Following on from last week’s post on 20 journaling prompts to improve your relationships, this week I’m sharing an interview with Ryan Engelstad, a therapist and fellow Coach.me coach, about cultivating healthy relationships. We cover a bunch of topics, including common relationship challenges, making friends as an adult, and more. Enjoy!
Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you’re passionate about right now?
I’m a licensed clinical social worker working primarily as a therapist in Princeton, NJ. I am passionate about behavior change and helping people understand mental health and how they can cope effectively. I am also a father of an amazing 2 year old and enjoy doing improv comedy on the side!
How did you become interested in helping people with their relationships and mental health?
Growing up I was always fascinated with why people acted the way they did, especially when things didn’t work out for them or they didn’t get what they want. My first job out of college was at an inpatient substance abuse clinic where I saw the damage that negative behaviors had on relationships and families, and also how negative relationships influenced negative behaviors. It was during that time that I knew I wanted to be a therapist to help people fix these problems.
What are some of the most common challenges you see people experiencing when it comes to new relationships?
One of the biggest challenges I see is that people often struggle to disagree/problem solve effectively early on in relationships and that this can often prevent the relationship from growing to a more intimate level. Communication is so important and learning each other’s communication style (especially around conflict) can save a lot of stress. A common example is one partner may “hold onto” little annoyances over time only to lay them all out at the first sign of conflict. Learning how to address even little annoyances in the moment goes a long way to avoiding blow out fights.
For many of us, making friends as an adult can be difficult once we’re outside the bubbles of school and work. What advice do you have for anyone who wants to broaden their social circle and is wondering where to start?
This is such an important question and one that I struggled with in the past (we’ve moved several times). Getting involved in activities I enjoy or wanted to learn has really helped to broaden my social circle. In graduate school I saw a flyer for acting classes at a local theater and signed up for Introduction to Improv Comedy. I loved the class and started going out with the group of people for drinks afterwards. Years later my amazingly supportive wife sent me a call for auditions to a local improv troupe. I tried out and even with my limited experience they accepted me into the troupe. Four years later I have performed all over the east coast and the troupe has become a regular source of socializing and support.
I also love basketball and have made an effort to find a local game anywhere I have lived. A few years ago I found out 10-15 guys played at my local YMCA a few times a week, but it was at 6AM! I told myself it would be worth it for the exercise, but found that I really liked the guys who played and gradually got more and more involved in things they did together, like play fantasy football or go to golf outings. So I guess in summary I would say start with what you love or what you want to learn, and you will find people along the way!
Something you coach people on is practising extroversion. For the more introverted among us (myself included), why is this useful and what does it look like?
I think being able to practice extroversion (not necessarily become extroverted) is hugely useful because it enables us to be proactive in getting the things we want, whether that is a job, a relationship, more friends, or even something like starting a small business. People who are more introverted too often avoid the opportunities that can help them accomplish their goals. The way I coach people in this area is by starting really small, building comfort with small acts of extroversion and building up to the areas where people struggle like socializing with co-workers or trying to get a date with someone.
What are your three favourite practices or activities for staying connected within your most important relationships?
First is active gratitude, which just means letting people know how they’ve helped you or how important they are to you, and doing this often. This can prevent the feeling that one partner is being taken for granted or that their contributions aren’t appreciated. Expressing gratitude also does wonders for improving your own mood.
Second would be to don’t rush to try to solve your partner’s or your friend’s problems when all they might really need is for you to listen.
Third, and this is kind of general but important, is that relationships (especially successful ones) require consistent effort. Relationships do not work on autopilot. You get out what you put in. This means you can’t expect to always be the person who gets invited to things, you might have to invite or plan opportunities or activities as well. You can’t expect the chores to be done for you and you can’t expect to be asked to do them, sometimes you will have to make the effort on your own to contribute to the relationship.
What does becoming who you are mean to you?
To me, becoming who you are means being your most authentic self. Most of us can think back to relationships we’ve been in where we weren’t really ourselves or we were trying to be somebody we aren’t. I can honestly say that I am at my most comfortable, and feel most comfortable being me, when I am with my wife and family. I don’t worry about what I should say or how I should act, I’m just me and that is enough. So to become who you are means finding people who allow you to be this comfortable when you are with them. whether in social situations or even at work.
Would you like support with building positive relationships? Learn more about coaching with Ryan here.