is caring for their medically fragile child, caring for their elderly parent, homeschooling their kids, & mentally wrestling with their spouse’s loss of income, who am I to sideswipe them with the suggestion that deep breathing will make their life better? That’s not what they need to hear from a therapist right now.

What they need to hear goes a little more like this: This sucks. You’re in survival mode, & you only have the bandwidth for the essentials. There are so many unknowns, & no one can clear any of that up for you right now. Do what you need to do to keep your head above water, & if that means sitting on the couch like a potato before bed, then that’s what you need to do.

This does suck, folks. And there are no simple answers…no magic pills. Your therapist is as uncertain as you are, because we were never trained in infection control, epidemiology, or pandemics. We’re fleshy humans just like you. (Seriously, I continue to shut my ponytail in the car door on a regular basis. I’m a gold-medalist at pouring coffee down the front of my shirt. And I can’t pronounce the word “anonymity” or spell the word “parallel.”)

All I know at this point is what keeps me sane during hard times: I strategically focus on the goodness in humanity…stories of humans being good to one another. I think of all the things I have to be grateful for. I focus on one thing at a time, which sometimes takes lists to organize & put aside that which I can’t attend to at the moment. I nurture my relationships. I mentally dump extreme positions & stories…& instead take in the numerical average of all points. I remind myself of the hardships I’ve survived to put in perspective my ability to persevere. And I laugh…vigorously & often, because humor always takes the edge off.

Hang in there, everyone. This sucks. But there’s no definitive right or wrong way to mentally navigate a pandemic. We’re all doing the best we can, & we’re all in this together.

Joye Henrie, PhD
April 2020 

Defining Your Values Can Help You Make Better Decisions

Prior to therapy, most people only have a vague sense of what therapists mean by “values” or why they’re important. This exercise clarifies what values are and then walks you step-by-step through identifying your values, defining and personalizing your values, and using your values to help you make both small and big-picture decisions.

Click the link to download a free copy: Values Exercise 

Joye L. Henrie, PhD

 April 2019

The Adaptive Role of Anger: Anger Has a Voice in Military Service and Suicide Risk

John was a Navy Seal who had seen more than his fair share of war. He saw and did things that I’ll spare my readers – not to protect John, but (just as he would want) to protect my readers from even imagining things human beings aren’t meant to see. One day in session, he was cataloguing various things that recently had him agitated: the politics in his unit (that only seem to disappear when in the immediate throes of war), his ex-wife seemingly trying to turn his daughters against him, and his home remodeling contractors stealing meat out of his freezer.

When John talked about the politics in his unit, he seemed despondent – sad and indignant – that brothers and sisters in arms could so easily get caught up in seemingly trivial matters when back home in the United States – that they could turn on each other. In fact, John had just been given minor disciplinary action for being “disrespectful” to a higher-ranking officer. John spoke about the differences between being a military member downrange (when all that mattered was life and limb) and being a military member stateside (where everyone was presumably safe). John said it’s simpler downrange, because the rules are easier and intuitive: Don’t get killed. Don’t let your allies get killed. Downrange, no one has time to worry about who did or didn’t say ‘hello’ to them that morning in an appropriately enthusiastic fashion. When life is for all intents and purposes ‘safe,’ the rules become more complicated. In safety, people have the luxury of behaving badly.

John was equally despondent when he talked about his daughters. They were now old enough to assert to the courts whether or not they wanted to go on visitations with him, and he was convinced that their mother was brainwashing them to hate him. He didn’t want to put his daughters in the middle of things, so he felt unable to fight back. He was scared of not seeing them. He was hurt by their distance. He felt powerless to do anything about it, and the pain was bigger than he could put words to.

But when John talked about the contractors stealing meat from his freezer, he was enraged – incensed! He was furious that they would violate his personal space by taking from him, and he verbalized thoughts of violence in response to them casually taking his hard-earned money. He railed about his stolen meat for at least 20 solid minutes. I watched as his face turned red and veins bulged in his neck.

When he finally exhausted himself and fell quiet, I briefly remained quiet too. Then I pointed out to him that, despite the gravity of his career being threatened by disciplinary action and despite the gravity of his relationship with his daughters being threatened, he exuded the most anger about his stolen meat. He sat back, and a look of surprise crossed his face. “You’re right, doc. I think that after dealing with everything else, I just can’t handle one more thing.

He was partially right. The stress he carried around on his shoulders did indeed give him less patience for the routine stressors (stolen meat or otherwise) of life. His stress was leaking out everywhere. But there was more to it than exacerbation.

John was a moralistic man. He believed in doing what he believed was right, and he believed in exercising uncompromised integrity in following his moral compass. Despite lifelong hardship, he stayed the course…refusing to allow the hardships of the world steer him away from what he believed was right.

John was raised on trauma – an alcoholic, abusive father and submissive, victimized mother. He went to war – witnessing, exacting, and touching human death and suffering. He survived a toxic marriage – an unfaithful and verbally abusive wife who used the children to control him. Yet he persisted – white knuckling through with a tiny belief that there was order in the world and good, moralled people whom he just hadn’t met yet. He couldn’t survive without these beliefs, as his beliefs were the very thing that gave him a breath of hope and a reason to keep trying.

When his career was threatened (after everything he sacrificed) and when his daughters seemed to be turning against him, he couldn’t fully compute this information and the overwhelming landslide of feelings behind it. His brain wouldn’t let him…because it threatened his very reason for continuing to live. His brain protected him from the gravity of these events, and he froze in response.

The theft of the meat, on the other hand, was safe to feel. It was safe because petty theft isn’t super high on the hierarchy of bad human behavior. Petty theft sucks. It doesn’t feel good, and it’s mighty inconvenient. But it’s not murder, kidnapping, or any of the higher order wrongdoings that John’s survival couldn’t handle. His brain could let him feel petty theft, because petty theft didn’t squarely make him ask himself, “What’s the point of living?

And so he raged and railed against it…indignant and dripping with disgust.

Had John acted out his rage on the sticky-fingered contractors, the news headline would’ve read something like this: Local military member bludgeons contractors for stealing rump roasts from his freezer. And just like that, he would’ve disappeared into cultural stereotypes as another unhinged troop.

On the societal level, we say that veteran suicides are important to us. We donate to veteran causes. We thank people for their service. We make puppy-dog faces when we hear that one of our troops or veterans are suffering after war. We spend millions on social media blasts and campaigns designed to educate the end-user about risks and warning signs. But does any of this really work? And how are we proving that it works? Or is it possible that we’re just hemorrhaging time and money on suicide prevention tactics that are ineffectual and only actually serve to make us feel like we’re doing something?

Is anyone meaningfully asking service members or veterans what they think of the PSAs and programs we spend millions for?

Who do you picture when you think of a veteran who’s at risk for suicide? If you picture the sad, mopey Eeyore, you might be wrong. And being wrong in this equation can be fatal.

While the at-risk veterans who demonstrate Eeyore-like behaviors do exist, at-risk veterans are just as often the angry, irrational, short-tempered hot-heads that inadvertently (or advertently, as it were) push people away through their aggressive behaviors. They’re the guy at work who punches a wall in response to the slightest inconvenience. They’re the woman that’s stoic and repels her coworkers’ attempts to befriend her. They’re the guy who gets in the face of the person who stole their parking space in a store parking lot. They’re the woman that a boss evaluates as “defiant and difficult to correct.” They’re the guy that bludgeons contractors over meat.

At-risk veterans and service members are often over-flowing with bitterness, frustration, and emotions that they don’t know how to manage, and these emotions are most safely converted to anger, as anger can feel safe. Anger doesn’t make a trauma survivor feel vulnerable, which is critical. I have yet to meet at at-risk veteran or service member who wasn’t repulsed at the idea of feeling vulnerable. They’ve had more than their fair share of feeling vulnerable, and in their life experience, vulnerability leads to death and mayhem. Vulnerability must be avoided at all costs. So anger is safer. Anger is the emotional and behavioral equivalent of standing tall and waving your arms to ward off a mountain lion. Even if you feel like a small and fleshy snack, your survival is optimized by making yourself appear big and bold. It’s the human way of showing that – even if you’re going to lose in the end – you’re not going down without a fight. And isn’t that central in the Warrior Ethos? “…I will never accept defeat, I will never quit…”

While I was still in the uniform, I tried to shift the suicide prevention message such that people would take a second look at their angry counterparts (e.g., Alas, that message always seemed to get buried under a pile of the status quo.

As long as we ignore and reject this message, we aren’t truly moving towards changing our country’s devastating veteran suicide problem. And by not doing that, we’re failing at adequately caring for the people who sacrifice their lives for our way of life.

In clinical work, it’s exceptionally rare that I meet an at-risk veteran or service member who hasn’t had or doesn’t have “anger problems.” One patient in particular comes to mind; we’ll call him Fred. (Yes, I intentionally use blasé fake names.) When Fred first came to the military mental health clinic, he told the mental health technician that he was there because of “anger.” Fred also noted that he had a PTSD diagnosis from a different facility, but that he wasn’t willing to have that be the focus of treatment, as he had “been there, done that.” He was emphatic that he was unwilling to do “worksheets and repetition therapy,” because they didn’t work. So the technician asked me to take Fred (even though I was over-capacity and wasn’t supposed to be taking new patients).

Fred was a piece of work. He reported that both his commander and wife had incessantly complained about his temper and attitude, but he didn’t think he had a problem. “I’m just here to appease them. The real problem, if you ask me, is that people don’t like to hear the truth, and I’m not willing to change what I say just because it might hurt their feelings.” Fred and I arm-wrestled every time he came in. Sometimes, I’d win the match by the end of the session, and I’d get all naively hopeful that we had hit a pivot point. But then he’d come back next time – all yoked up and ready to wrestle again. The struggle was real. He was a pain in my ass…and I told him that. (Not gonna lie: I think his amusement at irritating me was part of what kept him coming back.)

Somewhere along the way, I completed my contract, separated from service, and opened my private practice in the network. Fred was allowed to continue work with me here. One day, I received a random email from his wife thanking me for helping him so much. She said he was like a different man. Fred arrived for his next session – yoked up and ready to wrestle – and I told him that his wife outed him. “What the hell?!” I asked him. “You never told me that things were changing out there.” He smirked and then confirmed that he had been getting positive feedback (both at home and work) about his improved demeanor and functioning. And then we finally hit a pivot point…

Some sessions later, Fred admitted to me that he had once had a gun in his mouth. He told me about years on end where he struggled to keep going and often believed he couldn’t tolerate the pain he carried daily. At his own pace, he started talking to me about where he had been, what he had seen, and who he had lost. (Even Fred will tell you that he still wrestles me sometimes, but maybe that’s just when he needs to get out some safe anger and bitterness to cope with his world.)

To adequately serve and help our service members and veterans – and prevent their untimely demise – we (as a profession and a populace) need to learn to see and orient to their anger in a different way. We need to learn that their anger is hard-learned, that it serves a purpose, and that (in the context of their experiences) it’s adaptive. Only then will we have any creditability with them or will they feel seen. That’s step one.

And then we need to help them strategically and adaptively turn down the volume on their anger, but that’s a different topic for a different day…

Joye L. Henrie, PhD

 March 2019

(Photo credit: Military OneSource

Winning without Power Poses: 10 Keys to Success for Commoners

In June 2018, I returned to Arkansas National Guard Youth ChalleNGe (my alma mater), where I gave the keynote speech for their 25th Anniversary celebration. The director and coordinators were gracious enough to give me complete artistic liberty in my talk. I took full advantage of this latitude and gave a talk on why I hate success stories. (I’m sure there were some folks briefly holding their breath in the audience.)

Long story short, I hate the typical depiction of success stories, because they only emphasize the shiny outcome. The path from point A to point Z seems mystical, which disallows aspiring young people from seeing the gritty core of the journey.

After conveying this message, as well as a brief summary of the highs and lows of my own journey, I shared with the audience the ten “keys” that were vital to my success. Unfortunately, what you will find here isn’t a quick fix or a magic pill. It’s a list of hard-learned and hard-earned lessons that require endurance, intestinal fortitude, and integrity. If that’s a list you can get behind, read on.

1. Define success

I’ve encountered countless people over the years that say they want to be successful, but if they are asked more questions about what that is or what their life will look like, they tend to give vague answers. We all know that if we want to take a road trip to an Airbnb we reserved, we have to know where the Airbnb is. How else would we get there? Similarly, to achieve our desired “success,” we have to define what that looks like. Is it a degree? A profession? A level of contentment? A specific dollar amount in savings? In order to arrive at our destination, we have to know what our destination is and plan out the best route to get there.

Arguably, it’s just as important to define success so that we know when we’ve reached it. (How will you know you’ve arrived at if you don’t know where you’re going?) If success is a nebulous thing in our heads, we may find ourselves mindlessly and perpetually trying to reach up and grab that next golden ticket – deeming ourselves only as successful as the content of our last day. That’s a problem, folks, because a lot of days are anything but flashy. And, if we are always striving for the next thing, we will never enjoy the contentment and ease waiting to be derived from the fruits of our labors.

2. Volunteer

Even when I was lost and confused…and when I didn’t have two pennies to rub together, I volunteered. In the beginning, I couldn’t have told you why, but in retrospect, I recognize that I needed to believe that – irrespective of my situation or history – I had something to offer. I needed to connect with other humans in a non-superficial way. I needed to be a part of the world and to be inspired by others who were fighting their own battles and courageously living all the gory details of their own lives. I needed to be around others who aspired to improve the world – not just take from it. I needed perspective, and I needed to be grounded and humbled. Having these needs met became intoxicating (to the point that I eventually needed to detox a bit…but I already addressed that in my self-worth blog).

Volunteering in nursing homes as a teenager and as a long-term care ombudsman as a young adult taught me that we could either live a life of joy or a life of regret. Either way, we all meet our eventual demise. Joining Civil Air Patrol and volunteering for search and rescue taught me that in our most agonizing moments of crisis, we are all relieved when we see another human being – irrespective of their race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. Civil Air Patrol also taught me the value of specificity, the pride of a job well done, and the nobility of pushing myself when I felt I had nothing left. Opening a donation center for foster youth reminded me daily that all children just want to be children. They want to feel normal when everything around them is abnormal. The donation center also taught me that everywhere there are needs awaiting a warm body to step up and meet the need. Volunteering for the booster club taught me that nearly any problem could be solved with comradery and communication. And volunteering for the HOA taught me that everywhere there are hurt people hurting people, but there are just as many people who want to buffer the pains and blows of the world.

In every day, there are lessons to be learned and joys to be had. By giving back and engaging, we’re empowered to change a little section of the world…and we’re reminded to be humble.

3. Be stubborn

When I was in my thirties, I remember my exasperated dad saying, “You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever met!” Without skipping a beat, I responded, “Where do you think I got it from? You’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever met!”

While unbridled and ill-structured stubbornness can get us in trouble and stymie our journeys, well-vectored stubbornness can get us where we’re going.

In order to be successful, I have had to stubbornly pursue my desired outcomes (i.e., becoming a clinical psychologist, developing and maintaining a high-quality marriage, breaking generational cycles, securing debt freedom, etc.) – even in the face of vocal doubters. I’ve had to stubbornly believe that it was possible to avoid becoming a statistic – even if I had never personally known anyone that achieved this. I’ve had to stubbornly withstand pressures that would compromise my integrity, and I’ve had to be willing and able to stand tall…even when that meant standing alone.

Standing alone or feeling alone can test the will of any human, but if we remember where we’re going, why we want to get there, and who we want to be, standing alone can be tolerable. (Optimally, however, part of our stubbornness should be carefully and deliberately selecting the right people to stand around us.)

4. Read Sun Tzu

The first time I was exposed to The Art of War by Sun Tzu, I interpreted it at its face value: war strategy. Fast forward a handful of years, and I randomly came across a Sun Tzu quote while trying to survive a toxic work environment: “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” Suddenly, I saw The Art of War in a new light. I went back and skimmed the Cliff’s Notes version, and what I found was a whole new world…a world where Sun Tzu was now talking about how to manage difficult relationships and difficult people. I read it with an eye on how to navigate the choppy waters of working for an ego-fragile manager: “…encourage his arrogance…The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu told me not to show my cards unnecessarily: “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” From this, I extrapolated the thought that if a toxic boss keeps me guessing, why wouldn’t I keep him guessing? I only give him more tools to abuse me if I’m operating in the dark while he has a flood light. Now obviously I’m not suggesting that anyone break company policy or fail to adhere to their job standards. I’m talking about personal shortcomings, fears, and emotions. Why give an abusive boss that power over you?

And speaking of power over you, in situations of abusive power imbalances, we’re prone to getting stuck in cycles of reactivity, and our captors capitalize on this. Staying healthy requires us to get unstuck, recognize unnecessary fights, and remain nonreactive: “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

5. Sulk only briefly

A patient of mine once came to her follow-up session and made a confession: In a bout of sadness, she had eaten five tacos the night before. She was ashamed and self-loathing over her five tacos. “So what?” I asked her. She had been so caught in a whirlwind of shame and “shoulds” in her mind that she overestimated the importance of her five sad tacos, and my “So what?” caught her by surprise.

Here’s the deal: Life can be hard, and sometimes – despite our best efforts – we can’t catch a break. In those low moments, we need to lick our wounds and refuel our reservoirs. Thus, we all need to sulk sometimes, and we need to thoughtfully listen to ourselves when this need arises. If we disallow ourselves much-needed sulking time (and instead try to white-knuckle our way through all adversities), we are delaying the inevitable and making it more likely that we’ll eventually be struck down by a more crippling version of depression.

So when you need to lay on the couch, binge-watch Netflix, and eat five tacos, do it. But then get up the next day like a warrior – ready to regroup, dust yourself off, and fight.

Taco Tuesday only becomes a problem when it turns into Taco Wednesday and Taco Thursday and Taco Friday…

6. Play the right game on the right field

I come from a place where, if you want to be heard, you get loud and animated. This method for not getting punked was like a verbal version of making yourself appear big to ward off a mountain lion. Growing up in a particular context indelibly shapes you, and de-indoctrinating yourself is hard. As an adult, my verbal flares embarrassed my kids and mortified my husband, but when they challenged my tactics, I doubled down – justifying the means, irrespective of the ends.

Somewhere around 2010, I went into my son’s junior high school to confront the administration for treating him unfairly (e.g., skipping progressive discipline steps outlined in their handbook). I believed they were biased against him, because he had an IEP for dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

I remember the confrontation like it was yesterday: The administration staff sat behind the counter, and the vice principal stood behind them. I verbally flared – showing this “mountain lion” how big I was. More simply put: I went off on them. As I was colorfully making my points, I had almost an out-of-body experience. In one part of my mind, I was relaying what the problem was. In another part of my mind, I was observing their reaction – one of shock and discomfort. This part of my mind realized that they weren’t hearing a word I was saying. They were too busy emotionally reacting to my communication style. I also realized that the second I left, they wouldn’t give another thought to my points. Instead, they would all be relieved I was gone and gossip about this kid’s “crazy mom.”

As I drove away, I had to have some real honest conversation with myself: What do I want more? For things to improve for my son? Or to indignantly continue communicating displeasure the way I always had? Fortunately, I chose my son.

I then wrote a polite, but firm, letter – citing dates, facts, policies outlined in the handbook, and FERPA. I also thought about what would motivate them to change, which resulted in my letter advising them that another such infraction would leave me no choice but to contact the school board.

And then they changed.

This was a valuable lesson in my life, which permanently changed how I communicate. To effectively adapt, we must learn, understand, and implement the rules of engagement of our new environment. Even if I’m the world’s best basketball player, I’ll look dumb dribbling a basketball on a rugby field.

7. Beware false prophets

At every step along my journey, I’ve had people trying to convince me of what is “normal”…constant bickering in marriages, infidelity, struggling financially, hating your job, kids acting out. Each time I vented about something that brought me stress or unhappiness, someone was there to tell me that “everyone is like that” and that my “expectations were too high.” In my lowest moments, I actually believed them, which resulted in me feeling hopeless and made me feel like there was something wrong with me for not being able to be content with “normality.”

In a brief moment of clarity as a young adult, I remember waking up one morning and pondering on the fact that most of my friends didn’t have their own place to live, didn’t have a car, didn’t have custody of their children, and used drugs and alcohol daily. This realization was startling, and I asked myself if that was how I wanted to live my life. I clarified for myself that I wanted something completely different, which led to an abrupt and thorough reconstruction of who I surrounded myself with. I applaud this younger version of myself, because – while I was oblivious on so many fronts – I independently realized that what we are surrounded by is what we normalize. I didn’t want that lifestyle to feel normal.

When someone would subsequently say to me (about the topic du jour), “Oh everybody is that way,” I was quick to clap back with, “Well I don’t care what everyone else is doing.” I knew that – to survive and thrive – I couldn’t settle for what was in my immediate periphery. I learned to surround myself with people with similar values – people who were heading in the same direction as me (e.g., self-improvement, happiness, quality relationships, kindness, self-worth).

By the time I was in the Air Force and had a supervisor tell me that my “expectations are too high” regarding the performance and behaviors of my colleagues, I was completely unmoved. I knew my expectations weren’t too high, and I knew that humans tend to settle under the ceilings we set for them.

Bottom line: If we want to excel and continually improve upon the best previous versions of ourselves, we cannot buy into or be distracted by the naysayers who try to convince us to collect dust under mediocrity. After all, misery loves company.

8. Train for a marathon, not a sprint

Robert Strauss said, “Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.” Beating the odds is usually a journey of endurance, yet we humans often lack the patience and perseverance to see it through. At every juncture, we should have already planned our next step, and we should know how that next step is a vital component of the end game.

I haven’t done this perfectly. When I declared psychology as my undergraduate major, I didn’t know that I couldn’t really do anything with that degree. When I entered my doctorate program, I didn’t know an internship was required to graduate. Naïveté isn’t sufficient justification to quit, however. At each new learning point and setback, I had to dig deep, recommit to my end game, and modify my plan for getting there. (Recommendation: Find a good mentor!)

Bigger picture (i.e., beyond just the tangible setbacks), however, is that every “success story” is built on the back of a long, winding, tedious journey. When we see success stories in the media, we see a snapshot of the outcome…the payoff. What we don’t see are the boring days, the lost sleep, the self-doubt, the naysayers, the commitment, the repeated defying of a comfort zone, and the perseverance. To become a success story, you have to have the fortitude to persist through every painful and non-flashy moment of the journey.

9. Be the best you

My potential-future-daughter-in-law, Lexi, has a very particular culinary palette. She’s a big fan of barbeque, chicken nuggets, chicken alfredo, and pizza. In contrast, my husband and I are foodies. We view eating as an experience and an adventure. Therefore, we’ll try anything with a tentacle once, and we’ll eat out of a truck or at a dive as quickly as we’ll eat at a five-star-restaurant. If I made a Venn diagram of Lexi’s food tastes and ours, there would be a small intersection set, but largely, they’d be non-overlapping. So if we’re wise foodies, we’ll consider that non-overlap when we get food recommendations from Lexi, and she’d be wise to cautiously gauge our food recommendations as well.

I use this (real world) analogy to highlight that we should use some discernment when listening to the opinions and advice of others, as we all have different personalities, preferences, strengths, and desired outcomes. What works for Barbara may not work for me – and vice versa.

All my life, I have (like pretty much everyone else) been almost suffocated by a barrage of unsolicited advice. People have told me that I should be more ladylike, more deferent, more vocal, more smiley, more fake, more…whatever. My grandfather told me on his deathbed that I should stop fooling around with school and be a stay-at-home mom. My graduate advisor pressured me to be a researcher – and also told me I shouldn’t try to be “clever.” An Air Force supervisor told me that if I was less “intellectually intimidating,” people would be kinder and more helpful to me. And so on. If I had heeded the advice and pressures of every person who heaved them upon me, there would be nothing left of who I am or what makes me…me. My individual strengths would’ve been completely suppressed.

To chart our own course, we have to get better at wading through and past all the pressures people put on us to live or be more like them. We have to identify the individual strengths that we bring to the table and effectively marry them up with our values. If we do these two things without fail, group-think will not derail us.

10. Don’t fear the fall

Well, maybe it’s not so bad to fear falling, per se, as us humans are pretty fleshy. But if we act and plan based on fear alone, our scenery is unlikely to change. We have to take educated risks, or we risk being stuck in a safe little rut our entire lives.

In my most recent leap from the proverbial ledge, I was preparing to leave active duty service in the Air Force and was at a crossroads on whether I should take the safe route of working for someone else (i.e., steady paycheck while I paid off my hefty student loans) or the risky route of opening a private practice (i.e., no guarantee of a paycheck and no guarantee of a viable business). I actually started leaning toward working for someone else “for now,” because I was growing weary of asking my husband to bear various career and financial risks with me. (The fear in the back of my mind haunted me with a barrage of what ifs?) Fortunately, my husband checked me: “You’re just delaying the inevitable. The goal was never to work for someone else, so you either take this risk now or take this risk later. Either way, you’re eventually gonna have to rip the band-aid off.”

People where I come from aren’t business owners. They’re the worker bees, and I too was raised to be a worker bee. (In high school, I longed for a stable, $10/hour factory job.) So venturing into this new land was foreign and terrifying. I had to look at that fear, name it, acknowledge it, and leap anyway.

Leaps don’t always come with a fall. Sometimes they allow us to fly.

Joye L. Henrie, PhD

 August 2018

No-Showing to Therapy: Is the Patient or Therapist to Blame?

The following is a modified excerpt from a leadership paper Dr. Henrie wrote while still serving in the Air Force. She shares it here as both a call to fellow mental health professionals and a spotlight shined to aid patients in better understanding their therapeutic process, which only stands to validate and empower patients as they engage in therapy.

Every group has its own nuanced culture. Mental health professionals are a peculiar bunch, and some would argue that we have to be peculiar to do the job we do. Perhaps that results in some ghastly senses of humor or wonky strategies for self-care. And perhaps that’s what we have to do or be to survive. Nevertheless, there’s tremendous room for professional and personal growth in our field. All things cannot be accurately attributed to the responsibilities or heaviness of our profession…or if we allow ourselves to persist in inaccurate attributions, we sell ourselves, and our patients, short. And shortcomings in the medical world can have fatal outcomes.

When I was a doctoral student, part of my training was working as a “clerk” (i.e., a supervised, student practitioner) at a private practice in the community. I had three supervisors there, and not one of them had demure personalities. Four and a half hours of supervision per week. Four and a half hours per week of critiquing my every comment, my every movement, my every reaction. Four and a half hours per week of being asked why I was so hard to read…why I didn’t “believe” the strategies I was being sold…why my life was filled with a series of one-way relationships. My early response was one of defense. I felt under attack and fraudulent. While sitting in sessions with my patients, I was sometimes distracted by thoughts of how I might be criticized for what I just said.

Over time, however, my guard started dropping as I gradually came to understand that there was merit in the feedback I received and came to witness how vehemently my supervisors wanted me to grow and succeed. It was the first place I had worked where I consciously recognized that my supervisors wouldn’t summarily cast me in concrete based on their first impression. These were supervisors that wanted to see me climb the proverbial ladder to success, and as I reached each new rung, they erased memory of the prior rung and celebrated the current version of me.

It wasn’t an easy clerkship, and I was certainly having a vastly different experience than my student counterparts. My clerkship emphasized introspection, hard conversations, and personal and professional discomfort. Yet the three years I worked in this clerkship permanently changed who I am as a person and as a professional. Perhaps most importantly, I learned to courageously look in the mirror and examine honestly and objectively my flaws and shortcomings, while simultaneously learning how these flaws and shortcomings insidiously crept in to the work of therapy.

In the mental health world, there is an unfortunate cultural phenomenon of placing blame on patients. One such way that my contemporaries do this is by blaming no-shows and treatment dropouts on patients. It’s common to hear mental health professionals say, “He wasn’t ready for treatment,” or, “She’s just being avoidant.” Frankly, it’s an easy and self-soothing dismissal, and the commonality of this trend allows each of us to comfortably regurgitate these excuses to stave off any professional responsibility of looking in the mirror. And who’s going to question us? We are allegedly the subject matter experts. We have advanced degrees…printed on intimidating-looking paper…hung in expensive-looking frames.

But my clerkship supervisors would allow no such mental laziness, professional negligence, or comforting lies. If one of my patients no-showed, they asked me why. I remember the first time I was saddled with this question, my internal reaction was, “How the hell should I know? I’m not a mind reader.” But this was my internal reaction only because I did not yet have the wisdom to truly understand the question. My supervisors continued to lob this question at me over time. At my next level of understanding, my internal reaction was, “Why are you insinuating it’s my fault? I can’t control what my patients do.” Again, this was my internal reaction only because I did not yet have the wisdom to truly understand the question. As my supervisors continued to mold and groom me (read: Chinese water torture), I eventually developed the wisdom to understand the question. What they were actually asking was, “What did the patient need at the last session that they did not get? What did you do differently? What was lacking that resulted in them not valuing their time with you? Were you fully present? Were you having internal reactions to them? Did they feel judged?…

Once I actually understood the question, it no longer felt threatening. It felt curious and purposeful. And I no longer saw the question as absolute. I came to realize that my supervisors understood that, at times, patients no-show or dropout of treatment for reasons we can’t control, but, at times, they do so because of us. My supervisors wanted me to first exhaust the possibility of my contribution before mentally casting blame on the patient. How can we be excellent, value-added practitioners if we can’t self-reflect or if we can’t understand our role and responsibility in our patients’ treatment investment?

A recent meta-analysis of treatment noncompliance (i.e., no-shows and premature dropouts) revealed a mean noncompliance rate of 42% (Defife, Conklin, Smith, & Poole, 2010). To put the economic gravity of that in perspective, the current TRICARE reimbursement rate for a psychologist’s hour of therapy (in my area) is roughly $132 (see CMAC procedure rates). So if a psychologist sees six patients a day, five days a week, the annual gross would be $205,920. If 42% of patients don’t show up, the psychologist’s annual gross reduces to $119,434. But that’s a rather selfish analysis.

More broadly, high noncompliance rates also mean that slots are “reserved” for patients who often aren’t using them, which results in new patients seeking care not being able to establish services, which is a serious problem in areas where there are shortages of mental health professionals. And if new patients can’t establish mental health services, they can’t get the help they need. It also means that the original patient, the “non-complier,” isn’t getting the care they need, which puts them at higher risk for myriad negative outcomes. And so on.

Countless researchers’ hours and countless government grant-funding dollars have been dedicated to trying to figure out the “vexing” problem of treatment noncompliance (Defife et al., 2010), yet these studies have largely examined the demographics or logistical constraints of patients who no-show. (Notice how patient-blaming that angle of analysis is.) Hell, even the word “noncompliance” suggests that we (the professionals with the fancy paper and fancy frames) order them to do something, and they willfully and belligerently disregard our orders. Only in the last decade or so are researchers starting to ask if something in the therapeutic process happens that results in no-shows. Lo and behold, they’ve found that “perceived disrespect from health care providers…, skepticism of health care service efficacy, and emotional discomfort or embarrassment” (Defife et al., 2010), for example, all contribute to missed appointments.

So back to what I learned in clerkship: My supervisors got me in the habit of asking myself why a patient missed an appointment…what I did differently or inadequately…what was going on with me that influenced the missed appointment. When I asked myself this question honestly and objectively, I was often able to identify the cause…things such as (brace yourself for some real-talk): being annoyed by the patient, being creeped out by the patient, being distracted by other things going on in my head, being emotionally rattled from some other event that just occurred in my life (professionally or personally), feeling lazy (poor investment), or remaining emotionally distant (often due to burnout or the strain of life).

The better I got at identifying my contributions to treatment noncompliance, the better I got at predicting when a patient would no-show to or cancel the next appointment. So I eventually got the message loud and clear. I came to believe that I am directly responsible for my no-show rates, and that my no-show rates are one metric by which I can gauge the quality and competency of my work. Once I acknowledged and took ownership of this phenomenon, my no-show, cancelation, and treatment dropout rates dropped dramatically, and at every place I have since worked, I have had the lowest such rates among my peers. In the Air Force, my average no-show rate was 5%, and in my first rolling year in private practice, my average no-show rate was 3%.

Sure, it’s hard sometimes to dig deep and be fully present and invested, but I remind myself of the consequences of not doing so. When it feels too overwhelming to think about potential negative, long-term outcomes for patients, I think selfishly. I think about the mess I’ll create by not doing the right thing…about the inevitable no-show, the inevitable arrival at the subsequent session, and the damaged relationship with the patient…that I will be responsible for repairing. And when I’m already feeling stressed out, the thought of having to clean up that mess sounds more taxing than doing it right in the first place. That keeps me honest.

Had I not learned the criticality of self-reflection from my clerkship supervisors, I’d likely have no-show rates similar to industry average. And I’d likely blame patients for those rates. And I’d likely feel professionally impotent to change those rates, which begs the question: What would be the point of practicing as a psychologist if I can’t identify the antecedents to and mechanisms of human behavior…including my own?


Joye L. Henrie, PhD

July 2018


Defife, J.A., Conklin, C.Z., Smith, J.M., & Poole., J. (2010). Psychotherapy appointment no-shows: Rates and reasons. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(3), 413-417. doi:10.1037/a0021168

My Psychology License is a Glorified Food-Handler’s Permit – And Other Notes on Self-Worth

It’s happened before that I’ve told a person that my psychology license is a glorified food-handler’s permit, and they let out an audible gasp and trip over themselves to offer blanket reassurances. They seem to respond with the assumption that I’m being self-deprecating in making this statement. But I’m doing quite the opposite, actually.

For many professions, there are government agencies designed to standardize, regulate, and monitor the credentialing and activities of those professions. To work in the food service industry in New Mexico, for example, prospective employees are required to meet standards established by the Environmental Health Bureau. They must complete a certified food handler class, which covers basic food safety, personal hygiene, cross-contamination and allergens, time and temperature, and cleaning and sanitation. They then take a proficiency test and must achieve a score of 75% or above, after which they can be issued a food-handler’s permit. This system is designed to protect public health and safety.

Sure, I’d like to think that in my 40s I have the common sense to know how to properly handle food, but just because I do, doesn’t mean my neighbor does. I mean, there’s a reason why I never ate Janet’s casseroles at the work potlucks.

To break the process down to its simplest form: In the interest of public health and safety, a government agency establishes minimum standards for what has to be learned, how this acquired knowledge has to be assessed, and what documentation is required to prove that these standards have been met. This is true for driving a semi, cutting hair, nursing, operating a forklift, shoring up construction trenches, and a wide range of other professions.

This is also true for the field of psychology.

I was required to complete an American Psychological Association (APA)-accredited doctoral program in clinical psychology, as well as an APA-accredited internship program. I was then required to get a billion* hours of post-doctoral supervised clinical experience, after which I had to complete a thousand-page* application, pass a jurisprudence exam, and pay hundreds of dollars to be approved to “sit” for the licensure exam (i.e., Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology). After my life flashed before my eyes when I hit submit on that exam, I got a passing score, and eventually my “permit” to practice psychology arrived in the mail.

So, the same principle applied here: In the interest of public health and safety, a government agency establishes minimum standards for what has to be learned, how this acquired knowledge has to be assessed, and what documentation is required to prove that these standards have been met.

The only real differences between a food-handler’s permit and a psychology license are: (1) the specified area of expertise, (2) the amount of time required to get the blessing of the government agency, and (3) the amount of debt one racks up in the process.

There are numerous reasons why this clarification has value, but for the purposes of this post, the importance of the clarification relates to self-worth. The permit under which I operate does not define my worth or who I am as a person. It doesn’t tell you what my values are, how I exercise integrity, or how I relate to people. It doesn’t tell you what fears I may have, what bad habits I struggle with, or what my flaws are. My profession doesn’t tell my story, tell you what I bring to the table, or tell you what my family would miss about me if I died tomorrow. (And if my obituary turns into a post-mortem resume, I’ll roll over in my urn.) My profession doesn’t even tell you how smart I am (or am not) or what areas of intelligence I have strengths in. All it tells you is that I have a specific expertise in the field of psychology, for which I am sanctioned to deliver services. It tells you that I jumped through the prerequisites (aka: fiery hoops) necessary to get the license.

Similarly, having a permit to handle food, drive a semi, cut hair, nurse, operate a forklift, or shore up a construction trench doesn’t define the worth or value (or intelligence or capabilities or character) of the people with those permits.

Back in grad school, I was heading to an academic conference in Toronto. I was on a small commuter plane headed to my layover in Detroit. When I found my assigned seat, I plopped down next to a well-groomed woman in a full suit. Being an introvert, I hoped she wouldn’t speak to me, as 30,000-foot small talk is about as pleasant to me as facing a morning with no coffee. We made it about two-thirds of the way through the flight before she started talking to me. Why now? We were almost there! It started with the typical niceties: Where are you from? Where are you going? What do you do? When I answered that last question (i.e., I’m a doctoral student in clinical psychology.), her posture and interest visibly changed. Suddenly, she wanted to talk in depth and offered to “get lunch” with me on our layover. We determined that we wouldn’t have enough time during our layover, so instead she handed me her card and told me to call her when I got back home. Without looking at it, I stuffed the card in my pocket and exited the plane. It wasn’t until that night in my hotel room that I looked at the card. Turns out, she was a three-letter executive at the world’s wealthiest corporation.

I threw the card in the trash.

Why? She didn’t want to do lunch or stay in contact until she knew what I did for a living. Her affect and attention markedly changed when I told her what I did for a living. It seemingly wasn’t me she was interested in; it was my title.

In fairness, she may have been a perfectly nice, well-meaning woman, but I threw the card away because of what it represented. When I was a child growing up in poverty, people generally believed I wouldn’t amount to much. When I worked for a decade in the telecommunications industry, doctors, attorneys, and executives didn’t give me the time of day (unless I was paying them for their services). The class and status divide in our society has always been evident to me, so having this interaction that suggested that I was now “worthy” of someone’s time by virtue of my title was off-putting. I hadn’t changed. My value as a person hadn’t changed. I was just nearing the end of the process required to get my glorified food-handler’s permit.

If I were to entertain the idea that my license/title/degree makes me more worthwhile, I would also have to logically entertain the idea that pre-license/title/degree, I was less worthwhile. Similarly, I would have to entertain the idea that if I were to leave my profession, that I would return to being less worthwhile.

When I think of the ten most important adults in my personal life (I literally made a list), the highest educational degree obtained by 60% of them is a high school diploma. The other 40% have an associate’s degree or technical certificate. Yet I guarantee that not one of them thinks I believe I am more worthwhile than them by virtue of my license.

See, here’s the thing: If any one of those ten people were in a catastrophic car accident tomorrow and was rendered quadriplegic (i.e., unable to work/provide, completely reliant on others for care), I would be overwhelmed with gratitude that they survived. Why? They can’t work or produce. But, so what, right? That’s not why I love and value them. That’s not what they’re bringing to the table. They’re bringing to the table who they are…their strengths and weaknesses, their character, their mind, their love, their way of relating, etc.

I think when most of us consider our loved ones, it’s a no-brainer that we’d be grateful for their survival in such a situation. But here’s the real test: What if YOU were the one in the catastrophic car accident tomorrow, were rendered unable to work/provide, and were completely reliant on others for care? Who would you be? What would be your value? Would you be grateful you survived? Your answers to these questions can tell you a great deal about your sense of self-worth and from where you derive your sense of worth.

Once upon a time, I would’ve answered those questions like this: <Throws papers up in the air> No one. Nothing. No.

But that was back before I understood what I was bringing to the table as a person. I had long bought into a warped illusion that my worth was based on what I achieved, accomplished, and provided to others. (There are many variations of worth illusions: codependency, self-depreciation, pathological self-sacrifice, materialism, etc.) Trying to fill a void of worth with achievement, accomplishment, and generosity was unsustainable, however. It was exhausting. It was lonely. It was nonreciprocal. And it was never enough. The void always needed to be fed more.

In the early stages of me figuring out the unhealthy way in which I perceived my worth, my husband forced me to sit idly beside him while he folded laundry. I made a New Year’s resolution to do zero volunteer work for a year. I distanced myself from the many takers in my life. I was like an alcoholic going through detox.

A handful of years later, I still have to monitor myself and can easily find myself backsliding into old habits. So, I intentionally allow others to pay for coffee or do me favors. I sit with the discomfort of feeling like the scales have somehow been catastrophically imbalanced. I remind myself that my loved ones would want me to survive a car accident – but not because I’m a psychologist – only because I’m me.

So, here’s your come-to-Jesus question: Is it time for you to reevaluate and detox?


Joye L. Henrie, PhD

 January 2018



*Surely y’all know I’m exaggerating (slightly).