Today we raise our fists high and put our hands together in celebration of our Feature Girl Warrior, empathic counselor and Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Vanessa Graf, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a good sense of humor. At 24 Vanessa started traveling from coast to coast, meeting with groups of people, teaching techniques for interpreting dreams and exploring spirituality from a variety of perspectives. Having been raised in the Bible belt, she had a strong value system based on Christian principals. As she continued traveling and lecturing she began to study esoteric psychology and Carl Jung’s approach to dreams and their role in our lives. After a tragic personal loss, Vanessa entered into a long-term therapeutic relationship, which helped to transform her life and broaden her worldview. As she began to deal with the childhood issues of not having a mother and the impact of her mental illness on her family, she began to heal in a deep and profound way. This turned out to be the most important part of her education in becoming a good psychotherapist – and something that sets her apart from other therapists. She’s done the internal work! Going back to school to get her masters degree in Clinical Psychology and then her doctorate was exhilarating and rounded out the internal work she was completing at the time. Vanessa views her role as a psychotherapist as a facilitator in a conversation of renewal and transformation. Happiness is a worthy goal! Today she combines clinical knowledge with an empathic gift to bring clients a broader and deeper experience of the therapeutic process. The insights and interpretations in therapy are a combination of a clinical perspective and an intuitive understanding of her clients and how to help them understand and accept themselves on a meaningful level. And to that we say YES!
What makes you a Girl Warrior?
First off, I don’t think of myself as a ‘girl’ but rather a grown ass woman. My ‘warrior’ self did not emerge until and after womanhood was fully realized…sometime in my thirties! Finding my voice as a woman and discovering the ‘Girl Warrior’ in me was a natural progression. I wish I had been a Girl Warrior when I was a girl! Instead, I had to rescue ‘my girl’ from an oppressive and abusive internal world, and a devalued sense of self that was patterned after my familial relationships. Once I located her buried deep inside my broken heart, we set to work, she and I, to integrate and appreciate each other. From me she gets maturity and wisdom and protection she never had back then…and from her I get fresh enthusiasm, a fearless perspective and hope for a bright future. As I learned her needs and how to protect and listen to her, the ‘mama bear’ in me took shape and a voice emerged: my Girl Warrior voice! She currently teaches and inspires me to speak up, stand up for injustices, and to lend a helping hand to emerging ‘Girl Warriors’ no matter how old or young they are!
How did your mother’s mental illness influence your career choice?
I was born ‘sensitive’ and heard often that I was “too sensitive” – a notion I fully reject today. As a psychotherapist it’s a constant challenge to help clients accept their own sensitivity and view it as a gift rather than “too much.” Of course a highly sensitive person (HSP) must somehow meet the challenge of managing the sensitivity – a blessing and a curse. I began my training for my life’s work as the youngest in a family of four. And yes, my mother was mentally ill, specifically diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and at one point back when I was 13, she had electroconvulsive therapy completely wiping out her entire memory except my name and the names of my brother and dad. By the time I was 13, I had already developed a keen awareness of my mother’s illness, unaware of what it was called, but felt her absence in our home and the dark and cold atmosphere when a mom is ill in any family. I was aware of the dynamic between my parents (ill mom, absent dad as he just did not know what to do!), between my parents and my brother (a whole story in and of itself) and the presence of mental illness in the house. I’m not going to lie, it was painful and in retrospect I believe my strategy was to duck and cover and grow up to deal with it on my own. Just as I rescued ‘Girl Warrior’ from the internal prison of self-loathing, I sought healing through psychotherapy. The relationship that developed in therapy was the one I had as an adult that was not based on my trying to help or heal someone or get someone to love me, or accept me the way my family never did. Dr. Sorr (not his real name lol) seemed to hold the space and therefore me, in unconditional positive regard. He also taught me to reframe my thinking, eventually leading me to specialize in the modality – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – when I became a practitioner. From the greatest and most painful challenges can be honed ones’ finest skill set for healing oneself and for bringing healing to the environment.
You’ve been in a long-term therapeutic relationship after experiencing a tragic personal loss. Why is it so important to have done the work? How does that set you apart from other therapist?
Doing the work is SO important! All of us have bumps and bruises from our childhood, all of us have at our core a ‘world view’ created by a toddler. Since it is the early years of ‘downloading’ every experience, every exchange, every word or deed spoken or done in the environment of this ‘toddler’ there is no ego to separate a parent’s bad behavior from the toddler’s sense of self. The toddler would never say to herself, “wow, my mother is mentally ill and should not treat me this way…” Instead, the toddler would ‘download’ into her psyche an experience of neglect or of being invisible, perhaps creating a belief that she is unlovable. “If my own mother doesn’t take care of me, there must be something wrong with me…” can become a core belief of an adult female based on being neglected or abused as a girl.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) gives a window into the core beliefs held in the psyche. A depressed person undoubtedly has core beliefs that are not loving or encouraging or accepting…once a core belief is identified it becomes possible to address the pain in the presence of a witness (the therapist) and reframe the belief, creating a more solid sense of Self. Thus a person becomes ‘liberated’ from beliefs like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m unlovable’. These false beliefs not only hold a girl back from self-actualization but also are also completely false or irrational and created by a toddler!
In the busyness of everyday life, how do we maintain a close spiritual connection?
This is an excellent question and a complicated one! Fortunately and unfortunately a lot of us sort of ‘end up’ with some kind of religious set of beliefs. Parents often raise their children in whatever religious paradigm their parents taught them. I grew up in the Deep South and therefore was part of a fundamentalist household. We went to church 3 times a week rain or shine. But because of my mother’s mental illness, my religious beliefs were intermingled with psychosis and depression. When I went away to a Christian College, I never expected to be drawn away from the traditional faith I had grown up around and to begin to have an expanded worldview. From believing there was “One True God” to recognizing that there are many “paths” or “ways” represented by cultures around the world. It was a Comparative Religions class that opened my eyes to the idea that there are many ways to the One, including that I was already okay the way I was! I took up meditation, Esoteric Theosophy, Eastern thought including Buddhism, studied Theosophy and meditated with a serious meditation group 2 times a week for several years. During this time I was recording my dreams and learning to interpret the symbols in them as well as meditation symbols and ‘mystical experiences.’
Today I embrace an eclectic, all-inclusive worldview that recognizes more personally that there are many “ways” to comfort, understand, and love oneself and each other. To me, this is the meaning of life: to love more perfectly. This isn’t a reference to romantic, emotional love although it is a valuable gateway through which we learn and grow. Learning Agape love – unconditional and accepting – non-judgmental and not separate but an inclusive love is how we as human beings evolve. Liberating oneself from the pull of emotional highs and lows and being in the Eternal Now – mindful of this moment is what and how we learn through spiritual exploration.
Getting back to your question…whatever spiritual choices a person makes, whether to follow the path laid out by parents in childhood or to incorporate a different religious or spiritual practice or to find ones’ own different way of loving more perfectly – I believe it’s possible for people to find solace and comfort and even direction in a myriad of ways. I once had a client who experienced dressing an elk he had just brought down with a clean shot of his bow and arrow almost like a kind of mindful meditation, he was filled with ‘love’ and ‘respect’ of the animal’s sacrifice and of nature’s abundance. To me, that was a spiritual experience for him.
So doing things that gives one a sense of wholeness, love or goodness – whether that be going to church, hiking a wooded trail, dancing with self abandon, creating a quiet space of love through prayer or meditation or a mindfulness practice – gives one a sense of spiritual connectivity. This is a spiritual practice in ones’ daily living. It’s that simple.
We’ve all poured our hearts out to our best friend and it usually feels pretty good. Therapeutic. What’s the difference between talking to a close confidante about our personal problems and issues and talking to a therapist?
People ask this question a lot! Hopefully there’s a LOT of difference between talking to your BFF and talking to a therapist. First off, your BFF might want to tell you what might make you feel better and she will no doubt ‘hear you’ and ‘see you’ through the lenses of her own experience. A therapist that has done her own work will have some insight into her own ‘stuff’ or ‘baggage’ so that it does NOT bleed over into your issues. A BFF who has been cheated on repeatedly might give angry advice regarding an issue presented that triggers her unresolved problem with her cheating partner. Whereas a therapist should have worked through similar issues from her background so that she can more clearly draw an emotional boundary between her own “story” and that of her client. If a person feels that her therapist has unresolved issues that are intruding on the session, I encourage speaking up to address the feelings of transference and countertransference so that clarity might be brought to the conversation…what’s yours, what’s mine and how do we move forward with interventions to help the client to a better understanding and therefore hopeful relief from suffering. Your BFF might NOT be able to get there. Your therapist SHOULD be able to get there! If not, a new therapist is advised!
What’s the biggest decision you ever made?
I’ve made a few big decisions in my life. Leaving the South and establishing a life in California for 18 years was huge. Marrying my husband at 36 years old and having my first child at 41 was huge. But probably the biggest decision I made personally was to take myself back to school for a Masters then a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology. After discovering myself and my voice and the Girl Warrior within, I wanted so badly to help others do the same and as I had loved psychology at the Christian college and wanted to continue at that time, I finally – 20 years later, took out a massive student loan and started school to become a psychotherapist. I loved the study of psychology and how it made my childhood make so much more sense to me! Of course I had already had years of therapy myself to begin to heal and understand my childhood, but studying deeply the dynamics of my background and honing my empathic gift readied me for the work I love. I remember my therapist asking me years ago what I thought my “mission” was here on the planet. I remember answering how I wanted to help people so badly…he replied, “what if your mission is to help and heal yourself…?” I thought that to be a waste of time! What a refection of my self-concept at that time! Little did I know it was the internal work I did to liberate the Girl Warrior within that would set me on the path of my life’s work. Psychotherapist, heal thyself! So that thy might help heal other’s along the way.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve overcome – personally and professionally?
Obviously the biggest challenge I’ve overcome (am overcoming?) is discovering my worth and valuing myself, loving myself despite what I grew up believing about myself. Being a Highly Sensitive Person or an Empathic person has been very challenging… learning that it is my Superpower and not a wimpy limitation. The world definitely needs MORE sensitivity, not less. Working to overcome personal challenges has opened the door to a professional career…every new client presents an opportunity / challenge to helping her realize and overcome her limitations. Helping liberate a client from pain from the past and watching them leave the dysfunctional nest in their psyche is exhilarating! Nothing is more gratifying than witnessing a woman finding her voice and her Girl Warrior within!
What do we need to know “for sure” about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?
For sure we operate from beliefs created by children. Our prior little selves created a worldview that reflects our early experiences. How is it possible to know we’re operating with a playbook that is flawed and irrational? How can we come to discover the ‘self talk’ that impacts our mood and functioning in a fundamental way every second of every day? These core beliefs reveal themselves in conversation through word choice, self-deprecating humor, self-criticism and the way a person conducts herself in a conversation. A trained CBT practitioner can help the client identify these beliefs as revealed by exploration together of a thought process, belief system and memories from the past and how it relates to current patterns. Because knowledge is power, self-knowledge empowers a woman to make healthier choices based on what works in the present instead of the habitual choices from a dysfunctional pattern.
Why do so many marriages fail? What aren’t we getting?
Wow! That’s a complicated question! Let’s start with defining what a “failed marriage” actually is…divorce? As a marriage therapist of course I prefer to help mend marriages but there is absolutely a time when divorce is the best solution – not because a marriage “failed” but more because the marital contract has been sometimes completed, or changed; the trajectory of two lives were altered by time, circumstances, growth, non-growth, etc. Sometimes we have to release each other in love and say ‘thank you for the growth in our lesson love’ and go on to learn on a different trajectory than the original one. Would that be considered a failure? I know religion says we’re supposed to stay together forever and ever. And ever. No matter what…is that working? Perhaps the problem is the expectation that two young people (teenagers in some cases) can choose each other, make promises about forever and then actually pull that off. Remember these two people are each the summation of their childhood perceptions/beliefs coming together in a marriage – combining and challenging childhood patterns yet even realized in some cases. In ‘therapy school’ I heard the phrase, “marriage is growing up machine” meaning, childhood issues get brought into the intimate relationship. Love surfaces anything that needs to be healed. In the beginning of a relationship, all our baggage in neatly stowed in the overhead compartment but as our journey progresses we begin to unpack our emotional baggage in our marriages. Sometimes this is more than the marital contract can bear. This is another area wherein psychotherapy can help individuals and couples understand their patterns and emotions and behaviors toward each other and learn new skills and new ways to engage your partner with greater understanding and empathy for each
What would you say to your younger Girl Warrior?
My Dear Sweet Girl Warrior,
You are completely okay just the way you are! You are awesome and have qualities that are unique: your body is okay, your thoughts and feelings are okay, being silly is okay, being loud is okay, being sensitive is okay!
There are all kinds of us…shapes, sizes, colors, all kinds of unique girls and women that don’t need to conform to a standard of ‘girlness.’ Instead we have to redefine feminine power; it transforms a girl to a warrior, isolation to connectivity, oppression to liberation, silence to song…or screams or however your voice manifests itself!
Girl Warriors: finding your voice is MOST important and it doesn’t happen overnight so don’t be harsh on yourselves; we’re ALL still figuring things out. It’s part of the work and the fun…with any luck we won’t be able to tell the difference!
Remember the Dali Lama said, “The world will be saved by the Western Woman!”
He was likely referring to the Girl Warriors!
And as I have raised a couple of powerful Girl Warriors, I asked them to share how they learned to be Girl Warriors…here is what they said:
I love my Mom so much. I truly believe I have the best Mom in the world. She did not have the easiest upbringing or most loving but SHE is the most loving woman I know. And made my childhood and upbringing where I felt (and still do) unconditionally loved, supported, and lifted towards my dreams and what I want in my life. I don’t know what I did to deserve her really. I am so excited for her to be apart of the Warrior of the Year. She’s deserving of ALL OF THE AWARDS (in my bias opinion). My Mom raised me with positive affirmations and like I said before and LOTS of love. She taught me how vulnerability is strength. And how to stand your ground and be your own warrior or as she would say ‘BADASS’. One of the positive affirmations (that I will pass onto my kids) is every night when she would tuck me in she would say, “You are Strong, Tall, Smart, and Beautiful.” And I believed every word and I will still to this day think of that because it’s part of who I am. Even when I got to middle school and kids started picking on me for my height or what I was wearing, I couldn’t understand what they could possibly be teasing me about because I already knew I was Tall and Beautiful so I didn’t quite understand why they weren’t with the program! Like…don’t you guys know that you’re Strong, Tall, Smart, and Beautiful/Handsome too? I guess not everyone’s parents are like my Mama. My mom has taught me so much and continues to help me be the confident woman that I am today. I am grateful everyday that I have her support in anything I do. She is currently helping me be my own warrior by not letting the little things / little people get to me. She teaches me to be a warrior by standing up for what I believe in but also letting go of what isn’t serving me. She gave me the guts and love and strength to go after my dreams and do the craziest, ballsy, far out ideas that are so different from the ordinary. And I know I wouldn’t be able to do those things with out the love and support I have from my Mama Warrior. Izzy: 22 yo, living in LA, pursuing acting career.
My mom always wove activism into raising my sister and I. She always encouraged us to be leaders and take every opportunity that comes to us. She specifically told us to be the first to raise our hands to answer questions in class, and instilled confidence in us to not be afraid to have an opinion and fight for it. One thing that has always stood out to me was that she would always tell my sister and I that we were “strong, tall, smart, and beautiful” in that order. That sentiment has stuck with me forever, and it’s something that I believe made us into “Girl Warriors”, even though it seems small. Tatum: 20 yo, living in Colorado Springs and studying psychology at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
What would you say to future Girl Warriors looking for inspiration?
Inspiration comes seemingly randomly, but if we can figure out the triggers to our inspiration, we can “inspire” ourselves on the daily! I often ask clients what brings them even a moment of peace or relief from pain or even feelings of joy or gratitude…it’s a personal thing, inspiration. Some girls find inspiration in Anime, some in music or poetry or drama, walks in the park, hot baths, in self-reflection through prayer or meditation, reading, hiking in nature which ALWAYS offers a sense of belonging…after all we ALL BELONG IN NATURE. And even more accessible is the “heroine within” or that part inside of each of us that is always present to inspire when we are still and quiet long enough to allow it to emerge amongst the internal chatter of daily life. Inspiration is represented in the psyche sometimes by a character or a celebrity: I have a client with a Wonder Woman tattoo…she had not considered that Wonder Woman was more than a girlhood obsession but a symbol of inspiration that got her through many hard times as a child. Ask yourself, “What gives me joy or hope or a giggle or peace or soothing?” I consider any of those experiences “inspiration” and can be utilized to lift oneself up and to create to give to others.
Who is/are your Girl Warrior hero(s) and why?
I have so many and am so inspired and hopeful because of Girl Warriors emerging worldwide! I believe the Dali Lama and see how the emerging feminine power is influencing our world. It’s so exciting! There are the old crones such as myself J and Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin getting arrested for protesting the climate crises; there’s Nancy Pelosi holding court with ofttimes the dinosaurs in the United States Congress, Michelle Obama doing everything she’s doing – advancing taking the high road, SO NEEDED today; then there’s the younger generation…Lady Gaga…WOW, her message of acceptance of self in Born This Way is epic and those lyrics alone no doubt brought so much healing to so many broken hearts…Emma Gonzales! She is an AMAZING GIRL WARRIOR in leading an outcry for an end to gun violence after surviving a horrific event no doubt traumatizing her for life! Greta Thunberg leading the world in climate crisis conversations is amazing, overcoming her personal challenge with autism to utilize her VOICE; Autumn Peltier, Indigenous clean water advocate, at 13 addressing the UN by stating, “we can’t eat money and we can’t drink oil…”
If you consider what females typically are most concerned about: healthy relationships, healthy nutrition, education of the children, community cooperation, safety, wellness NOT acquisition of land or money, not war or dominance. This is the feminine power grid! There is Girl Warrior energy of transformation emerging on all fronts; all over the world…we got work to do!
Blue Sky it. No boundaries here, just limitless opportunities. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Lol…producing Netflix series with Barack and Michelle Obama…ok…that’s the sky’s the limit…a more grounded response would be to finish the novel now gathering dust within my hard drive.
What makes you laugh uncontrollably? Cry out all the tears?
Laugh uncontrollably? That would be my husband, George. We met at a UCLA stand up comedy class! We keep each other laughing and he keeps me in stitches!
Crying out all the tears absolutely does happen. Being an empathic person and working with people’s memories of emotional pain, I do periodically have a good, deep cleansing cry. My family has come to expect that from time to time Momma’s gonna cry and that’s ok. My tears get triggered by the news; cruelty from human to human or human to animal; the environmental crisis that we are now in; the scary stupidity of deniers of that crisis; fear that sets in when I focus on all the pain and suffering in the world – the tears flow, and I will remember particular people and sessions of their painful recounting suffering. But then it happens. The sun comes out. Day breaks. Resiliency. It is amazing what human beings are capable of surviving and it’s amazing to watch a woman move herself out of survival and into thrive mode!
What has been your biggest disappointment/triumph?
A deeply personal disappointment in my life has been the repetitive recreating of the early rejection in my family of origin. I spent years recreating relationships that would ultimately hurt me, repeating the familiar pain of not feeling loved. When there is an early experience of oppression or rejection, it can be ‘downloaded’ as what love actually is, what relationship is, what I can expect from being in relationship…this expectation, albeit largely subconscious, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have been through more than a couple “friend nightmares” by attempting to make an unloving female to love and accept me. My mother was unloving and that is what felt familiar to me. The vulnerable search for healing of the past in relationships with “friends” added up to be disappointments several times over.
Triumph? Having a raising two human females that make my heart burst with pride and love and appreciation and gratitude. Also, becoming the Wounded Healer, transforming my pain and brokenness into a tool kit that can be used to understand, reflect with and teaching love and self-acceptance to other humans along the path to liberation from old stuff. Helping facilitate the discovery of the Girl Warrior within a client is the most meaningful work I can imagine for myself.
If you hosted a talk show, what would it be called?
In my 20s when I lived in Los Angeles I had an ambition to have a company called Gifted Productions…a man asked me, producing what…? I couldn’t answer that and was frankly insulted by the question! Ha! That would be an example of having the enthusiasm and idea without the vehicle…so if I had a talk show I think I would resurrect that initial impulse, called it Gifted Productions or just “Gifted” as the name of the show. There are so many gifted people, in fact, we are ALL gifted in some kind of way; but not all of us will discover and/or appreciate the gift (s) we have! Sometimes our biggest “vice” is actually a gift not realized and honed and appreciated. With a nice reframe, a dash of self-love and gratitude, and a Voice – that same vice is transformed transmuted and ultimately released back as the creative contribution to humanity. For example: Being too sensitive and emotional becomes powerful empathic ability to connect and bring healing to others. It’s all in doing the work to become the Girl Warrior! And the Girl Warrior energy will heal the world.
To learn more about Vanessa head on over to her website at: http://vanessagraf.com/
Connect with her on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/vanessa-graf-a0bb04146/
Or follow her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/drvgraf
Vanessa, Izzy, Tatum at the Women’s March, Denver, January 2017
Tatum, Denver, Women’s March, 2017
When life is rough, be a unicorn
Women’s March, Denver, 2017