Kate Viernes (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.

Psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker on holding space for all parts of ourselves and having compassion when reevaluating relationships. 

What does emotional wellness mean to you?

What is feeling important for me to say about emotional wellness in this moment is that it requires that we feel seen by another living being. We humans are social creatures, and so when we feel a certain kind of way, we naturally look to our fellow creatures to sort of reflect back to us our experience. When we cry, we want someone else to respond with care and tenderness. When we find something hilarious, we want others to get the joke and laugh along with us. This type of social attunement is what leads to healthy development of babies and young children, and it seems to me adults are not so different. While “healthy” grownups may have the skills to take care of most of our basic needs independently, without knowing that someone else understands what it is we are feeling—especially if what we are feeling is pain and suffering—it is difficult to feel alive. Let alone, emotionally well. To me, this knowledge is foundational to my work as a psychotherapist supporting people’s emotional wellness. It is also just as important in my personal relationships. When my partner and I go through times when we refuse to acknowledge what it must feel like to be in the other’s shoes…dang, we are not in a good place! This has been especially challenging to us since the pandemic hit. We truly must work at it to help each other feel seen and understood.

In order to take care of ourselves, we need to appreciate even the least palatable of our deepest emotional experiences. The rage. The shame. We must find ways to hold space for them all.

Kate Viernes

How can we take better care of ourselves emotionally, in regards to our mental health?
While connection to other human minds is an important piece of emotional wellness, the relationship that a person has with themself is just as important. Lately, I have gotten more into “parts work” in both my professional and personal life. I believe that we are all made up of different parts of us, each of which has its own emotional experience. This is why it is so common in certain situations to have multiple conflicting feelings all at once—think of times when your process has sounded something like, well, part of me feels this way, but at the same time another part of me feels the complete opposite. These are the separate parts of us reacting, each in their own way, based on their own needs and agendas. I like to think that honoring the experiences of all our different parts, even when they disagree and fight with each other, is how we begin to build a better relationship with ourselves. In order to take care of ourselves, we need to appreciate even the least palatable of our deepest emotional experiences. The rage. The shame. We must find ways to hold space for them all.

How would you advise one to find a balance in the “new normal,” in regards to the pandemic?
This advice might sound counter-intuitive, but recognize that these times are NOT normal. Allow yourself to pause and acknowledge how unreasonable it is to have the expectation, whether external or self-imposed, that you should continue to show up in all the ways you were able to before the pandemic. For example, I find it nuts that anyone involved in schooling right now would be expected to turn out the same quality of work that they would under pre-COVID-19 circumstances. When you think about it, it is truly absurd what we are asking of students, teachers, and caregivers during this time. Yet, because you can only control your own expectations and not others, let yourself acknowledge what it is you are feeling in this moment—perhaps a tremendous sense of loss over everything that has changed. Breathe in self-compassion. And now, hold yourself gently as you continue to fight through these unusual times. If you can be vulnerable with yourself, it will be easier to be open and gentle with others. Self-regulation plus emotional regulation in relationships equals balance.

How do you specifically advise brown and Black people to cope and process what feels like a roller-coaster of emotions–especially while being alone in quarantine?
If you are a brown or Black person, the pandemics of Coronavirus and systemic racism constitute multiple, collective, historical traumas. Whatever it is you are feeling, your feelings are as much your communites’ as your own. They are as much your ancestors’ as your own. Please know that even if you are isolated in quarantine, you are never alone. In what ways might your social and/or spiritual practices facilitate connection?

I know that in these past months, I have sought to connect more deeply with other BIPOC over the pain of racial injustice, as well as with other Filipinx in the diaspora and in my ancestral memory over our shared history of colonization and its psychological harm on our people for generations. I believe decolonization will play a crucial role in my personal, emotional healing over the course of my time on earth.  

Self-care is a complex concept for women of color, specifically immigrants and first-generation Americans. How would you advise Black and POC to practice self-care?
I believe that many BIPOC, immigrant, and first-generation womxn have been conditioned to view self-care as an unearned luxury belonging to those who hold more privilege than them. In stark terms, we see ourselves as unworthy of self-care. While I am super privileged as a Filipina American living comfortably in one of the most expensive parts of the country, the colonial capitalist patriarchy has nevertheless conditioned me to deprive myself of the least material, but most important types of self-care—rest and a genuine love for myself. Loving myself and allowing myself to rest are conscious decisions I need to make again and again. Often, I fail! So while I do not have a specific guide book for other BIPOC womxn, I can share that a decolonizing lens on my own self-care is helpful. In terms of further resources, my heart swells every time I read the words of Audre Lorde. I have been inspired deeply by the work of Dr. Rosales Meza.

I think one of the long-term effects of the pandemic will be the mental health issues that it’ll leave us with. What do you see the long-term effects being, mental health wise? And how can we combat it?
Maybe it’s because I already spent the last several questions discussing all of the negative impacts of the pandemic, but there is one area where I actually feel some optimism about the direction of our mental health post-2020. I believe many people who have had the privilege of at least partially quarantining themselves during the pandemic have found themselves engaged in quite a bit of self-reflection and introspection during this time. With fewer distractions around, we face and feel things within us that might have been easier to ignore in the past. While these emotional journeys are not without pain, and certainly rocky (to say the least), what if they actually make us better in the long term? My hope is that we emerge with more clarity than before on what we and our fellow humans need to be well in this life. And hopefully, we take appropriate action.

In order to work on letting go of feelings towards someone that no longer serves you, you first need to create a lot of safety for the part of you that has those feelings.

Kate Viernes

What’s your advice on letting go of feelings towards someone that no longer serves us?
The following answer is inspired again by “parts work”—specifically, this past year I have been exploring an introduction to the Internal Family Systems therapy model (IFS).

I think that in order to work on letting go of feelings towards someone that no longer serves you, you first need to create a lot of safety for the part of you that has those feelings. Do the time and work it takes to witness with curiosity and compassion why this person came to have the meaning that they do. Let this part of you tell its story, witness why those feelings have been so important to this part, and then, with as much self-love as you can, invite that part to safety in the present. Assure this part of you that it no longer needs to carry the beliefs tied to those feelings—you are enough.

I will say that letting go is hard and can take a long time. Building relationships between yourself and the vulnerable parts of you that have feelings about the past is key. But it is so much easier said than done.

We’re seeing a lot of people reevaluate their relationship with others and themselves. What should we keep in mind when reevaluating how we love?
Keep in mind that everyone has their own work to do when it comes to creating better relationships with others and themselves. Be aware of where you end and others begin. Their relational work is not your relational work. As you reevaluate your relationship to another, stay curious and compassionate about wherever they happen to be on their own relational journey. I did not expect to end with a Mother Teresa quote, but she said it best: If you judge people, you have no time to love them.

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