Author Interview: Katherine Schafler

Katherine Schafler is a psychotherapist with a private practice in NYC, formerly an on-site therapist at Google. In addition to her blog, she’s a contributing writer at TIME and Business Insider, as well as an editor-at-large for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global. Her book, The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power (Amazon, Bookshop) just hit shelves.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Katherine about happiness, habits, and mental health.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Katherine: Every single morning, I wake up early and drink guayusa tea in solitude while I write, work, read, do anything that restores me really. I used to drink so much coffee and I never intended on switching to tea, but one day I was running late for work (literally running to my office in an NYC heat wave) and I got so hot that I popped into a bodega to get a cold drink. I grabbed the first drink I saw with caffeine in it (iced guayusa, which I’d never tried or heard of before) and went to work. An hour or so later, I started to feel this clean, almost high. It was like I had coffee but without the tweaky-ness that sometimes accompanies coffee for me. I felt totally alert, but also still. 

I continued to drink coffee after that, but I also started ordering loose leaf guayusa. I learned guayusa comes from a plant in the Amazon rainforest. It has three times the antioxidants as regular green tea, is known to promote mood and regulate blood sugar, and doesn’t have that ‘earthy’ taste that green tea typically has (which I don’t like). Eventually I stopped drinking coffee and switched over to guayusa entirely, which was effortless. 

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

That joy is more important than happiness. I need both to get by in life, but if I stay connected to joy, I can handle a lot of ups and downs in the happiness department without it bothering me too much. There’s a spiritual teaching that goes something like, “Joy is happiness for no reason.” If you think of a small child, they’re naturally joyful. They’re curious, open, they play a lot, they take their imagination seriously – all those traits arise from joy. Small kids can have tantrums and become very unhappy in moments, but they get over it quickly because they stay connected to joy.  

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I used to be a walking bad habit! I’ve kicked many bad habits! One example of positive habit change that I showcase in my book: I carry a little Tupperware thing of chia seeds in my bag and sprinkle them on everything. Eggs, yogurt, smoothies, ice cream, pizza, everything. I also keep a pretty glass jar on my kitchen counter filled with chia seeds for the same reason I keep salt and pepper readily available instead of storing them in the pantry; I make the habit as convenient and as appealing to me as possible. 

Because I got in the habit of putting chia seeds on everything, it helped strengthen my identity as someone who makes healthy choices every day. (Hello, rebel tendency!) It’s a little habit but it was a springboard for me to gain the habit of eating more nourishing, healthy foods. It’s worked alongside other tiny but positive habits which, cumulatively, help me lead an enjoyable, healthy lifestyle.  

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

 I’m a rebel. I used to be more of an obliger, but I experienced obliger-rebellion over the pandemic. 

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email) 

I like going to sleep early and waking up early, so even something as simple as going to a late dinner with friends and not going to sleep when I normally go to sleep, then not waking up when I normally wake up. That can lead to a negative ripple effect for like, a solid week. Sometimes longer. 

I’m a superlark and I need my morning time. Hence why I schedule dinners with friends at 5:30pm like I’m in my eighties, and why I will leave most events—no matter how cool or fun they are—by 8:30pm. If an event or dinner doesn’t start until 9pm, I won’t go for the same reason that most people wouldn’t schedule breakfast with their friends at 5am.   

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.? 

Never. Change for me has always been an entirely unceremonious affair. It’s little by little, day by day, invisible ‘til it’s not. I swear by incrementalism. 

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

When I was writing my book, Seth Godin’s book, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (Amazon, Bookshop) came out. In that book, Godin addresses the anxiety that can arise when you share your work with the world. He says, “It’s never going to be good enough for everyone, but it’s already good enough for someone.” That line really kept me moving in a moment when I would have otherwise become stuck. 

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why? 

Absolutely. Over and over. Every book I read changes me in some way. When I was a teenager, my older brother gave me a copy of Jean Kilbourne’s, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel (Amazon, Bookshop). I never saw advertising the same way again. 

I became obsessed with that book. I was like, “Why isn’t everyone talking about this book?!” I petitioned the dean of my college to let me teach a class based directly on that book, which ended up becoming a popular course. Kilbourne’s book shielded me from the way women are told that their bodies/looks/thinness are their greatest currency. It also shielded me against the idea that buying things will fix your problems.  

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

I’m a psychotherapist, and there are more mental health myths than I could address in a single question. I talk about a lot of mental health myths in my book, “The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: a path to peace and power.”  One huge misconception is, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That’s not true. 

What doesn’t kill you might traumatize you to the point of disintegrating your memory recall. What doesn’t kill you might push you into addiction. What doesn’t kill you might make you suicidal or parasuicidal. What doesn’t kill you might lead you to physically or emotionally abuse your children because you don’t know how to handle the overwhelming nature of your struggle. 

Struggle does not guarantee resilience. A more accurate expression would be “What doesn’t kill you forces you into a position where you have to choose between connection or isolation, and choosing connection makes you stronger.” It’s not as like, ‘slogan-ready’ per se, but accurate, nonetheless.

I wish people understood that it’s never the terrible things that happened to you that make you stronger; it’s the resiliency-building skills you engage to process the terrible things. What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but only if you feel your feelings, process your experience (i.e., figure out what the experience means to you), and engage the protective factors around you—mainly, the power of connection. Support is not just an exchange of information or aid; support is an exchange of connection.

I couldn’t wait to talk to Katherine about happiness, habits, and mental health.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Katherine: Every single morning, I wake up early and drink guayusa tea in solitude while I write, work, read, do anything that restores me really. I used to drink so much coffee and I never intended on switching to tea, but one day I was running late for work (literally running to my office in an NYC heat wave) and I got so hot that I popped into a bodega to get a cold drink. I grabbed the first drink I saw with caffeine in it (iced guayusa, which I’d never tried or heard of before) and went to work. An hour or so later, I started to feel this clean, almost high. It was like I had coffee but without the tweaky-ness that sometimes accompanies coffee for me. I felt totally alert, but also still. 

I continued to drink coffee after that, but I also started ordering loose leaf guayusa. I learned guayusa comes from a plant in the Amazon rainforest. It has three times the antioxidants as regular green tea, is known to promote mood and regulate blood sugar, and doesn’t have that ‘earthy’ taste that green tea typically has (which I don’t like). Eventually I stopped drinking coffee and switched over to guayusa entirely, which was effortless. 

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

That joy is more important than happiness. I need both to get by in life, but if I stay connected to joy, I can handle a lot of ups and downs in the happiness department without it bothering me too much. There’s a spiritual teaching that goes something like, “Joy is happiness for no reason.” If you think of a small child, they’re naturally joyful. They’re curious, open, they play a lot, they take their imagination seriously – all those traits arise from joy. Small kids can have tantrums and become very unhappy in moments, but they get over it quickly because they stay connected to joy.  

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I used to be a walking bad habit! I’ve kicked many bad habits! One example of positive habit change that I showcase in my book: I carry a little Tupperware thing of chia seeds in my bag and sprinkle them on everything. Eggs, yogurt, smoothies, ice cream, pizza, everything. I also keep a pretty glass jar on my kitchen counter filled with chia seeds for the same reason I keep salt and pepper readily available instead of storing them in the pantry; I make the habit as convenient and as appealing to me as possible. 

Because I got in the habit of putting chia seeds on everything, it helped strengthen my identity as someone who makes healthy choices every day. (Hello, rebel tendency!) It’s a little habit but it was a springboard for me to gain the habit of eating more nourishing, healthy foods. It’s worked alongside other tiny but positive habits which, cumulatively, help me lead an enjoyable, healthy lifestyle.  

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

 I’m a rebel. I used to be more of an obliger, but I experienced obliger-rebellion over the pandemic. 

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email) 

I like going to sleep early and waking up early, so even something as simple as going to a late dinner with friends and not going to sleep when I normally go to sleep, then not waking up when I normally wake up. That can lead to a negative ripple effect for like, a solid week. Sometimes longer. 

I’m a superlark and I need my morning time. Hence why I schedule dinners with friends at 5:30pm like I’m in my eighties, and why I will leave most events—no matter how cool or fun they are—by 8:30pm. If an event or dinner doesn’t start until 9pm, I won’t go for the same reason that most people wouldn’t schedule breakfast with their friends at 5am.   

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.? 

Never. Change for me has always been an entirely unceremonious affair. It’s little by little, day by day, invisible ‘til it’s not. I swear by incrementalism. 

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

When I was writing my book, Seth Godin’s book, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (Amazon, Bookshop) came out. In that book, Godin addresses the anxiety that can arise when you share your work with the world. He says, “It’s never going to be good enough for everyone, but it’s already good enough for someone.” That line really kept me moving in a moment when I would have otherwise become stuck. 

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why? 

Absolutely. Over and over. Every book I read changes me in some way. When I was a teenager, my older brother gave me a copy of Jean Kilbourne’s, Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel (Amazon, Bookshop). I never saw advertising the same way again. 

I became obsessed with that book. I was like, “Why isn’t everyone talking about this book?!” I petitioned the dean of my college to let me teach a class based directly on that book, which ended up becoming a popular course. Kilbourne’s book shielded me from the way women are told that their bodies/looks/thinness are their greatest currency. It also shielded me against the idea that buying things will fix your problems.  

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

I’m a psychotherapist, and there are more mental health myths than I could address in a single question. I talk about a lot of mental health myths in my book, “The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: a path to peace and power.”  One huge misconception is, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” That’s not true. 

What doesn’t kill you might traumatize you to the point of disintegrating your memory recall. What doesn’t kill you might push you into addiction. What doesn’t kill you might make you suicidal or parasuicidal. What doesn’t kill you might lead you to physically or emotionally abuse your children because you don’t know how to handle the overwhelming nature of your struggle. 

Struggle does not guarantee resilience. A more accurate expression would be “What doesn’t kill you forces you into a position where you have to choose between connection or isolation, and choosing connection makes you stronger.” It’s not as like, ‘slogan-ready’ per se, but accurate, nonetheless.

I wish people understood that it’s never the terrible things that happened to you that make you stronger; it’s the resiliency-building skills you engage to process the terrible things. What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, but only if you feel your feelings, process your experience (i.e., figure out what the experience means to you), and engage the protective factors around you—mainly, the power of connection. Support is not just an exchange of information or aid; support is an exchange of connection.

A Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control Book Cover

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