77 - Empathy, Vulnerability, and Mental Health with Nōn Wels
Mental Health with Non Wells

77 – Empathy, Vulnerability, and Mental Health with Nōn Wels

TeacherCareerCoach

Nōn Wels is a writer, mental health advocate, and doggo lover. He’s the founder of The Feely Human Collective, a collaborative mental health community that helps each of us grow our collective capacity for empathy, vulnerability, and emotional curiosity.  

Listen to the episode in the podcast player below, or find it on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

Empathy, Vulnerability, and Mental Health with Nōn Wells Transcript

Daphne Gomez:
Hey, Nōn. Thank you so much for joining us here today.

Nōn Wels:
Thank you for having me, Daphne. So good to see you.

Daphne Gomez:
I wanted to have you come on, I know that you and I are in the same business owner type of space, and you have a very strong dedication to helping people, and business owners specifically, in the space that we’re at, talk about being vulnerable, really a lot of emphasis on empathy, feeling your feelings, validating the feelings that you’re feeling to help us be healthier people. And I knew that this was something that so many teachers, especially teachers who are thinking of leaving the classroom, could probably benefit from. Do you mind sharing a little bit of your story and why this is so important to you?

Nōn Wels:
Yeah, I don’t mind at all. I’m honored to share. I am someone who has lots of lived experience dealing with mental illness and mental health. I have major depressive disorder myself, a history of anorexia, suicidal ideation. There’s schizoaffective disorder in my family, childhood trauma, things of that sort. And as I sort of deepened into my own healing journey, started going to therapy, et cetera, I started my podcast, You, Me, Empathy, which is about really creating spaces for people to show up in all of their wholeness. All of the fallibility that we hold. All the brights and darks we hold as humans. And I know that creating safe spaces like that were something that I needed in my healing. And it certainly wasn’t something I had growing up so I wanted to create those spaces. It’s been four years since I’ve been doing that show, still going. 200 episodes or so strong.

And then last year, well, technically 2020, May, 2020, I launched my little collaborative mental health community called The Feely Human Collective, where I lead workshops on empathy and emotional intelligence and things of that sort to help us deepen and grow our capacity for empathy, and vulnerability, and curiosity when it comes to our feelings, because those three things have been crucial in my mental health, my individual health, and sort of the collective health of my communities and the people I love. It’s very close to my heart. It’s my passion. It’s what I love.

Daphne Gomez:
It has been something that has been really important to me in my own healing process when I started to pivot. Even diving into a new career, it always comes back up. There’s all of this past trauma that takes control of your life, and if you’re not able to actually feel those feelings it holds you back in ways without you even noticing that, you know, maybe you have this money mindset issue and it’s from something really traumatic that happened to you. I personally lived on my own when I was 17 years old and I had a lot of trauma, so for me my career is very much the thing that brings stability into my life. So changing careers was one of the scariest things. When it comes to being vulnerable, it is scary, and people are afraid to start opening up about what it is that may be holding them back. Why do you think it is so hard for people to ask for help or to be vulnerable?

Nōn Wels:
I think that vulnerability is ultimately about bringing awareness to those soft parts of ourselves. The fallibility, the wholeness, the brights, and the darks. The things that are hard to look at. The things that disrupt what we think of ourselves, our identity. The things that are uncomfortable. You mention trauma and how that can inform how we live in the world. If we don’t investigate those things, if we’re not curious about those things, we’re not going to be able to dismantle them. We’re not going to be able to shed the armor, or sort of politely put aside the thing that served us for a while and ultimately may no longer serve us now. So we have to be curious about that thing.

When it comes to why vulnerability’s hard, there’s a lot going on there. I think it’s getting comfortable with the hard stuff that we experience. And I think there’s so much culturally that says that we need to bypass those things, that says we need to focus on positivity, we need to keep moving forward. Whatever it may be, there’s a lot of that sort of mindset talk in the entrepreneur space, as you know. And I think what that tends to do is tends to bypass our wholeness. It tends to bypass experiences. We’re going to avoid or ignore experiences that are going to be crucial to our healing and our growth if we’re not looking at the hard stuff too. A big piece of vulnerability is really self-knowing. It’s about awareness of self, and that’s hard.

Mental Health with Non Wells

Daphne Gomez:
It’s knowing how you handle rejection. If you’re in the middle of a career, and you are getting those rejection letters, that is not easy for anyone, but there are people who take it harder than other people just based on their own unique experiences, their own perception of worth, whether or not your career validates your own self-worthiness in your head. There are so many things that being emotionally healthy, or at least aware of how different aspects of the world are going to impact your emotions that can hold you back or help you be successful when it comes to overcoming these hard challenges. With so many teachers listening to this, knowing what an important skill this is, do you have any suggestions on how we can actually help students learn vulnerability?

Nōn Wels:
Yeah. I think it starts with feelings really. And I’m talking about sort of younger students at this case. I teach and lead workshops for college level students, but I think ultimately this work starts with our feelings. So teaching kids about feelings. Understanding that there are no good or bad feelings, that it’s okay to feel anger or sadness, and it’s especially okay to talk about it. And that stuff has to be modeled.

I don’t know about you, Daphne, but I’m 40, I grew up in an environment that was not always safe, and it was certainly not modeled. Talking about feelings openly was not modeled for me. As a parent, modeling that behavior. Like creating safe pockets at home. Home base could be a safe space to talk about the thing that’s hard. Talk about the big feelings that are coming up. Like, what’s going on there? Being curious. Asking questions. That’s crucial. So things like, labeling emotions, knowing the words for emotions or feelings, developing those healthy coping skills and communication skills when those harder feelings like anger or sadness pop up.

Last year I wrote a picture book about this little boy called Humphrey for who goes on this feelings journey. And it’s all about this. I hope one day I get to publish it. Vulnerability starts with feelings, because, like I said, it’s vulnerable to look at the hard things; the anger, the sadness. What is going on there? Let’s explore that. Let’s talk about it. But if you’re a kid, if you’re 10 years old, or eight years old, you need a safe person to do that with.

Daphne Gomez:
I couldn’t agree more. And I think that even from a teaching perspective, we focus a lot on like social, emotional learning for our students, but then when it comes to ourselves we forget to sit and identify the feelings that we’re feeling, identify why we’re acting in one way or the other.

For me, personally, if I find myself really overwhelmed and stressed, it is counterintuitive. I sit down and I work super hard. I become a workaholic. And I have noticed to myself spending 10 or 12 hours staring at a computer and then having to pull back and say, “You’re doing this because you’re stressed but it’s not making you feel any better.” And that was something that has only popped up since I quit drinking. And everyone who’s listening to this podcast, I talk about my own struggle with addiction and how I conquered that, but these things are going to continue to change. The way that handle emotions is going to shape-shift year after year after year, and being able to identify that and name it, I think is so important. How do you suggest that teachers who are in a workplace environment that may feel hopeless, like things are impossible, how would you suggest they practice vulnerability in a workplace that everything feels overwhelming?

Nōn Wels:
First I would just say, my heart goes out to all teachers right now. My partner, Jessica, is a community college English teacher. She’s feeling it. I see that in her. I see the exhaustion in her. Especially elementary level teachers, just the amount of disruption that’s happening. I don’t know if you can hear my… Do you hear any background noise? Okay. It’s raining. Okay. I’ll stop.

Daphne Gomez:
It’s raining here too. Are you in Los Angeles?

Nōn Wels:
I’m just south of LA, yeah.

Daphne Gomez:
Oh, okay. We’re in Monrovia.

Nōn Wels:
Okay. So my partner, Jessica, is a community college English teacher. I see the exhaustion in her. I see it. I feel it. A thing that is helpful to me that has helped me as someone who’s in a helping position in a lot of ways and creating communities to where I’m at the center of that helping response is, well, first boundaries. Figuring out what our boundaries are for ourselves and for the people in our lives. I’ve always said that empathy without boundaries is self-destruction. So we need boundaries. That’s one.

Two, reminding ourselves that we do have big hearts, we are sensitive, and that’s a beautiful, vulnerable, courageous thing to… That’s a powerful, strong, wonderful thing to be.

The other thing is, change happens in small moments. We change one heart at a time. As much as our culture honors these big romantic gestures in life, true change, in my mind, happens in those small moments. So remind yourself that it’s, whatever you want to call it, baby steps or small moments in time, one heart at a time. That’s truly what it is. So small moments of those kindness, small moments of presence, small moments of joy. Be present with that stuff. Don’t go work on your computer, Daphne, for 12 hours to avoid those small moments. Maybe everything’s feeling overwhelming, and scary, and so frustrating, honor those small moments where you did have an impact, because you are having an impact.

And so I would say the other thing about that is, for me, I want to be everything for everyone. As a people pleaser, as maybe a recovering codependent, I want to be everything for everyone. I’m a Enneagram 2, I’m a helper, and I’ve had to learn that’s not useful or possible. It’s not based in reality. So recognizing our limits, creating those boundaries, checking in on why we’re here. It’s also resting. Resting is productive. Rest, and know that you’re doing beautiful work, and also it’s okay to change too.

Daphne Gomez:
Yeah. I think a couple things that you talked about that I want to dive into a little bit. You cannot do all of the things was a little bit of the messaging that I heard you say. And in a helping position, teachers are in helping positions, you and I are still in helping position, but as a teacher, everything feels so huge. That 5:00 PM grading session, if you give really great feedback, could be the thing that helps bring that kid to grade level reading the next school year, or that really cool lesson plan that you’re spending two extra hours creating could be the thing that really persuades three or four boys to love math that year.

Everything you do feels huge and it is so hard to walk away from some of those tasks, but you cannot do everything. And that is something that, if anyone is listening, if you have not gone back and listened to episode 30 of The Teacher Career Coach Podcast, we have Angela Watson. She practices sustainable teaching methods and helps you identify what is something that you need to do versus what might be something on your, if I have extra bandwidth, because that I think is something that so many teachers struggle with. Do you have any suggestions when it comes to identifying when to just call it a day when everything is so important, or just setting clear work-life balance like, boundaries of this is the time I stop?

Nōn Wels:
I mean, I don’t know if I believe in a work-life balance necessarily. I think it’s more about a flow. What you just said I think is crucial, in that teachers are doing amazing work. I’m trying to put myself in the position of a teacher. I put myself in the position of Jessica for example, and I see her. I see her fretting and stressing about these students who will be the next leaders in our society. There’s a lot of bigness there. There’s a lot of potentiality there, and that could be scary. So I think emotionally and cognitively, we can let it sort of overrun us. So I think practicing mindfulness and presence is a crucial part of that. Again, going back to those anchors of small moments and not letting the bigness and joy and power of the position of being a teacher or a helper position because you are in a beautiful position to do that and you’re making huge changes, but not allowing that to… Like honoring it and realizing it because that feels good, because you are doing good work, and also anchoring into those small moments.

And again, it’s going back to the self-awareness and self knowing piece of like, how can I be a caring, helping, empathetic, compassionate human if I’m not doing that for myself? We have to start inward. We have to go inward before we go outward. So, really recognizing why you’re doing the thing, why you’re teaching, what is it about teaching that fills up your heart, and anchoring into that day in and day out. Again, I mention change. It’s okay to change too. It’s okay that it changes over time. My passions have changed over time. I’ve changed drastically since I’ve met Jessica 15 years ago. I’m a different person, and with that comes some grief, and loss, and anxiety, and it’s awesome. I’m all over the place.

Daphne Gomez:
That was such a great suggestion. And I think one thing that has helped when I talk to teachers who are thinking of leaving the classroom or just struggling with work life balances, having them imagine talking to their best friend who’s sharing the exact same situation. Like if your best friend calls you and says, “I cannot not work over this weekend. There’s no way that I cannot work this weekend. I have too much to do. There’s so much at stake. I really have to make sure I get these lesson plans done.” Would you tell them it’s important for them to try their hardest to scale back on what they’re doing, that they’re doing too much, that they’re burning themselves out? Or if your best friend calls you and says, “I’m so miserable in this career and I have to find something else but I don’t think I should leave.” Would you encourage your best friend to do something that is scary or make that change? And taking it off of ourselves and putting it in that perspective has always helped me a little bit.

Nōn Wels:
I love that. That’s great.

Daphne Gomez:
I wanted to move a little bit more into empathy. What do you think it means to be empathetic?

Nōn Wels:
I think it’s about meeting people where they are. Emotionally, cognitively, to be empathetic is to listen actively. It’s to be present. It’s to avoid judgment. It’s to let go of bias. It’s to examine our assumptions in how we show up in the world. It’s me speaking to you now or me listening to you, Daphne, and not thinking about the next thing I’m going to say but actually listening to the words that you’re saying, and seeing you nod or seeing you smile along. Actually listen.

I have found that empathy can also be something that has kind of been taken for granted in our world, and maybe even categorized as something you can just sort of check a box. “I’ve done the empathy thing.” The reality is that it’s active and it’s ongoing as is all good and important work. It starts with self. It requires boundaries, as I said. It’s deeply curious. It’s deeply vulnerable. It’s deeply rooted in self-awareness. And I think it’s something that’s crucial to our healing and to our systems.

Daphne Gomez:
I think when it comes to being empathetic for teachers or being empathetic towards our students, that’s something that teachers naturally… They went into this position because they are those types of people, they are highly empathetic types of people. However, when it comes to all of the things that have been going on, not just in the last two years, but just systematically how teachers are feeling broken. There are parents, there are admin, there are district superintendents, there are people that you may be able to pinpoint in your life that are making things more difficult for you as a teacher right now. What advice do you have for practicing empathy when it comes to practicing empathy with people you really don’t want to practice empathy with at the time?

Nōn Wels:
It’s a wonderful question. I actually do a workshop called Illustrating Empathy, and one of the slides is called Empathy and the People Who Bug Us. And really the exercise is in, think about a person who bugs you and let’s talk about it. What is that about? Why do they bug you? What’s going on there? One common sort of misnomer about empathy is that it’s not agreeing to disagree. It’s also not moralizing, and it’s not even agreement. It’s finding common ground, maybe, potentially. And it also takes two sides. So like, I trying to empathize with you and maybe you’re not giving in and you’re not meeting me halfway, that may not work. It takes two willing participants. That’s one thing.

The other is often in these types of frameworks, binary thinking comes into play. I think we need to avoid that, and avoiding this versus that or right versus wrong thinking in empathy. That has no place there.

Can we find a common ground? One thing that I know about you, Daphne, is that you’re a human, and I’m a human. Let’s start there. Let’s start at this base level, this foundational level that I am a human, you’re a human. Let’s start there and build from there, and if we don’t go anywhere, that’s okay. It may be a useful cognitive exercise. Sometimes it’s not going to work, but the things that we can do individually is investigate our own assumptions and bias. We all have bias. We all make assumptions about situations, experiences. We all build up armor before we enter a new sort of experience. We have assumptions about certain groups of people, certain types of people. We do that because that is armor, that is protection, that’s maybe evolution. But I think it’s important to examine those assumptions and the bias we have, and to possibly dismantle them and break them down. Understand why they are here.

You mentioned before early in this conversation how trauma can sort of inform the things that we do. It can also keep us from this… Or rather it can build up our bias. It can build up walls that keep us from curiosity, that keep us from the vulnerability of investigating our own assumptions in the world. Can we be clearer about those things? Can we be fair? Do we already have our mind made up before we enter a new situation? Those are some of the things that I know that help me. And it’s hard, it’s uncomfortable work, but I think that truly is what empathy is. It’s not about agreeing to disagree, you may not get what you want, but can you do the things that you can control, like examining your bias, examining those assumptions that you make. Can you be clear? Can you understand why you’re talking to this person or in this experience in the first place?

Daphne Gomez:
I think that’s such great advice. Thinking of all the things that teachers are going through right now. Like even using this example of parents who are pushing back a lot harder on what teachers are doing in the classroom. The last few years they have been not as nice as they were to teachers. They are not as grateful as they were to teachers. It’s becoming a very strained relationship depending on who you are in the classroom and what you are focusing on. And not all of those parents are going to meet you at the table. That is one thing that I heard you just say, Nōn, was that not everyone’s going to be an active participant.

I’ve always tried to empathize with those parents. As one, I’m going to call them turds because it’s my podcast, which is not probably what you would advise, but if they are a turd parent, they are just freaked out and afraid and trying to keep their child safe. Even if they are doing it in a strange way that is not what you would do as a parent or not how you would treat another human, that is the best that I can empathize. And then trying to bridge it from there. How do I alleviate some of those concerns as their students’ teacher? And if they are not willing to meet me halfway at the table, how do I manage my own emotions about this, and how do I go about this without letting it control my life, even though this is a challenge that I have never been put in before. How do I overcome this without letting it ruin my life also.

Nōn Wels:
Yeah, that’s super well said. I use the analogy a lot of like, early on in the pandemic where we saw some sort of public hoarding of buying up all the toilet paper or buying up all the hand sanitizer. And I remember feeling… My initial response was like, “How dare they? Do they not even care about anyone but themselves?” Those were some of the thoughts I had. The reality is that when I stepped back and thought about it more softly and curiously, I was able to sort of remember that there’s fear there, there’s anxiety there, there’s fear response, there’s anxiety response. We’re in a pandemic, things are being disrupted, that’s scary. And so when we’re scared and anxious, people make decisions that may seem to us weird, or like you said, not like something we would do. Can we hold that to be true? Can we hold that to be true that someone might respond to a situation in a different way? And what does that mean to us? Can we not use right or wrong in that situation?

Daphne Gomez:
When it comes to the people who are highly empathetic towards other people, making difficult decisions that potentially hurt another party, such as leaving teaching, such as leaving teaching mid year if they are not able to fulfill the rest of their contract, is something that is devastating. How would you suggest someone who is on the verge of making a difficult decision that may impact other people, how can they navigate that while still being a highly empathetic person?

Nōn Wels:
I think it’s really about understanding and communicating your needs. I think what is hard sometimes is the impact that we have on people and how we as helper people are connected to others. And it’s important to think about intent and impact, always. And when we’re in helping positions, the stuff that we do are naturally going to make waves. And so I think really being clear and transparent about… If you’re a teacher and you’re leaving and you want to leave mid year because you’re fed up, I see you, I hear you, I feel you, I get you. It’s okay to do so. And I would say, to couch that in, a great deal of communicating your needs to your admin, to your other teachers, to your students. Explaining what’s going on. Be vulnerable. Be open. I would even encourage folks to share, to your comfort level, but share how it’s impacted you. Share what it means to you.

I remember I had a job, this was ages ago, and I hated it. I hated this job. I won’t tell you where I was working, but I was working in like marketing. And my boss was a nightmare. I did not like this person. They were really verbally abusive and triggered me in a lot of ways. And what I did on my way out of that job, when I found another job, a better job, was I spoke very firmly and compassionately about the systems that was happening, like what was happening with this person. Not to throw them under the bus, but to explain what was happening, and to explain truthfully and honestly how it impacted me and how I see that what was happening in this person’s little team, how this person was managing me and others, was not aligned with why we were there in the first place. And it just so happens like a month later that guy was let go from that company a month after I left.

I guess what I’m saying is, communicate your needs because your needs matter and your needs are important. I don’t know, try to find someone to fill in your spot. I don’t know. I don’t know what else to say other than when you’re feeling that way, it’s hard, and it’s important to communicate your needs and why you’re doing those things.

Daphne Gomez:
There are so many teachers that feel like they have communicated their needs over and over and over again and not been heard. And what’s so… It’s not funny, the adjective to use is not funny, I’ve been speaking with journalists recently and I know… I’ve been in The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes, and a couple of different, and on NPR recently speaking about this, and one of the questions that the journalists keep asking me is, “Daphne, why are teachers leaving?” And it’s because there still is a lot of confusion on all of these different factors. Teachers think that they have voiced their concerns, people are finally starting to listen now, but before, I think that there were years that people were in this career and they were quiet. They didn’t want to vocalize their concerns because they didn’t think there was anything that they could do about it. And this is the last few years is this is the opportunity to actually vocalize your concerns, to speak.

If you are in a toxic work environment, like you just spoke about, Nōn, like you on your way out, say, “It wasn’t just teaching, it was specifically the way that this person interacted with me. My lack of autonomy, or the way that they spoke to me when they were giving me feedback was very condescending, and I had approached them a couple of times and they never really worked on improving how they communicated with me, and I felt that it was an environment that was not supportive of my growth or my happiness and so I decided to go a different direction.” I know we think that we vocalize it but this is when I think people are actually starting to hear, so don’t give up on vocalizing your needs.

Nōn Wels:
I would also add to that just a little nuance, which is, yes, 100% yes, Daphne. And it takes all types. When we’re in a toxic system, it can feel oppressive, and scary, and triggering, and traumatizing. And not everyone is going to be the whistleblower. Not everyone is going to be sort of at the front of the march sort of raging and screaming. That’s not everyone’s role, but we need all types. We need the types that leave silently, because that is the right thing for you, and we need the types who speak up, and we need the types who talk about it on NPR, or write about it. We need all types to dismantle and to assess and examine these systems that are hard on people, hard on teachers in this case.

Daphne Gomez:
I am very hopeful. I know that if you are looking at the state of education, it looks scary for the months ahead, but I am hopeful that with all the changes, with all the people actually voicing what’s happening, and with people actually leaving the profession, this is the opportunity for new leaders to rise up. This is the opportunity for new systems to be put in place. This is the opportunity for change at a much rapid pace because there are a lot of changes happening right now. And so I am hopeful that people will continue to fight, and advocate, and voice their opinions. It is important to do so though with empathy, like we were talking about for the other person, because you are not going to win anybody over with ugly talk. No one’s going to ever change their opinion if you salt their wounds.

Nōn Wels:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Daphne Gomez:
I’d like to talk a little bit about your podcast, You, Me, Empathy, because I know so many teachers who are listening maybe interested in hopping over there and learning more from you after this.

Nōn Wels:
So, really each episode of You, Me, Empathy… And episode 214 was just released yesterday. 214 on 2/14, Daphne, it was very serendipitous. But every episode is really a conversation with really any and everyone. I have therapists on. I have authors. I have regular run-of-the-mill feely humans on who want to share their mental health story, who want to share their grief, or their miscarriage stories, or their motherhood stories, or their fatherhood stories, or just stories about their wholeness and about what it means to be human. And it’s really an exercise in empathy and what empathy and vulnerability can do in connecting and healing us.

I love doing it. I hope I never stop doing it. It’s also exhausting being an independent podcaster. As much as I do love it, it does feel like, “Is anyone even listening?” It feels like I’m talking into the ether, but I love it. It’s my passion. It’s the best. And out of that, out of You, Me, Empathy, is when I built Feely Human, and that’s been wonderful. I’ve been leading workshops on empathy in local colleges. I’m at the point where I’m trying to get into elementary schools and high schools and stuff like that. I’m still sort of feeling that out, but it’s the best. People can listen wherever they get their podcasts.

Daphne Gomez:
Most of the workshops that you’re doing they are in the Los Angeles area?

Nōn Wels:
I do them virtually and then… I am based in Orange County, so I am south of LA, about an hour. This will probably be after, but my next workshop is February 20th. It’s this coming Sunday at Arvida Book Company in Tustin, California. I will be doing more of those in person, and if any teacher is listening and have a classroom that could use some empathy and feelings education, I’d love to get in touch.

Daphne Gomez:
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Nōn. This has been such a important conversation to have, and I just appreciate you taking the time to come on and speak to this audience.

Nōn Wels:
Thank you so much for having me, Daphne. I really appreciate it.

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