Hello and welcome to well Wisconsin radio, a podcast discussing health and well being topics with experts from all around the state of Wisconsin. My name is Morgan Meinen.
My guest today is Dr. Deborah Lafler. Deborah is a program leader, consultant and speaker on the topics of corporate wellness, employee wellbeing, holistic stress management, resilience and self care. She is currently employed as the wellness and Employee Assistance Program Manager at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Academically, Deborah earned a doctorate degree in spiritual studies from the Emerson theological Institute, a Master of Arts degree in health and behavioral studies from Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in communication with certificates in wellness and coaching from the University of Wisconsin Parkside. She holds additional certifications in worksite, wellness, wellness, speaking, resilience and thriving stress management, yoga, Grief Support, Mental Health First Aid, emotional CPR and addiction awareness.
So I’ll say that again, Stand, like mountains flow like water, and his name is Brian, Luke seaward, I loved that book. And I’ve recommended it to others. And when I have people have said, Oh, my gosh, that was the best book ever. So check it out. Maybe you’ll like it, too.
Deb, thank you so much for joining me today on Well, Wisconsin Radio, I’m so grateful for you taking the time to talk with me today. And I feel like with all of the heaviness going on in our world right now, this is such a perfect time to introduce people to the topic of spiritual wellness. So I wondered if you could start by telling us about your journey to studying spirituality.
Yeah, well, I’ve been in the field a long time, it’s been over 20 years now. And when I was going through undergrad wellness wasn’t even afield yet. So I took a wellness one on one course. And then, you know, other related courses to help but we couldn’t get a degree specifically in it. So I did what I could. And then when I went got out of undergrad. And I wanted to work in wellness, the only options were like if you were a personal trainer or a dietitian, so I went and got my certification as a personal trainer and worked in that for a while. But I soon got a little bored or just, I was uninspired in a sense of just talking about muscles and fitness all the time, because I saw health and wellness holistically. You know, based on my training and wellness in undergrad, even though it wasn’t a degree it was. But they introduced the wellness model, and all the National Wellness Institute’s work and conference and things. So I saw it as bigger. And I also was intrigued with human behavior. Because, as you know, right, so if we give somebody a prescription of like, here, this is how much you should eat. And this is what you shouldn’t be doing. Here’s your workout plan for the week, that I would say 95% of people would come back and they’d say they didn’t do it. So I also was not only looking at other people, but I started to look at myself too. And whatever the behavioral standards were whatever we should be doing. There were always things that came easy to me and then others that didn’t, and I couldn’t even follow all the, you know, prescriptions out there. So it intrigued me enough to go back to school to get a degree in health, health and behavior studies specializing in health education. And we really looked at, you know, what makes us do what we do, how do we change behavior? What are the different methods out there to help people self improve and change behavior? A lot of the work we were studying was coming from the addictions, research in terms of how do we help addicts get off drugs and things, but they’re finding, you know, obviously, that all of our behaviors have similar roots. And so what how do we help people change? Whether it’s fitness or alcohol, there’s a there’s some common ailments. So I was intrigued by that. And then when I got out into the field after that, it still was similar in that the health field or the wellness field. So I went into worksite wellness. And no matter what the prescribed health education was, it’s still information doesn’t change behavior. And we still kept pushing information we kept pushing, here’s what you should know. Here’s what you should know, thinking that eventually people would change and then worksite wellness got into biometrics and measuring people and all if they only knew their weights or their blood pressure, their cholesterol or whatever it was And then they’ll change. And still that didn’t. But there was this thought that, well, it’s a moment, it’s a moment that you could be held helping someone and coach them and see what they’re ready and see what they need. And, and often that was somewhat helpful if you had like a health coach to talk with. And you are ready to do so. But so many people weren’t ready. And this actually got really kind of frustrating for me in a way of, you know, what is it that we are missing in the field of wellness? And then as a person, you know, what do I need to change or not change is information helping me?
What do I feel is my pull to do things or not do things. And I found I was starting to get depressed, looking at all the standards and rules that we were supposed to be following. And I wasn’t perfect. And I felt like in wellness, I’m supposed to be perfect. I’m supposed to be the role model, I’m supposed to be the one that everyone looks to. And I remember this one day, we’re sitting at a health fair, where we were at the Ironman competition and I looked at all these athletes and I used to be an athlete in high school college, and I was like, Oh, my God, they’re not they’re more in shape than I am. And so I went on this mission to lose weight to get in shape, you know, do so but I did so in a too strict and unhealthy fashion. So, you know, eating disorder behaviors came back from when I was a teenager, and I just got not only thin, but I was emotionally a mess. It was too, you know, compulsive sort of thing to focus on my body so much to try to be perfect. And the emotional mess part of me was this, judging myself against standards. And the the feeling of it was, I’m not good enough. And I have to be good enough. And so I was chasing good enough. And I could never get there. It was there was always more to do, there was always something I wasn’t doing right. And even with losing weight, because I did it too, too strictly like not eating enough and even throwing up and things then I’m, then I felt like a fraud, then it was like, Oh, you’re the health person. And now you’re treating your body badly, just to look perfect. And so is this really big tornado of, I’m not good enough, I’m not measuring up, I’m not a good role model. And that spun into other areas of my life. So is I’m not good enough in my job, I’m not good enough at home, I’m not good enough as a mom, as a wife, you know, etc. Until I didn’t feel good enough even being alive. And so there was a day that I overdosed. And obviously, I didn’t die it they did save me. And I’ve been on a mission ever since. So that was 14 years ago now. And I didn’t know that it was my like moment, my bottom where I would choose to change anything at the beach. At that time, I was just confused. And I was contemplating what the heck, you know, life was about. And I kept thinking, you know, if, if there’s this, why are we here? Why are we here on earth? Why are we alive? If there is a God, you know, he’s supposed to love is that sort of thing. And so I started going into the spiritual place. And then I really started to say, what makes somebody worthy? Am I good enough? And I was saying I wasn’t good enough. But I realized, what is it to be alive and to be good enough? And if you know me in terms of who I am, would it matter if I gained 100 pounds? Or lost 100 pounds? Would it matter if I lost a limb or got sick or whatever, that me as a soul as a person as an entity as something alive here wouldn’t change. And so I got this idea that while we’re really not our bodies, we are this essence of us other than that, but we keep focusing on the body. And so maybe the answers to living are not with the body, maybe I need to seek elsewhere. Maybe I need to seek what the Spirit is if we are body, mind and spirit, what is the spirit so then I went on a personal educational mission to study the human spirit and spiritual things and spirituality. And first it was on my own and then I decided to go back to school and get a doctorate degree in spiritual studies and And since I’ve gotten that I’ve been trying to integrate it into the wellness and worksite wellness field. So that’s my journey here. Sorry for being long winded.
That was amazing. No, please don’t apologize. I’m so thankful that you shared that story. And so many things that you were talking about there. resonated with me. And I’m sure with a lot of people listening in, especially struggles with perfection and not feeling good enough. And I guess for me there, there’s so many one of my favorite phrases, aha moments within that. And so I’m just curious, when you started studying spirituality, what was some of the biggest aha moments that you had?
I think a few things. One was because of so say, in the wellness world, of all the rules of behavior, how much like how much I’m supposed to eat, how much physical activity I’m supposed to get, and sleep and alcohol use and cigarettes, like all these things have these rules and the way we’ve framed it, to me, it felt like so if I didn’t do something according to our standards, I felt not only that I had failed, or that I was naughty, or that I was bad. But I felt like I had sinned. Like I had done a moral sin by eating too much right or something it to my to my state feeling state emotion, that’s how it felt that was as heavy as it felt. And I started to look at how we frame lifestyle behaviors in our field, and how we are we are making, if we’re not careful, all right, and how we frame it, we can easily make somebody feel like they are failing or not good enough or labeled or put in a box in terms of, Oh, these are the sick people. These are the ones at risk, you know, that sort of thing. And I think the aha moment for me was more like not that there are no rules entirely, but like, we can’t make ourselves feel that we’re a failure or not good enough, according to our lifestyle behavior rules, their suggestions, right, their suggestions and guidelines for healthier living. But if we identify ourselves as not good enough, and a failure that spirals in our subconscious, to who we are as a person, to what we’re worth, to our the way we operate and communicate in the world. So like, for example, say the obesity crisis, like it’s everywhere we talk about it. If we measure somebody and weigh them, and we say, Oh, you’re obese, they get put on this obesity kind of naughty list, right? Look at the chart, you’re out of normal range. And now you’re not good enough. And so now this person feels that and walks out into the world saying, I’m not good enough. And because it’s obesity, and not something like high blood pressure, right? Everyone can see it. So I’m wearing my not good enough, like an outfit that I am judged because of the way we judge it in our society. So everywhere I go, I am judged as not good enough. And how do I feel walking into a room going on a date, right, standing in front of a room giving a presentation, if I feel that my appearance alone, is labeling me as not good enough. That that’s the psychological part of this, that I think we have to address and that we have to separate, good enough and good or bad from lifestyle behaviors, so that we can all become more empowered within ourselves that we are good enough. Because we are alive, that our value that our worth, that our sense of self a sense of, you know, whether it’s self confidence, self esteem, even sense of creativity and how I go out into the world that in and of itself has nothing to do with the status of our health. Right. And then I started thinking even the aha moment for me was thinking of this as what if we didn’t create the ill health? What if it was something and thinking of something like say an accident, so if I say I’m disabled from something There’s two ways to look at it. If I created my own disability, then I now if I’m disabled, and it’s my fault, so I have this, it’s my fault thing. And I’m not good enough because I did that. If we didn’t have that, and if we got disabled say, from an accident, how would our mindset be different? Like this happened to me? And I’m this way, from no fault of my own? How does our mindset or our determination to go forward? How is it affected by how we see ourselves and our own contribution to our state?
What we find is, if we don’t feel that we are bad, that we are not good enough, we have this inner resilience that kicks in really fast, that it’s, I had this accident, I can’t walk right now I’m going to go and I’m going to do my best and try to walk again, right. But if we feel that we have done this, the sense of failure tends to disrupt that and set us back and the motivation to go forward is just disrupted. So my first intention with the aha moment was, can we lift the feelings of not good enough of failure of I did this kind of the blame shame part of it? Can we just put that aside for a moment and say, I am who I am? And I’m right here? What can I do right now? And not according to standards? So if I can’t do with the standard, say, What can I do instead? And like, for example, like with physical activity, and I’ll give a personal example, I had ankle surgery in the year 2000. So it’s, it’s been a long time now. But since then, I can’t do any cardio. And even like, if I walk too much, sometimes my ankle gives out and I have to sit. And so I’m the wellness person. And so when people see me, they’re like, Oh, you must be a runner. And I’m like, Well, I used to be, but I’m not anymore. And right. And so can I do I look at myself, like I’m a failure, and that I’m not good enough and I’m broken? Or do I let go of that standard? And put it aside and say, Yeah, I can’t do that. But what can I do? And let me just focus on what I can do, even if it’s not up to the standards that are written. So that for me, biggest aha, yeah.
So many good things that you’ve said there, to really try to be concise, and all these great things that I love that you said is, you know, I’m good enough, just because I’m alive, what a powerful statement, I feel like that really is, and really, kind of offered me a moment of reflection. And then also, I kind of want to go back and reflect on you know, when you were starting to talk about your study of spirituality, and how you correlated some of the negative behavior that you were experiencing at the time with, with sinning, I kind of wanted to to ask, so how do you define spirituality? And more importantly, how do you differentiate that from religion?
I think the easiest way when we’re thinking about every time we say religion, a lot of people use the word world’s dogma, right? And so it’s it’s a specific, organized way of with a set of system of beliefs. So there’s beliefs, there’s values attached to it, there’s rules, there’s, you know, like, things that you must do if you’re part of this religion, even not only beliefs wise, but how we practice right so if you practice this religion, you say go to church, every Sunday, you have to go to the church, you have to be in there, you have to kneel, you have to put your hands a certain way you have to say these specific prayers or sing these specific songs, whatever that is, there’s, there’s a process, there’s a procedure, there’s a set of beliefs, and you you can’t vary from them, typically, I mean, that’s a hardcore religions sort of thing. But for me, in my own spiritual path, or journey or discovery, I had to completely like, put religion aside for a second. And kind of go back to the core of like, even how did they become developed at all and I went back to if we are body, mind and spirit, what is the human spirit? And then when I feel my spirit or feel spiritual, or a sense of space, spirits or spiritual things in life, what is that feeling? And to me, it was energy lifeforce, like, I feel the sense of aliveness within me. I feel a sense of connectedness, to being alive and here with other people with nature. And when I feel spiritual in life, it’s usually not just within myself. If I’m feeling spiritual, it’s some sort of connection to something larger than myself. And most profoundly for me is in nature. So when I am in nature, when I’m looking out, especially at like, say, a sunrise or sunset, or beautiful landscape, or my favorite, like if you’re ever outside at night, and there’s no clouds, and it’s a start star studded sky, that feeling of beauty and awe and magnificence and mystery, right? How are we here? What is this place where it you know, all of that, to me is part of spirituality? Is what some would call the grand mystery, right? The ultimate grand mystery of everything. And so then it does come down to why why are we here? Why am I here? And what is this spiritual thing within me? And for me, I had to, I actually joked with myself, like, we don’t know if there’s an afterlife or whatever. But if there is, I thought, what if I chose to be here? What if I said, Oh, I want to go in, I want to be human? And who knows? Maybe we have that choice. And then I asked myself, Why would I have done that? Why would I have come? And it for me, it was to experience being alive in this body? Not that my body was my worth, but what does it feel like to be alive? What does it feel like? To look and to feel and to eat and hug and kiss and to whatever? Right? So it was the experience. And so that was spiritual and spirituality, to me, the religion part I had to go look at, and I did take world religion, and look at each of the world religions, even Native American and indigenous and like, a lot of the belief systems and the values, especially at a core level are very similar. So it’s, what is it to be human? What is it to be good, right? What are the things that challenge us and the religions may call it evil, or sin or that sort of things and or transgressions or whatever. And it’s learning life, those life lessons. So we don’t necessarily need a religion to do it. But we do need to have the self reflection to say, Who am I why am I here? And what’s important to me?
Yeah, absolutely. And I love those examples that you give of being in nature, because that really resonates with me. And I think that’s something that I don’t make time for often enough to just be outside doing nothing getting away from my phone for a little bit. All the other technology surrounding me and really feeling connected. I think that’s a really good reminder. And I think a lot of the things that you were saying, just got me thinking, you know, how can we assess how we’re doing in spiritual wellness, I feel like some of the examples you’ve given about, you know, wellness in general, a lot of them are connected to measurements that confirm numbers, like your blood pressure, for example, where it’s pretty cut and dry, your doctor is gonna tell you Yeah, this is within range. This is without not being range. So to How’s How can you assess how you’re doing your spiritual wellness?
I think the first thing is to define it for yourself in terms what do you think spiritual? Your spirit or spiritual wellness for you is like how, if you’re if your body, mind and spirit, what is your spirit, and many people when they’re looking or they define wellness, so the wellness models that are out there that are holistic, they will define spiritual wellness, in a secular way, they’ll say it’s our sense of values. It’s our sense of meaning and purpose in life. Some will extend it and say, It’s our sense of being connected to the hole or something bigger than ourselves. So whatever that is for you, you could set up a I mean, it’s qualitative, it’s how are you feeling? But you could set it up quantitatively say, range from zero to five or zero to 10? How am I doing? Say, do can I identify what my values and when I say values? What I what’s important to me, right? So I think the word values sometimes gets muddied with morals with rules or what I’m supposed to do or what I’m supposed to be finding important and I say, throw all the rules out, like what truly drives you, you know, or if you didn’t have this thing in your life, you would feel dead or you’d feel like life wasn’t meaningful. So start to identify things that you value that you find important. Across all religions, they usually will say something you’ve heard of, like love, hope and faith, or something like that, like, those are big words that you can if that matter if you say yes, absolutely, like faith is my most important, then how are you doing right now with that? Right? How do you feel? Are you aligned with that in your life? Are you not aligned? Do you feel that you’re connected to that value? Or doing things? Or is your life? Are you able to express that in your life? So some of the things that create say, the meaning and purpose if we connect our spirit to our sense of meaning and purpose in our life? Is our day to day are we finding and cultivating meaning? are we feeling and cultivating a sense of purpose? And if not, it’s, it’s not that we’re failing, it’s usually more just like, some way to like an indicator light to say, you know, what I am not connected to, I don’t feel like I’m connected to my values. I don’t feel like I’m connected to my sense of meaning or purpose. But I’m not finding that right now. So then that becomes a gauge for you to say, let’s find that. And that. So none of this, I guess, similar to the other dimensions, if you measure yourself and you’re not doing well, you can stay there, right? You could be like, No, totally languishing, don’t care to move, and that’s okay. Right. But if it’s bothering you to the point of, I really need to find my sense of meaning, then that’s your mission. And do that, above all else.
I love that. And so all of these wonderful bits of knowledge that you gave, if people are listening right now, and they’re looking to improve their skills for wellness, or, obviously, because this is connected to, you know, the wellness program for for work, are there things that you can do at work or with your teams, your co workers, or individually, if you’re just looking to work on it, you know, on your own? What are some things that you recommend for people?
I think it’s all individual. So, first, spiritual practices are what connects you to your spirit, you can think of, for yourself, when do you feel like you’re connected to your spirit or what gives you a sense of being spiritual, for some it may be if they are with a religion, it may be going to church, it may be studying spiritual, spiritual texts, you know, it may be connecting with people that are part of your spiritual belief system, like in that community, it may be prayer, if it’s not religion, it can be like we were talking about nature. So for me, personally, my spiritual practices my most favorite, if I can’t be in nature, I can meditate and do a guided imagery that I am in nature, right. So it’s even just putting your mindset into that. But I also love symbols, I love you know, whatever I create as symbols, like, Oh, this is a special rock for me, because say, Morgan and I found this rock on the ocean together, and I’m putting it on my desk to remember that moment. Or, you know, this, what even religious people will put out a religious object, whether it’s a statue or a cross or something, because that connects them to their beliefs and values, whatever it is, just have those symbols around you to remind yourself of who you are, what you stand for, and what you want to write guide yourself towards. And then the last thing that works for me is I love music. And I know that when I’m struggling, if I put on music that speaks to my soul, I It helps me and it doesn’t have to even have words, it can be a certain type of just melody or tone. There’s a certain hertz, there’s usually if you do a Google like on YouTube or Google search for 432 hertz music, you’ll find like a whole ton of meditation music comes up, and there’s something about 432 hertz that helps your brain kind of reset from stress to peace and calm. So if I’m really struggling, that’s my go to. Now for others People, they love different things they one of my friends is it’s all her body. Like, she self cares for herself. Like, she loves herself and she eats nourishing food and she loves moving and she dances and she does like interpretive dance. Like, it’s not dance that you learn in dance class, it’s like, she just goes to town move in her body and has fun. And to her, that’s her spiritual practice. And so I’m like, you know, whatever works for you, right? Like, if it so tapped in your soul exactly makes you feel alive, makes you feel connected, makes you feel peaceful. That’s your go to.
That’s perfect. I think you’ve given people just such a good place to start with spiritual wellness. I know, it’s kind of a newer topic or a topic where there’s maybe not a lot of information out there. And so, again, for people listening, and if they’re curious about learning more about spiritual wellness, or different types of spiritual practices are getting started, is there any resources that you recommend for people who are interested in learning?
Yeah, I think I, I’ve written two articles about spiritual workplaces. So if they were interested, I can send those to Morgan, you can, I don’t know if you can post them, or they can contact me and I can send them to him. But other than that, other than my own stuff, any spiritual practices that they already love or interested in, so if it’s a community or meditation, say that’s something that they want to go into, to find a meditation teacher to just start doing that. Yoga classes are helpful, depending on the yoga, some are more athletic, but if you can find one that’s connected spiritually and talking about the spiritual concepts of the yoga practice, very helpful. There are many, many books. So if any of the listeners are readers, go to the bookstore. And it’s, I find that bookstores either will put it all into like the Self Help section, or they’ll separate self help. And then spiritual studies or New Age stuff separately, and then even separately, they may have religious stuff. So you kinda have to play and like walk around bookstores to see what resonates resonates for you. But start reading whatever starts to, like, stand out for you. There’s so many books out there, start with one what I what I started to do is, I think you’ve probably heard of the author like Wayne Dyer, you know, or Deepak Chopra, or something like that. I started with, say, one book. And then in that book, they usually reference other books and or have it in the back. And so I would read one book, and then something would be referenced and I’d get that book and then something would be referenced and I get that book. So that’s your path, just go to what you’re feeling pulled towards. And if a book doesn’t resonate with you just put it down and get something else, you know, might not be time or might not be the author for you. But one book I wanted to recommend was one of my mentors is Brian Luke seaward, he’s a stress management expert, but he blends stress management and spirituality training together. And one of his first books was one of the ones that kind of made me just come alive. So it’s called stand like mountain flow like water.
Deb, I just want to thank you so much for joining us today. And for all of your knowledge on spirituality. It was a newer topic for me. So I can just say personally, I learned so much. And I hope everybody else listening can say the same. So I just want to thank you for all the work that you do, you know, in your field and all of the people that you help and for your time today.
One Thank you, Morgan. It’s been a pleasure. And I am looking forward to hearing back from listeners to see if this resonated with people. So thank you for having me.
Thanks so much for listening today. I hope you enjoyed the show. For those of you listening as part of the well Wisconsin program, the code for this episode is Spirit. For a transcript, to take our survey, or to find previous episodes, go to WebMD health services.com/well Wisconsin radio. You can also subscribe on the podcast platform of your choice so you never miss an episode. Until next time, take care