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MINDFUL MOTHERF'ING THERAPY WITH VIENNA PHARAON

I found Vienna Pharaon of Mindful MFT on instagram. I thought she was a poet in her 50s. She's not-- she's 31, a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in NYC, and has the aura of an angel. When I was a little girl I was obsessed with psychology-- I still am. I watch shows like In Treatment; my Mom's a mental health counselor; I majored in Psychology.  I mentioned Vienna's words in a diary entry I submitted to Vogue Arabia, and she reached out to connect. We had lunch in Tribeca a few weeks ago, and I couldn't believe how similar we were. We quoted the same greats ("we are the average of the 5 people we keep closest to us"), were athletes growing up, and share a powerful collaborative energy. She's very much living the life I could see myself living if I didn't have DANNIJO. She inspires me immensely and I'm pretty sure this is just the beginning of a powerful friendship to come. I hope you enjoy my interview with Vienna below. 
And if you don't already, I strongly encourage you to follow her instagram for daily tid bits of advice, wisdom and positive vibes.
- xxDanielle -

I follow you on instagram, and when I first read your posts, I assumed you were in your 50s because of the depth and wisdom of your words! I had no idea you were my age, and was pleasantly surprised. 
How has being a therapist changed you, and/or how have you grown?
Being a therapist has been a total blessing. It requires you to do your own work and hold yourself accountable. I often say you can only take your clients as far as you’ve taken yourself. I believe that through and through. The more work that I do on myself and the more challenges I confront and process through, the more my clients are able to challenge and confront their stuff. What many people don’t know is that our clients teach us so much, too. It can often times feel very one sided within a therapeutic relationship; the client is sharing everything about themselves and yet they know very little about their therapist, but I feel so honored and blessed being a therapist because of how much my clients teach me. To be a great therapist you really need to be able to apply what it is you're asking of your clients. It is the greatest accountability meter. 

Do your sessions ever make you question your own romantic relationships or friendships? How do you keep a barrier and avoid being impacted or influenced?
No, the sessions don’t make me question my relationships, but they can draw attention to areas in my own life in which I may need to grow. The work never detracts from my personal life, it always enhances it. I wouldn’t say there’s a need to keep a barrier. It’s important to accept and embrace our humanness; it’s normal to sometimes be impacted by what’s happening within our sessions, otherwise I’d say our boundaries are too rigid. That said, therapists are meant to be really safe containers for our clients and we really do need to be able to hold a safe space for others. We flow with our clients and feel what they feel, but we can’t go into the same exact emotional space. Healthy boundaries help us. 

How did you decide to become a Marriage and Family Therapist? What led you to the profession?
I was either going to go into Marriage and Family Therapy or Sports Psychology, but when I was searching for programs for grad school, I came across Northwestern’s Marriage and Family Therapy program and felt so aligned with the work that they were doing. I really felt called into that space.  Relationships have always been a draw for me.  My parents separated when I was in first grade and then went through a long-winded divorce. As I got older I really wanted to understand why we choose who we choose, what makes some relationships work and others not, and what I needed to do to best set my own self up for relational success. 

As a child of divorced parents, do you still believe in marriage and what do you think the secret to maintaining a rewarding, fulfilling relationship is over time? 
Oh absolutely! It’s very easy to subscribe to a narrative of “relationships end” when you see it happen first handedly, but therapy demands that we challenge our faulty narratives and invite a new story that is reflective of the life and love we want to have. Through my work and the research that is all around us, it is very possible to maintain healthy, fulfilling, and long lasting relationships. There’s a lot that goes into it but if I had to give you just one secret it would be to put in the work and to choose a partner who will put in the work. When you and your partner are willing to stand shoulder to shoulder and get your hands dirty you have a far greater chance at healthy, long-lasting love. 

If you weren't a therapist, what would you be?
Either an entrepreneur or athlete. I’d like to claim a bit of entrepreneurship already though, if I may :).  But if I wasn’t a therapist I’d likely dive into the start up world head first. 

What's the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
“Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.” A friend of mine actually was given this advice from a woman who had been married for 60+ years. I love those words so much. So many people offer the advice of making sure that the *other* person loves you more than you love them; it’s such a fear based way of thinking.

I found you on instagram and am inspired daily by your posts! How did you build up such a tremendous following? 
When I first started posting my goal was to create one new thought for one person a day. My hope was that in my writing people would begin to think about themselves, their partners, and their relationships a bit differently; specifically within the context of the relationships that have been around them throughout their lives. I just kept consistently writing from my heart and people started to catch on. They would tag their friends and repost and so the community began to grow and grow. I’m so glad that the field of Marriage and Family Therapy has gotten some attention because of it (that’s what the MFT stands for)  — even though many of my clients (and their friends) still call it “mindful mother fuckin therapy”. That cracks me up so much. 

Who are some of your favorite instagram accounts to follow and why?
I’m a big fan of @createthelove who is one of my best friends. Mark and I present our Relationships 101 events all over North America together and I love the work that he does. He also posts quotes and writes thoughtful captions but it comes from the male perspective. 
I also love @yung_pueblo’s work. Diego and I met and his energy is beautiful. You can feel him through his writing. He has such a peaceful presence and he knows how to string words together in a way that really touches me and asks me to dig deeper.
Of course I’m a big fan of @mantalks. Connor works tirelessly at challenging men to look closely at their shame and their shadow side so that they can be better partners, fathers, leaders, and friends. 
@mikaelareuben is an incredible chef who has the best energy. She’s someone who you just want to be around and is so incredibly knowledgeable. She and I are creating retreats together that will merge movement, group therapy, and nourishment through food. 

Which quotes/posts have had the highest engagement and what were the responses like?
People tend to respond well to either quotes about love and how to create healthy relationships, or quotes around letting go. I think the people who find their way to my page are either going through an ending, feeling stuck in their relationships, or looking to better the one that they’re in. Anything that focuses on finding a way to honor ourselves gets a lot of engagement. People have such kind things to say. They often comment or send me DMs that are so thoughtful and kind. 

How do you feel healthy relationships change a person?
Healthy relationships create the security required for us to lean into ourselves and each other more and more. When you’re in a healthy relationship the risk of being vulnerable begins to shrink. I love this quote from Freud, he says “how bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.” It’s so true, isn’t it? When we have secure and safe relationships, we feel brave enough to share the things we tend to keep to ourselves in other relationships. Our veins become strands of courage. It really is beautiful. Everything about a person can shift when the relationships around them are healthy. 

Whats the first sign you're in an unhealthy relationship?
One of the leading researchers in the field, Dr. John Gottman, talks about the 4 main predictors or relationship failure (he calls them the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse….yes, it’s a mouthful). They are defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling. When these things are present in a relationship it leads nowhere good. No reason to panic, these are things most of us have all done before, but when they’re constantly present in the relationship, and they’re the way we interact with each other it’s a great indicator that things need to change. 

What do you do in your own life to fuel the positive energy you put fourth?
I keep good people around me, I work out, I get outside, sleep, hydrate, meditate, I stay creative, and I have the best golden retriever in the land, Bronx, who fills my heart up each day.  I agree with Jim Rohn who said “we are the average of the 5 people we keep closest to us.” My 5 are awesome. They’re different in many ways, but they are incredible humans who fill up my tank. 

Do you think couples counseling is a good idea even before “a problem” occurs within the relationship? 
Absolutely. The research shows us that on average, couples come to therapy about 4 years too late. Mic drop, I know. Preventative work is so powerful and I’m all about it, and working through our conflicts, learning how to communicate more effectively, and becoming better partners are tools that everyone really should be aiming to have and to grow. I hear so many people judge or criticize couples who are in therapy before they’re married. They’ll say things like “don’t you think that’s a bad sign?” Or, “why not get out if you already have problems and you’re not even married?” I don’t agree. We all have problems. There is very little time in a relationship “before a problem occurs”. If you’re in a relationship it means that you’re in a dynamic that is going to test you and try you. It’s going to trigger you and challenge you to look at parts of yourself you tend to shy away from. Relationships do those things, so pretending you’re not a part of the population is actually fairly isolating and it might even put some people into the statistic of “4 years too late”. Therapy is so helpful when you find the right fit. There’s so much to uncover and so much beautiful work that can be done that can connect us in such deep ways.

How do you know when a strained relationship is worth attempting couples therapy versus giving up on the relationship?
Oh I think it’s the majority of the time. There’s so much work that can be done in couple therapy. Even if the outcome is that the relationship ends, it’s valuable to go to because so much can be learned in that space. There are certain dynamics that don’t fit into this, of course, but the majority of the time there’s tremendous value in it.
 
What do you recommend to clients who express the hardships of finding suitable partners in one of the busiest cities, NYC? Are you for, or against dating apps and why?
I would agree that the NYC dating culture is very challenging. We’ve really fallen victim to the idea that there’s always something better, and that all it takes is a few more swipes. That’s a very dangerous way to think.
The apps can certainly work. We meet people we might never meet, but people forget that there are other humans on the other side of these devices. You’ll get me fired up about this topic. The ghosting epidemic is brutal, and it’s a disgrace. Hiding behind a tiny screen seems to give so many people permission to treat others with such a lack of care. It’s painful and hurtful for so many. 
I’m for dating apps when people use them with care. I think there are plenty of people who do, but unfortunately there’s just as many who don’t.  Trust your gut. Go on second dates when you’re actually interested in getting to know the person better. Don’t use dating to help you avoid your loneliness. 

As you know, we're creatures of habit. What's the best strategy to break negative thinking patterns and ruminating? 
This can take quite a bit of work. SO much of what we think and do comes from a non conscious space. So we have to shift our narratives into our awareness. I talk a lot about exploring the messages we’ve received growing up and how those messages turn into our inner narratives. Those narratives then run our lives and we subconsciously recreate pain patterns for ourselves. I do a lot of narrative work with me clients and I talk a lot about respecting the PAUSE. This is when we slow ourselves down and label what’s happening in the moment (or what just passed), connect deeply to it and understand the story we have around what it is we’re reacting to, and then choose if we’re going to say or so something that supports our old story/pattern or a new story that sets us free. 

How do you address issues with clients who seem unable to change either personally or within the relationship? Do you confront them?
I certainly challenge my clients. There’s a reason people stay stuck, so my job is to explore that space with them and see if we can lift the constraints. Sometimes we sabotage and manipulate things in order to keep the system stuck and dysfunctional. Objectively it doesn’t make sense, but there’s an answer as to why. Unfortunately, sometimes people are just not willing or able to get to those answers within a timeframe that their partners need. It’s very difficult to work with resistant clients, but the best thing we can do as therapists is listen and understand. The more trust we build with our clients the more willing they are to let us challenge them. 

In your opinion, what are the three fundamental rules to sustaining a healthy relationship?
Oh goodness…only 3?!? There’s so much that goes into healthy relationships but if I have to give only three, I’d say:
  1. 1. Put in the work, lead with vulnerability and turn towards one another
  2. 2. Have fun and laugh as much as you can. 
  3. 3. Always find ways to admire your partner. 

How do you separate work and personal life, when the two are seemingly intertwined?
I do a good job of leaving work at the workplace, but the truth is most of the people in my life are either in the field or are super interested in the work that I do. It’s not uncommon for dinner conversation to be about relationship dynamics (that’s nerdy therapists for you ;)). Every once in a while my partner and I will just call it out and say something like  “let’s talk about something else — no more work talk” and we draw the line there.  We’ll leave our phones at home when we go out on a weekend day and just let the day lead us. Working out, cooking, dancing, laughing, being playful, all of those things help me separate and tap into the different parts of myself that need to get expressed. 

When does someone know if they've outgrown their therapist or need to start seeing a new one? Is this common?
I love this question, and it can certainly happen. I think therapists are often like our exes; they can take us so far in life and then sometimes they have to leave and let someone take us further. Maybe that analogy isn’t great, but I do think clients outgrow therapists….AND…that’s okay. 
A good indicator is if the sessions each week aren’t leading anywhere. If you keep having the same conversation or if you feel like you aren’t learning much about yourself then you might want to share that with your therapist. Sometimes that might be a reflection of where their limitations are, or it may be a beautiful opportunity for growth in expressing where you’re feeling stuck and the disappointment  or frustration you have around it. That’s the cool thing about the therapeutic dynamic; even when you think you’re stuck or that the work isn’t going anywhere, having the conversation can sometimes BE the work. 

What are some of the greatest books you've read on love and relationships, and what was your takeaway from it?
Attached. Loving Bravely. Getting The Love You Want. Hold Me Tight. The Five Love Languages. There are too many takeaways. These books are incredibly helpful. They make a lot of sense of things for the reader. I’d recommend any and all of them.

How did you discover DANNIJO and what drew you to it?
You! Your energy is incredible and you’re so kind and thoughtful. Your brand is so lucky to have you, and although I haven’t met your sister yet, I’m sure her energy matches yours as well. I learned about DANNIJO from social media and I’ve fallen in love with it all. 

Which are your favorite DANNIJO styles?
I’m really feeling hoops right now, so I love the Khloe in gold, but I’m obsessed with the whole Heads are Turning line and Resort Essentials line. My favorite rings are Airi and Tenenbaum. Am I allowed to choose whole lines?! Lol. I just want you to drape me with your jewelry. It’s an open invitation anytime you want. 
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