Lara Abounayan (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.

Marriage and Family Therapist Associate on the importance of play and how vulnerability is connected to authenticity. 

What are some issues, related to love, that you’ve seen come up as of late?

What’s coming up a lot is showing yourself that love and being tender with yourself during a pandemic...it’s pretty hard to be your best self right now, and being okay with not being your best self takes a lot of patience and kindness I have found. 

Yeah, we’re being forced to deal with ourselves. There’s no longer an option, or as much as an option, to escape or prioritize other people over you, which is…

It’s definitely new and honestly scary. A lot of people are givers and doers, and they don’t look inward, and it’s kind of easier not to look inward. You are having to deal with yourself. It’s all on you and what is going on in your mind, kind of reevaluating and reprioritizing what’s important to you in a way that you never had the space and time to do before this.

You’re grieving your ability to just be.

Lara Abounyan

What do you think is behind all these self-realizations rising up? 

In one sense, yeah, we are isolated and we’re not capable of distracting ourselves as much as we were before. Going out with friends after work or even going to work are all things at the root that are essential, but they are a way of distracting you from really looking at a problem. A lot of times it’s helpful, because you don’t want to think about the problem all the time, and if you do, you’re going to get upset. But this [pandemic] has kind of forced us to really dive deep into that. There’s a lack of distractions. 

On the other end, this whole pandemic, in general, is tugging at something that–at least within a younger age group–is not thought about often, and it’s the idea around death and dying. It’s not something we’re comfortable thinking about, and we don’t really have to; that’s typically something that is a developmental state or task that you do in your 60s and on. We don’t want to think about that. But we’re being saturated with it, by the news, social media, and even discussions with friends.

I feel like everyone I talked to has at least, you know, a couple connections away[from someone who was affected by COVID-19, if not yourself personally. This brings up a lot, like, “Oh, this can happen. Someone can really get hurt. Someone can pass away. Am I being my best self? Am I living my life in a way that’s authentic to me? Or am I just doing what apparently I’m supposed to? Does that fit for me?” I don’t think it’s as apparent to people, but the idea around death and dying is kind of looming, and it will cause self-revelations.

I feel like people are grieving, but  are confused as to what they’re grieving and that it is  even grieving because it’s a way of living we’re grieving. What do you think?

I think this came as a shock, you know? Even though we knew it was coming, there was still, “It’s going to be fine. It’s not going to get that bad.” We all have these bargaining ideas that are going on. People are wondering what is our new normal. We are working for and working towards a new normal and people are grieving. You’re grieving your ability to just be.

How do you find a balance between “when are we going back to normal” to “what’s the new normal?”

Wellness consists of many kinds: physical, mental, emotional, and social. We have to hit on all of those to feel some level of normal. One great thing to do, in my opinion, is to create some level of a flexible routine, like, “From these hours to these hours, I’m going to try to hit these goals.” I think that’s really helpful to ensure some normalcy. Also, taking time within your day to connect with other people, outside of those in your household if you are quarantining with others.

Allow this to be a time to reevaluate what you want. I’ve been hearing a lot of revelations arise, like you said, like, “I don’t think this is the job for me” or “This is nice. I get to spend more time with my kids. I want to keep spending a lot of time with my kids. How can I make that work?” Leaning into the discomfort is huge right now, because there’s nothing but discomfort and it brings up such realizations.

Also, there is no test in a relationship I’ve ever heard of as crazy as COVID-19. I think that people who are couples who don’t live together are being tested in being apart. Couples who do live together who typically weren’t together all day–they both had jobs or didn’t hang out all day long before–may not be getting along or are  trying to get acclimated to being in each other’s space. What does that mean to a relationship? A lot of people are fighting a lot more, which is not surprising, but a lot of people are also loving a lot more, capitalizing on communication that you never really had to do before. You’re kind of forced to learn, grow, and build your relationship or break. 

At the root of most communication issues is an unmet emotional need.

How important is communication right now?

We typically communicate in a style that’s about facts, like, “This is what I’m doing. This is what happened.” We’re kind of telling the story of our day. We still do that now, but I think an important additional piece is speaking from a place of emotion. And, you know, saying things like, “I’m feeling anxious around X, Y, and Z,” or “I’m feeling mad about this and that thing.” It’s [about] being able to express the emotional backing to communication issues. 

At the root of most communication issues is an unmet emotional need. When someone’s like, “Well, he just won’t call me. I don’t know why he won’t call me?” It’s a feeling of abandonment. You want to feel safe in your relationship. It’s scary. Don’t get me wrong, talking from a place of communication is a vulnerable place. But, I think it’s important to withstand [that fear], especially in these kinds of times. 

You posted something recently as far as the connection between vulnerability and authenticity. Can you expand on that?

A lot of my work in therapy has to do with understanding vulnerability and your own authenticity. We shy away from that quite a bit, because it’s easier to go on with the norm. But if you’ve had to take a step back and take a second to look at yourself, you can question your personal authenticity quite a bit. Some big questions are: Are you content? Are you happy with how your life is going? But more so, is there a part of you in pain? Is there something that is innate to you that you feel like you can’t be?

I have a client who really enjoys bike riding, and she doesn’t do it all the time. She really enjoys bike riding. She’s like, “I just feel like, I wish I could bike ride more. It’s just important to me. I question why it’s important to her. “I like being outside. I like feeling free. I like it makes me feel like a kid. It makes me feel happy in a way that I hadn’t been happy in a really long time.” Once you hit on things like that, it opens up a door of what it was like when you were a child. Being vulnerable is hard.

Being authentically yourself is being vulnerable, and you might get rejected and there will be people who don’t like this new version of you and that’s hard. People are scared. People shy away from doing that as you will likely lose people in your life when you change into a more authentic version of yourself. But, in my opinion of course, the risk is worth the reward, because that inner contentment that comes from it, is you honestly loving yourself and allowing your imperfections not to be imperfections, but to be unique to who you are. I think that’s beautiful, but it’s hard work to get there. 

Are there ways you would recommend someone to strengthen whatever relationship they’re in or feed their inner voice?

There’s actually one thing that I really try to use in my work as much as possible, and it’s the idea surrounding play, which I kind of hit on mildly with the example about the client who likes to bike. Getting to play for self-love, or connecting with yourself and connecting with others,  can really benefit from play; the idea behind play is that we stopped playing like we used to when we were  kids. We would just do something for the fun of it.  I’ll ask you, can you think back to the time in your life where you truly played? Your youngest memory of being a kid and playing. Do you have one?

Coincidentally, I think it was also bike riding. I would bike around and create stories in my head that I’d later write out. It felt freeing, and probably the first time I was creative.

Perfect. For me, it’s also bike riding. One of the youngest memories I have is of me riding my bike in my community and assuming I was Carmen San Diego. I would take a notepad and I would write little clues down along the way, as if I was solving a mystery. When you pose these kinds of questions to yourself–what did you feel when you were allowing yourself to get into this form of play?–you’re allowing yourself to discover more of yourself, you’re allowing yourself to be silly. There’s a level of freedom that as adults we kind of lose because responsibilities come into play. Other things are more important, and play takes the furthest backseat. 

I try to talk with my clients and with my friends, and ask, “What was play for you? How can you make play happen in your life right now?” That’s big for self-love. Further that, another question you can ask is, “Can you play with your partner?” That’s one that kind of stops a lot of people. I don’t know if I could play Carmen San Diego with my partner. What’s a form of play that I can do with my partner? Could it be dance? Could it be working out? Some people make silly TikTok or Instagram videos. How is play defined within your life and within your relationship? How can you do more of it?

How can one strengthen their emotional wellness?

Emotional wellness is huge, but it can’t be separated from other forms of wellness; all wellness is integral to each other. Social, emotional, physical, and mental–they all need to have faith to be loved and tended to. If you want to see that through writing, talking with a friend, play, doing enjoyable activities–something that doesn’t feel like an obligation. Take time for yourself. I think it’s huge and it’s hard, but necessary especially in times like this where we’re all overtaxed. We’re all overworked. If you’re tired and want to spend the day doing nothing, go for it. Do nothing. Your body is in fight or flight [mode]. You’ve been in survival mode for two months; even if you don’t think you have, a lot of us have, and it’s OK to rest.

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