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The Future of ETMA

It took me 30 years to determine my purpose, and over a decade of difficult professional experience to acquire the skill set necessary to actively begin my journey as a mental health professional. To briefly summarize my career goals, I aim to use a humanistic and social psychology-based approach to holistically develop individuals into citizens of character, purpose, and conviction. I believe that a key issue faced in our nation’s mental health battle is an inability to communicate, and that the incorporation of literature, philosophy, music, history, and more can be an effective way to remind people how to communicate first with themselves and subsequently, with others. By also introducing practical skills and activities such as hiking, yoga, martial arts, writing, and more, we can illustrate the self-regulation process necessary to help individuals maintain homeostasis.

My initial foray into entrepreneurship has been focused on this endeavor, and has been encouraging, but each step in the process has been incredibly educational and has revealed new questions and goals to be answered and met throughout my career. Luckily, I’m on the path, so the only remaining tasks are to strategize and execute in order to come as close as I can to revolutionizing mental health for my community, and perhaps for our nation over the course of my lifetime using the framework of my business, East Tennessee Mentorship Association, LLC.  It isn’t a savior complex, it’s a war strategy from someone who acknowledges the true state of our nation’s mental health systems and sees an executable path forward.

My professional timeline began in many ways with my enlistment in the United States Navy as an Intelligence Specialist in 2011. I was trained as a human intelligence collector, which involved extensive education in body language, elicitation, interrogation, cultural considerations, rapport building, and ultimately, the ability to manipulate conversation with the end goal of collecting specific information for military applications. Since my ultimate task as a professional is to relate to humans, one could argue that my earlier experiences with divorce, neglect, and abuse were also part of the training, but for the sake of remaining succinct, I used my education at Roane State Community College to study the humanities and refine my experiences into digestible lessons following my enlistment.

I graduated in the summer of 2020 with an A.S. in History, and enrolled immediately into MTSU’s B.S. of Psychology program, which I am projected to graduate from in Fall of 2022. My minors are Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Writing, and my current GPA is 3.75. Professionally, I transitioned from working in government contracting, personnel management, and security in early 2021 to managing a private therapy practice, where I learned a lot about the mental health industry and was able to begin work with clients as a mentorship program manager. In August of 2021, I established East TN Mentorship Association, and I opened my own commercial location in October of 2021.

Moving forward, my goal is to gain stability as a new business owner in 2022 by achieving profitability while completing my bachelor’s degree. I frankly agree with a recent quote by Elon Musk, who stated that “the purpose of modern education is to prove you can do your chores” and that “if the true goal is education, most information is publicly available.” Rather than continuing to read watered-down interpretations and criticisms of innovators like Freud and Jung, my aim is to focus on self-help methodologies but applied in an environment of community where I can study what is useful my clients by actually working with clients. So far, the business reviews are encouraging. I hope to acquire a passenger van for use during experiential activities, and to continue to network and build opportunities to solve practical problems for clients, such as helping them find work or resources which will enable them to focus on achieving their mental health goals.

I’m still interested in completing graduate school via the University of Tennessee’s Masters in Experimental Psychology program to enrich my professional knowledge, but I want to approach that portion of my education as an empowered professional with a proven system. I don’t want to ask if my methods will work, in other words, I’d rather prove that they do work and then study why that is the case. To an empiricist, that might sound dangerous or even offensive, but I know what worked to help me self-actualize (and it’s taken me a long time and a lot of work to be comfortable using that word), and so far it’s also applicable for clients. I don’t believe that psychology is all about being able to write a doctorate level thesis about the underlying methodologies of clinical treatment. We’re at a time in history where people need help, and sometimes action is the most reasonable path forward.

I’m approaching my calling for what it is: it’s a passion to help people grow. I know I’m not a therapist, nor do I wish to operate within that framework, and I make that extremely clear to my clients. That said, I value my education and often draw from my studies in my work, but I’m not and will never be a clinician. I’m a mentor, and I’m approaching this stage of my career as a research project on leadership and mentorship. I believe if you take a warrior and educate them as a philosopher, you end up with a leader, and I believe it’s going to take leadership as much as clinical psychology to lead our nation out of its current mental health dilemmas.

In the end, I’d like for ETMA to be a place where social problems are solved. I’d like to have a small team of 3-4 mentors working with me to network within the community, to compile resources, and to work with politicians and legislators to solve practical issues. Why are opiates prescribed to recovering addicts following painful surgeries? Why isn’t that process monitored from start to finish? Why are people unaware of neurodivergence and how it affects the social skills and interactions of community members? Why is there still a stigma around mental health issues when literally everyone deals with them? How can faith be used as a source of positivity when the underlying tones of atonement imply a dangerous self-hate and shame? How can people maintain their humanity while technology forces us forward into a metaverse? How can we teach therapists about self-regulation so they don’t try to simply contain their clients’ emotions like a new interrogator would in an interrogation room? How do we prevent societal polarization in a world driven by social media communication where people don’t actually try to understand those who disagree with them, they only try to combat them?

I believe that, in so far as a person is capable of recognizing and responding to patterns, it is their duty to do so for the sake of the collective. My life hasn’t been easy, but it has enabled me to see the world both empathetically, and as a rational problem solver. My career goal isn’t some abstract dream…it is my actual intent to change the world for the better to the best of my ability using lessons from the leaders, educators, and mentors who developed me into the person I am today.

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We’re open!

Two days of very little sleep and some of the deepest contemplation and meditation of my life, and I just had the very distinct honor of speaking with my first client in my new office.

My clients are incredible people who want to better themselves and those around them. I’m not sure how this is going to be my life now, but this space is deeply sacred to me and, amidst chaos and unexpected expenses, indeed amidst the highest pressure of my life, I find that I have been tempered by my own mentors to be able to withstand this pressure. SO many blessings in the last few days.

Thanks to my old boss, Michael Massaglia, for quickly getting me a business insurance policy and then for coming to help me jump the truck when it died at the worst possible time.

To everyone who has supported financially or just reached out and encouraged me – every word means something to me and will help me drive the success of this business.

To Heather Phillips, for introducing me to the mental health industry and for believing in me as a healer, leader, and budding entrepreneur, I could’ve never done this without you.

Mostly, to Amanda Stitt, who is always my ride or die, for trusting me to take these risks and to challenge broken systems. When I asked her with silent tears leaking from my eyes “What if I’m not good enough to give these people what they deserve?” She looks at me without an ounce of doubt and says – “You’re too good and you will give them even more than they deserve.”

Lastly, as a person of faith, thank you to God for allowing me to build a resource that exists for ALL sorts of people. Thank you for giving me the gift of discernment and pattern recognition. Thank you for giving me a healer’s heart and sending me on a journey that allowed me to become the most honest version of myself.

There is public wifi locally that will help me save some money while I get the cash flowing. I still need to buy a sign and plug in with the local chamber of commerce, but first I have to pay off the debts associated with opening this communal space. There are decals and tshirts and snacks and drinks and a million ideas that I can execute, just not quite yet.

Ive decided on an old school coffee pot that will be ready whenever people come in and not a Kuerig – symbolism matters to me and there’s nothing better than sharing a pot of coffee. If anyone has one tucked away they’d like to bring by and see the space, I’d love to offer the opportunity for someone to have an impact that reaches beyond the tangible effect of the coffee pot.

I also need living room style furniture for the waiting area – specifically, a couch, maybe a small dining table, and/or some shelves for books and displaying Amanda’s candles and my jewelry.

Things are going splendidly and even as a writer I’m hard pressed to express my gratitude and love of the life I’m building. Many of you appreciate this resource, but none of you know how much it heals me to be able to help others navigate their lives using the lessons I’ve learned.

Thank you all so much. 🙏🙏🙏 You may know that our motto is “Earn your sanctuary” – well this is mine, and I will endeavor to earn it every day until the end of my days.

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The Importance of “Precedence” in Maintaining Healthy Relationships

The issue of social precedence can be incredibly technical to navigate, but I believe this 8 minute introduction can make a difference in someone’s relationships and perhaps change their life at large.

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Establishing Identity: How to Become the Author of Your Own Story

For a human, what could be more important than self-actualization? Discovering our purpose and meeting our own potential can occupy a lot of real estate in our minds, but that doesn’t make it an easy thing to accomplish. According to psychologist Dan McAdams (2013), while it may not be as easy as a simple infographic would imply, there are really only a few steps to reaching our own potential.

First, we have to learn communication and social behavior. Next, we have to develop goals and a sense of purpose. Finally, we digest our life experiences into a narrative, develop a plot that leads to our idealized life, and take action to move the plot forward.

If you’re lucky enough to be on the path to self-actualization, all that’s left is to help others do the same!

Psych nerds: Humor as an Organizational Leadership Tool

According to a recent study by Caroline Rosenberg, Arlene Walker, Michael Leiter and Joe Graffam of Deacon University’s School of Psychology, humor in workplace leadership may not be a laughing matter. In fact, their research indicates that humor, used appropriately, can result in greater team cohesion, more productivity, and increased trust in organizational leadership. Used inappropriately, it can increase strain between coworkers, decrease employee tenure, and imply an acceptance of deviation from policy and social norms, all while reducing employee confidence in leadership competency. The research involved a review of 62 previously conducted studies from a 40-year research period, and, in addition to providing practical considerations for any level of organizational leadership, it identified topics and questions for future studies of a similar nature. The project was a scoping review, which is exploratory in nature vice seeking to answer a specific question, so their ultimate aim was to identify themes, trends, and patterns in research which involved both humor and leadership over the past four decades.

One initial challenge faced by the researchers was simply identifying a consistent definition of “humor” used across their range of studies. Some studies focused on humor as a personality trait, while others treated it as a communication process or a social phenomenon. One study used laughter as an indicator for the presence of humor in conversation. Unable to find a definition that was specific enough to measure empirically, but broad enough to capture its expansive influence, the researchers ultimately did not provide a definition for the word, but rather broke it down into four categories which could be used to more effectively predict its outcome. They identified two positive humor styles (affiliative and self-enhancing humor), and two negative, or maladaptive humor styles (aggressive and self-defeating humor). The positive humor styles resulted in positive outcomes, while the negative humor styles generally resulted in negative ones.

Both affiliative (also referred to as interpersonal adaptive style), and self-enhancing (or inwardly adaptive style) humor resulted in increased perception of confidence and competency in the leader using the humor. In addition, both positive styles of humor could be used to foster resilience, reduce the impact of negative announcements, build trust, boost morale, and foster a positive and productive culture within the workplace.

 Aggressive (also referred to as interpersonal maladaptive style) and self-defeating (or inwardly maladaptive style) humors could still result in a perception of increased confidence, but they also resulted in a decreased perception of leadership competency. Usage of negative humor styles represents poor example setting, and in situations where enough inappropriate humor is used, employee engagement and trust decreases, with the ultimate result of poorer employee retention.

Despite the seemingly clear results of the study, another dimension is necessary in any comprehensive review of the effect of workplace humor: culture. While positive humor styles are productive in Western society, they are still seen as highly in appropriate in many Eastern societies, which are high power-distance cultures. In fact, in Eastern cultures, the use of even positive humor can be perceived as irreverent of a leader’s authority, or even intellectually shallow.

Future research still has quite a few questions to answer about how to use humor effectively as a leadership tool. First, what exact circumstances make a use of humor appropriate? Many leaders intuitively understand that it’s more acceptable to use humor at a Christmas party than it is at a project update meeting, but what makes that the case? What attributes aside from appropriateness also effect the impact of humor? Perhaps the authenticity of the delivery, or the personality of the deliverer? Perhaps most importantly, is humor a skill that can be learned or simply a useful trait for those who are organically humorous? The Deacon University cohort believes that it can be trained, and that future research should focus on how the training can best be implemented. Perhaps it is possible to increase leadership sensitivity to social and situational signals queuing humor, so that leaders can understand when its use is appropriate and when to refrain.

Ultimately, humor is a tool that’s available at leadership’s discretion, but its application requires emotional intelligence, experience, and communication skills. By holistically mentoring today’s staff (tomorrow’s leaders), we can be sure to teach professionalism, along with appropriate boundaries and respectful communication, to make tomorrow’s workforce happier and more productive.

A nerdy article about workplace gossip

               For the average person, hearing about the existence of gossip in the workplace might invoke the feeling that a deviant behavior is causing a toxic work environment. Even for many managers, the immediate temptation would be to “squash the gossip,” but is that really the most appropriate response? According to an article published in April 2020 by Steven Lee and Christopher Barnes of Washington University, there could be quite a bit more to it than that. In fact, according to one of their sources, gossip is estimated to occur in two thirds of all workplace conversations (Dunbar, 2004). In other words, it is inevitable. Lee and Barnes explored the effect of workplace gossip not only for the target and recipient of the information, but for its “sender” (or source) as well. Their work could be used by management at any level to better understand when gossip is appropriate and healthy compared to when it is toxic and warrants addressing. Ultimately, they found that the result of the gossip depends largely on its context, along with the perceived intent and credibility of the gossip sender. 

               Lee and Barnes defined gossip as either positive or negative talk evaluating an absent third party. They focused specifically on non-solicited gossip. Gossip is distinct from rumor because it must involve other people and must not be speculative. Common negative results of gossip are well-known, and result from an intent to exact revenge, undermine authority, socially exclude individuals, or damage a particular community. Gossip of this sort can result in isolation, degradation of culture, damage to the credibility of the gossip sender or target, and more. Lesser known (or, at least, more infrequently acknowledged) results of gossip include the following positive effects: the spread of useful information, exposure of non-contributing employees, progression toward consensus, establishment of credibility and cooperation, reinforcement of social norms and expectations, and revealing discrimination in the workplace. One interesting note that the researchers posited is that it doesn’t matter so much what the intent of the senderis, what’s more important and consequential is how the recipient perceives the sender’s motivation. In other words, the ability to communicate the intent is just as important as the intent itself.

               To further analyze the important effects of what is now acknowledged as an inevitable workplace occurrence, Lee and Barnes broke gossip down into four types: protection-based gossip (which alerts the group to threats or norm violations), derogation-based gossip (which negatively effects the reputation of the target), endorsement-based gossip (which positively effects the target reputation), and communion-based gossip (which strengthens social ties within the group without pertaining to the workplace). They also broke the motives of the gossip sender into three categories – self-interested motives, relational motives, and collective or prosocial motives. Combined with the perceived credibility and intent of the sender, these types of gossip and categories of motivation comprise an equation that can help predict the recipients’ response, which would either be to reciprocate and cooperate with the gossip sender, or to undermine them and work an alternative strategy.

               While this article represented an extremely technical look at workplace gossip, its application is actually simpler than one might anticipate based on the depth of the research. Ultimately, the research showed that establishing a positive reputation within the workplace requires credibility (accuracy of information), selflessness, vulnerability, and focusing on the betterment of contributing team (or group) members and the betterment of the team as a whole. When sender credibility is doubted, recipients suspect ulterior motives and often undermine or distance themselves from the sender. Additionally, it isn’t just one circumstance that enhances or destroys credibility, it is an analysis of individual patterns of gossip behavior over time. In other words, sustained effort and selflessness allow team members to be perceived as positive contributors in the eyes of their peers and coworkers. 

               There are a number of other factors covered in the research, such as the status of the target of gossip.  When the target holds a higher ranked position than the gossip sender in the organization, the gossip isn’t perceived as a threat to the target, and therefore can provide a healthy mechanism for building trust amongst peer coworkers and for venting about issues with management. Negative gossip about a lower status target is perceived as threatening to the target, so unless it’s extremely well founded, it’s unlikely to be reciprocated and could result in the ostracization of the gossip sender.

               Another factor is the locus of control – whether it’s internal (and thus, reflects the sender’s character), or external (and represents a response to environmental pressures such as impending layoffs or a sudden firing of an employee). This speaks once more to the pattern analysis mentioned previously: if you choose your battles when it comes to gossip, and do so effectively and selflessly, you will maintain a positive reputation amongst your coworkers.        

Since gossip allegedly occurs in two thirds of workplace conversations, in a larger sense, we are simply exploring workplace communication and how to foster a healthy work culture. It’s an important leadership topic, and understanding the positive and negative outcomes of gossip, along with how to strategically use this form of communication in team building, can help managers to maintain a positive reputation amongst their staff and coworkers, as well as helping them develop the next generation of managers. For aspiring organizational psychologists, an understanding of workplace gossip can help them to identify toxicity within organizations, and to discover the source of the toxicity and how best to remedy it. The fact is that, concerning social topics such as workplace gossip, there’s really nothing more relevant to our experience as humans, both in the workplace and outside of it. While not everyone needs to write about such topics at the graduate school level and beyond, having a basic understanding of the research not only makes us better employees, leaders, and psychologists, it also makes us better human beings in general.

References

Lee SH, Barnes CM (2020 Apr 16). An attributional process model of workplace gossip. American Psychological Association. 106(2):300-316. doi: 10.1037/apl0000504.

On Jiu Jitsu: A Formal Announcement

I’ve been collecting mental health tools for my entire life, and my role in the world is to share them in a way that is digestible to other humans. The best tool I’ve found in my own life though, came a little over a year ago after a decent amount of prodding from a good friend of mine.

Jiu Jitsu. It’s a grappling style of martial arts that I see as a symbolic representation of my own mental health battles. It’s all about balance, stability, leverage, and so many other concepts and principles that apply not only to the martial art, but to life itself.

Wanna know the magical part?

My Jiu Jitsu coach is opening his first dojo in the same building as ETMA! That’s right, we’re going to have mental health work AND the symbolic representation of that grappling match, IN THE SAME BUILDING. More to follow, but since this website will one day become a record of progress, I wanted to make sure that the announcement we made yesterday (10/19/2021) on social media didn’t get neglected on the website. Below are a few photos of the mat delivery:

There’s no one else I would trust more with my journey as a martial artist, and I’m absolutely THRILLED to be able to offer jiu jitsu in the same location as ETMA. More to follow – don’t forget to check out our reviews if you’re interested in a mental health resource. All the love! -Dustin (Founder, ETMA)

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