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Episode 59: Mental Health Around The World

Lilly Wang spent two years traveling the world learning about what mental health looks like in different countries and across cultures. She also spent that time developing a much deeper understanding of her own struggles with mental health. As we explore the definition of mental health and how it looks different around the world, we talk with Lilly about the lessons learned from her journey and how travel allows us to discover a more authentic version of ourselves. 

Sasza Lohrey  

Lilly, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Lilly Wang 

Such a pleasure truly 

Sasza Lohrey

Tuning in from Lisbon, my favorite city in the world 

Lilly Wang

Understandably so. 

Sasza Lohrey

Okay, well, this kind of feels like a bit of a full circle because as I was reading through your writing and about your experiences traveling and using travel as a tool for self discovery, but also as a tool to understand mental health and relationships. Around the world, and kind of the role of culture in forming our perceptions of mental health, and also in shaping our own personal relationships, that journey, a couple years back took you through Portugal. So I love this idea that in a way, you as a new version of yourself are back there. And I can only assume, are still diving deeper into that journey. And so I’d love to have you start out by sharing with our listeners a bit about yourself and how you came to be doing the work that you are doing today. And what you’ve learned, I guess, one about yourself. And as well as a broad view of what I mentioned, kind of that view on mental health around the world and the role of culture in shaping our perceptions of mental health and our own relationships.

 

Lilly Wang  

Well, I love what you just said about being a new version of myself here in Portugal once again. Because even as I’ve been reflecting on what I was up to, when I was here last time, and what mental health is really all about, in my view. What’s interesting about travel, is travel is actually a proxy by which I did determine the impact of the work I’ve done on my own mental health. Also, travel and my relationships. Last time, just for context, Portugal was one stop as part of this two year journey around the world, where I ended up going to 20 countries, exploring mental health and speaking with people from different cultures about what mental health means to them, really trying to understand the impact of culture, on how we perceive mental health, how comfortable we are talking about it, and what resilience looks like around the world. So that felt like somewhat a different chapter, a different phase of my life, where I was very much a solo traveler really trying to honestly learn as much as I could about mental health and apply that to my life. This time around, I’m here, we’re the partner, I’m taking things a lot slower. I’m kind of moved here and really setting up a life.

But that got me thinking like, oh, travel, Well, two things travel and relationships, to me are the proxy by which I measure the impact of my own mental health work. It’s like, as I continue to change as I continue to evolve, the rubber hits the road in the quality of my relationships, and how I feel as I travel the world. And as I expose myself to different experiences, and I find myself in new places, and I notice how I feel throughout those experiences and how I’ve changed, for better or for worse. So that’s why I personally find travel so interesting. Last time, I was really on this exploration or this inquiry into mental health specifically. And that led to a lot of really amazing conversations with mental health experts, as well as people from different cultures with lived experience of depression and anxiety. But it was all to understand and try to learn as much as I can about hey, what does resilience look like around the world? How do we, as a human race, get through tough times in life? What are the similarities? And also what are the differences? When you compare a culture in say, Indonesia, with, for example, Denmark, or Finland, you know, Latin versus Nordic, East versus West, Northern versus Southern, affluent versus less affluent? Right, all of these things, in my experience, and also, my personal view is that culture in particular, a shared set of beliefs, that’s going to really impact how people see themselves and how they see their mental health. So through the line, through my view of mental health, I’ll start with this. I’ll say that I think mental health is the title of body of nomenclature we call mental health because it’s a word that comes from the medical industry, because right now, in the Western world, the medical industry is the one that’s been tasked with taking care of our social and our spiritual health. And the scientific world measures that through the body, through the brain through Our biological systems, but I see mental health. If I were to boil it down to one thing, I think it’s all about our self belief. It’s what we actually think and believe about ourselves. Because that is the lens through which you see the world, and through which you see yourself in that world. And that’s going to affect your experience of life, because those thoughts are creating your reality. I recently learned that, from a biological perspective, our bodies create 810,000 new cells every second, and to bring it into the physical plane, because the world of thoughts and beliefs is very abstract and intangible. But I share that fact about the 810,000 new cells created every second, because that’s the mechanism by which our thoughts actually become matter. Because if you think about what sort of, you can call an energy field, or you can call it, what sort of environment are those cells being born into every second? Another fact I’ll share is research has shown that the neuronal connections in our brain, they’re actually being reshaped and pruned constantly by our thoughts. And if you look at a single neuronal connection, the number of basically synapses can double within an hour. So our brain is constantly reshaping these neural networks. It’s taking materials from neural pathways that we don’t use, and it’s stripping them down, and actually using them to build up new neural pathways. So I thought it really mattered in that sense, because it translates to the actual physical matter of our brain.

Sasza Lohrey  

I want to jump back a bit to the travel stuff before we move on. Because you mentioned a couple interesting things about how for you travel was this proxy by which to measure your own progress. I’ve been helping think, how, in a way, it’s kind of a test. But we’re different when we travel. There are different circumstances, different challenges, different joys and different parts of ourselves that I almost think we can’t find a home, you hear these stories of people who meet at a hostel or a workshop, or whatever, and then they’re married. I think it has to do with that fact that these people in that time and space, when they’re traveling in their free, are being this different, and a more authentic version of themselves that allows for a connection, so much deeper than if they had met at a bar or a workout class at home, being the default versions of themselves and allows for that, just so much quicker and deeper connection, that I think is reflective of the authenticity.

Lilly Wang 

Absolutely. Travel is an opportunity in that sense. And that’s why I love long term travel in particular. Because we think about it, when you remove yourself from your usual environment, that includes your comfort, that includes all of the things that you typically turned to, or habitually turned to either numb yourself from pain to kind of fall into this automatic rhythm of living. All the elements of your usual environment are stripped away. Especially solo travel, you’re out there, you’re on your own. You’re like meditative in a sense. It’s like I am confronted with me and only me now, away from the usual things that I turned to for a number of different reasons whether it’s to numb yourself whether it’s to feel better. But that’s a beautiful opportunity to explore what that authenticity is like. It reminds me of when I first moved to Australia, which was the beginning of this two year journey. I didn’t intend it that way in the beginning, but I started off as this girl who had gone through four bouts of depression growing up on the east coast of Massachusetts. Before I left for Australia, the most recent was about burnout depression, when looking back on it, I just wasn’t really aware or taking care of my own needs. And I was just pouring myself into creative projects and to work to try to prove my worth in the world. And it just completely wiped me out. And I was one very curious about the rest of the world because I’d never lived outside the US. And I was also curious of like, Man, this can’t be it. I feel so shitty. I feel so tense and anxious. And I am so curious what the rest of my life has in store for me, like, how much better Can I get from here? So I had a disappointing outcome from a job interview, I was hoping to move out to California at the time, and that didn’t end up happening. And I saw Australia had this working holiday visa program. And on a whim, I kind of just applied and went for it. And my visa got accepted within 10 minutes of me submitting it. And before I knew it, I booked a flight to Sydney, and landed there. And one year later, I left Sydney feeling like I had gotten to know myself for the first time it was a year of seeing the impact I could have when I showed up as parts of what I let parts of myself show that I had never before I would show up and I really like this phrase of wagging your tail. Aussies have this phrase called froth, which I really love and they use that word as a verb. It’s like when you’re really excited about something you’re like, yeah, you’re frothing over it. So I would just froth over everything. I love the word because it captures like the foam on top of your cappuccino. 

Sasza Lohrey    

I recently bought a foammaker so yeah.

Lilly Wang  

Yeah, like you create your own frother home with like the effervescent bubbles, the bubbles on top of life. It was just a beautiful word that I even got it tattooed on my arm. I resonated with it so much. But Aussies also from a mental health perspective. Well, first, I was sold Australia as a place to go to buy someone who had been there, and she told me, just like, yo, Australia itself is an antidepressant. Just take my word on that, and haven’t gotten there. And when I was there, I was working part time at a startup. But even though it was a startup, people would even the CEO, she’d be like, when everybody was eating lunch, she’d be like, just focus on your food. There was a roof deck, and I was the one that would stay latest at the office. pretty consistently, you know, even though it was a startup, everyone was like, you know, it’s 5pm I got family. The beaches right there, I got a beach to go to. And for me as someone you know, who grew up raised with Chinese work ethic in an American workaholic culture, being immersed in this Australian way of life, that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the way I see it, Aussies really aren’t trying to do too much, except have a good time and take care of one another. That was so transformational for my mental health that at the end of my one year visa, I was like, What does the rest of the world have in store for me, I learned so much. And I grew and in many ways, healed so much by leaving the US and immersing myself in different cultures. I got to keep doing this. So that led me to Bali, because Bali was the next best place and just, you know, neighbor to Australia. And once I was there, I was really curious, like, Hey, we’re all humans. We all go through tough times in life. How do people here get through that? When I was in Australia, part of my personal experience was I lost my dad very suddenly. And it was a crash course in grief that I went through. And with the help of my co-workers, I was working at a psychology practice. With the help of my co workers were grief counselors, who coached me how to grieve. And with the help of this book, called The Artists Way that really got me in touch with my creative self. I found a coping mechanism of dancing to my favorite music in the morning when I couldn’t get out of bed. And that became my ritual that became my coping mechanism to get through very acute grief. And so I took that with me as I was traveling and yeah, when I was lonely, or when I was sad or anxious, I would still dance in the morning and I called it a morning wiggle. So I would talk about that and share that with people and invite people to do it with me. But I also turned into a question I was like, Hey, this is what I do. Based on my life experience, and what resonates with me, this is my coping mechanism to get through tough times in life, what’s yours? What does that look like for you? And I got to meet some pretty awesome people, I got introduced to friends of friends. And in Indonesia, one of them, his mom had just got a kid diagnosed with terminal cancer. And I asked him like, hey, how do you deal with that? How do you hope to keep trying to look for a cure for her? He was like, talking to doctors in Singapore and trying to get this experimental drug. And I was like, What keeps you going? Like, what is? What does resilience look like for you? And this guy, he told me about the role of religion in his culture. And Indonesia is one of the most Muslim countries in the world, by population. And he really spoke in depth about the relationship to his religion and how he calls it, you have a vertical life, which is your relationship to God or to spirit to the universe. And you have your horizontal life, which is your physical being and your relationships in, you know, this realm of reality. And that role of that vertical life and keeping him anchored in hope. And in keeping him connected to a sense of something bigger. So you’re not just living, this idea of being an isolated, kind of static individual disconnected from the rest of the world. his religion really had that role of being an anchor resilience for him. So from Indonesia, I was so hungry to learn more, I was like, Oh, my God, I feel like I am really curious how the rest of the world get through tough times in life. So I spent some time in Mexico, I went to Oaxaca, a province, which I learned is the second poorest province in all of Mexico. And I spoke to people there, who really like my methodology for this was pretty ramshackle or pretty impromptu. Basically, I would tell people yeah, I’m really curious about mental health. And I would speak to anybody who would talk to me. And I was staying at a hostel. The guy that was working the front desk, you know, I introduced myself that way. And he’s like, oh, mental health. My brother in law is studying psychology. You can come over for breakfast on Sunday, and I’ll introduce you to him, you can interview him. So I went to his lovely, but this guy’s family home, he lived with his mom and his dad had his little sister. And his brother in law came over, and I was able to, you know, sit down, and his mom served me like homemade case ideas, and just asked him the same set of questions like, how do you get through tough times in life? What does that look like here in your culture. And this guy’s brother in law, who’s a psychology student, was saying that in places like Oaxaca, where many people don’t have the resources to afford professional mental health care. On the clinical side, we psychologists, what we do is when we see someone who is struggling with their mental health, the first thing we’ll do is we will reach out to the family and educate them. Because the family members are the first line of defense. That really struck me because having gone to these two places, Indonesia and Mexico, and really seeing the role of both religion and family, like, in these cultures in these societies where people don’t have access to a lot of other resources, these are, these are the things that our culture’s set up, as I say, the original antidepressants. The other perspective on it is oftentimes, family and religion are the exact things that can cause a lot of disconnection and pain in people’s lives that actually create mental health challenges. But that actually, you know, led me to the other side of the world when I flew to Europe. And I spent three months going to as many countries as I can with the same set of questions. And in particular, I wanted to go to the Nordic countries. I spent some time in Finland, which was rated as the number one happiest country in the world in 2018 and 2019. And I was really curious like, Is that true? What a Finnish people have to say about that? What does that look like? What contributes to that? And I heard from a lot of the Finnish people that know I think that’s actually kind of bullshit. We read that and we laugh. But the nuance level to that I actually learned this and When I was in Denmark from a Danish friend, still in the Nordic Region, so I think similar mindset, but my Danish friend told me that there’s a difference between contentment and happiness. And here in Northern Europe, we’re very content, you could say that we have the most stable economies in the world. But there’s not a lot of happiness. Things can get kind of dull, or we’re very stable. We’re very content. But a lot of people who are adventure seeking oftentimes end up in the US for that reason.

But from a personal perspective, the time I spent in Finland, I was there also in July in the summertime, so that played a role in it. But I got to go to the sauna. I went to four different saunas, including a completely public volunteer run 24, seven sauna, it was called savasana, and was open 24/7 run by volunteers.

Sasza Lohrey   

Could you explain a bit about the sauna and the context and cultural significance of the sauna.

Lilly Wang   

Yes, so one of my hosts actually played a documentary for me all about sauna culture. And it was in particular about the role of sauna in men’s lives and how sauna is a place where men will open up to each other and talk about the tough things in life. But saunas has been a big part of Finnish culture for a very long time. And even back in the day, babies used to be born in saunas because it was the most sterile place in the house. And to this day, they say diplomacy happens in sauna, the diplomatic decisions are made there because you think about it, you are asked naked, sweating, sitting next to someone, it’s an exhausting experience you’re uncomfortable. And one perspective about it’s like you just don’t have the energy to argue. Like the state of mind and body that it puts you in, you’re just side by side next to someone who’s going through the same experience. It’s warm, it’s sweaty, you’re naked, it’s a really unifying experience. And that sense. It’s great socially. I went to the public sauna. And when I was there, there were probably like, 20 to 30 people there at a time, they had a big bonfire. So it’s a really amazing meeting place. Finland is, you know, well known for its sauna culture, it’s something that I would even call a Finnish export, if you will. But the most surprising thing that I discovered when I was in Finland, related to its mental health, was actually the fact that Finns have the highest rate of library usage in the entire world. I think it’s Finland and Iceland. The average fin will check out 15 items from the library in any given year, whereas the rest of the world is like point nine. I was like, Oh, that’s really interesting to me. And when I was there, it just so happened that Helsinki had recently opened their brand new public library. It was this three storey like gorgeous architectural Marvel. It had a sunroof, on the top deck, it had fully decked out Music Studios, it had public sewing machines, VR gaming equipment. Yeah. And they called their library, a living room for the people. And the more I looked into it, the more I discovered this thread of the importance of having these types of spaces, these types of communal third spaces that are really for the people. They’re really open to anybody, and they’re beautiful. And the government invests in them. But sauna, and libraries are some of my favorite examples of that I’ve seen and in my experience, talking with local Finns, just listening to my hosts when I was there, I think it really plays a big role in strengthening the community fabric of you even as cold of a place as Finland Do you have a warm sauna to go to you have a beautiful library that supports come here, it’s in your living room. And on this thread, sort of a tangent, but I followed up on this a little bit the role of libraries and society and there are some professors in urban planning classes that are seeing libraries reinvent themselves or grad students in these classes that are like, Okay, what if we had public space that had internet access, it had books and media for kids You put a cafe in there as well. It’s like, open and free to the public, how great would that be? I was just just really delighted to see that and really delighted to see the fact that Finns are very proud of their library. Whenever I would ask someone about it, they’re like, yeah, that’s our new brand new library, like, go check it out. It’s awesome. That was something that really surprised me while I was over there.

Sasza Lohrey    

You mentioned a couple of these kinds of takeaways, in terms of family, the role of family and education and mental health, some of the things you learned about the role of religion, it sounds like kind of societal support, and kind of public support and access to whether they’re explicitly mental health tools through socialist healthcare or these spaces, this living room for the people. I would love for you to kind of summarize a couple of the key points you took away from this, I guess, combination of many trips, some of the kind of key takeaways, or aha moments.

Lilly Wang  

I’d say, as I was reviewing some of the examples that I heard from people of how they take care of their mental health and how they get through tough times in life, whether it was religion, whether it was relying on family members, or taking a foot bath, or a glass of wine in Portugal is what I heard. At the end of this, what I really left with is this idea that mental health touches every aspect of our lives. That’s why I find it so interesting. And so all encompassing. One way I like to define mental health is very simply the lens through which we see the world, and most importantly, the lens through which we see ourselves. So culture, you can define culture as a set of shared beliefs, that oftentimes defines behavior for a group of individuals. But I think the layer that we don’t talk about as much is how that set of shared beliefs, defines how we see ourselves. In Portugal, it’s very common to want to lighten up over a glass of wine. And I came here really interested in what is the role of like, the intense emotionality of Portuguese culture? How does that affect mental health? And what I heard in response was, how in Portugal, yes, they’re known for fato. They’re known for so Tao, jus, and these very, like, emotional ways of being. But on the flip side of that, there’s not a lot of authenticity. It’s Yes, you’re going to be emotive, but people care a lot about appearance here. And it’s not that often that you see true vulnerability in that type of authenticity. The more I thought about all of these stories, all these experiences I had, one of my takeaways was, human beings are innately resilient. I wish that was a message that we heard more when it comes from mental health, whether it’s small things, whether it’s bigger things like religion, we, our bodies, and our minds are designed to protect us. And we are all incredible at getting through the tough shit in life. And there’s many different examples of solutions around the world. But I think the juiciest bit is for me this idea of self belief is culture has a really big impact on what we believe about ourselves. Whether its appearance really matters, what other people think of me, is more important than what I think of myself. Whether it’s that I am worthy, and I’m worthy of having public spaces, and because my government invests in these things, connection is really important in my life. And you can bring that down to the level of needs as well. When we think about the role of needs and our mental health. When Johann Hari has this quote that I absolutely love, that you are not a machine with broken parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. And in my personal experience, a lot of mental health issues come from not being aware of our needs and not being able to communicate them. Definitely my experience with many of my mental health challenges. So when I think of culture’s impact on our mental health, it’s like, yes. What are these beliefs? What are they feeling on the individual level? Do they support an individual in advocating for his or her own needs? Do I feel like I am someone that is worthy of having needs and advocating for them? Or do I see myself as a robot? When a very cynical sense, coming from a workaholic culture? I think a lot of people see themselves as machines, right? It’s even like in American culture, it’s like, yeah, you’re such a machine, bro. Like, we use that as congratulatory language. But I think about the subtle impacts of that, it’s like, yes, in a capitalist culture, productivity is going to be valued most highly. So when we base our worth, on how much we’re producing, oftentimes, when that goes unchecked, we’re not going to feel able to really advocate for our needs to slow down and be like, Am I nurturing my relationships? Am I taking care of my body? Am I living by my values, these very human things that really get entangled when you have cultural influences, right, and in subtle ways, and not so subtle ways? That looks different all around the world. But I think for me, it comes down to that central question of what are your beliefs about yourself? And let’s unpack that, right? Like, what were the beliefs that you grew up with? What were you modeled by your parents? What did you maybe learn accidentally from their behavior? For me, I oftentimes learned that I was unsafe in relationships, when my mom would express anxiety, or if my mom was very critical of her appearance. And so I probably internalized some of that belief myself that like, I’m not worthy, unless I am beautiful. So there’s your family as the first culture you’re born into, and then take that to another level of the city of the town of the country? What are the beliefs of the nation state that you were born into? That would be the question that I would encourage everybody to reflect on. And if you have the opportunity to do that, in therapy, or even just in a journaling practice, or just with yourself, it can be really compelling to see and to think about, like, oh, what are my beliefs about myself?

Sasza Lohrey  

Love that question. What are your beliefs about yourself and kind of diving into what has shaped them and kind of travel as a way to get away from that default, and the influences of our culture or our family or the media and whatnot. And so I really wanted to dive a bit deeper into your learnings and self development, you in the very beginning mentioned that you were in this place in life where you were trying to prove your worth in the world. And in some of your writings, I read that you had sort of placed your sense of value in others. And so wanted to talk about one that struggle to define yourself based on other people in a sense, and the consequences not only of that, but of not having as a result of kind of putting your value in the hands of other people not really knowing how to define it yourself and not having the principles the purpose or the sense of self to create a foundation on which to stand, let alone grow.

Lilly Wang   

That’s exactly it. That piece about the foundation. Because my experiences of depression and anxiety when things get really scary, is when you feel like the ground has fallen out beneath you. And for me, I had in my early 20s for bouts of depression. And each time it was because something outside of me in which I had put my sense of self was either taken from me lost or just fell away from my life. So the first time was when I was 19 in college, and it was the end of a high school relationship. And the context to that was growing up I wasn’t very emotionally close with my parents and I basically develop this self belief that I’m not loved by My family, when in fact, the day that my father died, I came to realize that wasn’t true that it was simply the love that was lost in translation that my parents showed love to me in a way that I didn’t understand or take in as a child. And after many years of unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with that really low self worth, when this relationship ended, which was my sole source of comfort in connection in my life at that time, that led to the feeling of hopelessness of I have no source of safety anymore in this world. I was seeing a therapist at a time. And I think she just felt like she couldn’t give me the level of care that I needed. So I ended up in an inpatient unit. And when my parents came in for the initial meeting, when she was able to speak to my mental health challenges at that level of depth of, hey, this girl, she’s 19 years old, she’s really here, she’s really experiencing depression because of a lack of values and a lack of a sense of who she is in the world. It was that directive that kind of sent me and really my mom on this path of really trying to educate us on that deeper level, this question of who am I, you know, what are my values? What is my core as a human being? That was about 10 years ago now. And my mom took me to my first meditation retreat, she introduced me to hypnosis and hypnotherapy. So that was the first bout of depression losing that relationship. The second one was the loss of a group of friends that I had come to place my sense of identity and worth in when that friend group had a falling out freshman year. They’re just your dorm mates and sophomore year, we just didn’t live together anymore. It’s just a natural falling out, I struggled again, it was again that like, foundational sense of self that was no longer there when I had lost this group of friends. I ended up back in intensive therapy. I was diagnosed with clinical depression at first and then bipolar II and I had this other really transformational experience related to my family. Basically, I felt pride in my family for the very first time. And again, I really tie it to this idea of self belief, because, for me, having a healing experience where as someone who grew up very ashamed of my ethnicity, for the first time in my life, having an experience that led me to feel pride in who I was, and the family I was born into, that had such a big impact on my confidence level, and my mental health that I suddenly felt like I can do anything. So  back then I picked up DJing. So I did that for a while. But at the time, I still didn’t have a solid enough set of practices to keep myself grounded. So I ended up again, getting carried away with DJing. So much so that it had become the thing I was placing myself worth in. And one night after set, I was getting burgers with a friend at like 4am and I had all my equipment and my laptop in a bag underneath me. I was sitting on a stool and it got stolen. And the same thing, that loss shook me so deeply that it sent me back into a depressive state.

And then back into mental healthcare back into therapy, still continuing to learn the more spiritual side of things recovered from that. And a few months later, I was working again, I was back at stability. But again, the fourth time, I dove really hard into my work. And I was like trying to find this identity, but who am I in the world? Like, okay, I find myself in a culture that really values what you do. What is your profession, what do you create in this world? At the time, I was working in the nonprofit field, and I want to also be creative and I was DJing and I was producing these alcohol free parties at the time as well. And was like okay, why don’t I put forth my own project which was this outdoor silent disco dance party. In the wintertime in Boston to help young people deal with seasonal affective disorder, and I was like, that’s gonna be my thing, that’s gonna be the thing that proves me worthy in this world. So I ended up producing that event. But by the time the event finished, I was so chronically stressed, and anxious that one, I didn’t even enjoy the event. And two, I had to afterwards I had to take time off, I just step away from everything and just reevaluate. That was 2017, March of 2017. And I had a few months of kind of swimming around really anxiously, I had quit my job, I’d stepped away from everything I was doing. And I was sort of anxiously applying to all sorts of jobs in anything I could find. And it was when I didn’t get a job that I really wanted in San Francisco that I decided to move to Australia instead. And really proud to say that, through that experience, and through really launching myself out and landing in a culture that I found quite supportive and healing to me, as I mentioned earlier, it helped me rewire some of my beliefs that like, being around Aussies that are like, you don’t have to prove yourself by working all the time, you’re worthy of care, you’re worthy of love by just being who you are. And like, let’s just have a laugh. That was healing for me in a foundational way.

Sasza Lohrey    

It’s so interesting how you said for you going through Australia being around this, the different culture mentality, etc. yet, at the same time, I’m sure out there somewhere Australians who came to the US, who found that for them, it helped them get in touch with this other part of themselves. And so sometimes just the difference and the perspective it gives you, when there’s that kind of delta, for lack of a better word, between those two realities to help you kind of find yourself within that space. You touched on some of these influences or limiting beliefs that you developed from your family. And then again, the other side, there kind of influences from the US culture itself. I was wondering if you could a bit more concretely talk about some of those from each because I’m sure that there are plenty of people listening who can relate to either or both of those things. And then speak a bit to give people some more actionable advice, this specific coping mechanisms you’ve so far mentioned, travel, you’ve mentioned kind of shifting careers, learning about yourself through other people, you spoke a bit to the practice from The Artists Way. And so to give a few practical things, and share a bit about your journey, and because where we are in the journey, and I’m sure it’s still continues today, but to really kind of exemplify some of the progress you’ve made and what you’ve learned that works for you, and perhaps might work for some hustlers.

Lilly Wang  

Absolutely, well, I’ll start with what was my foundation, where it began, for me, I grew up in an all Caucasian town, my family was the only Chinese family. I’ve heard that as a common experience for first generation kids. But in my case, you know, I was picked on when I was six or seven years old, as a six year old, you really internalize it just as a kid, like, having other kids laugh at you for the shape of your eyes, and not having any context of what that means. And my mom and I have debriefed this and we’ve kind of talked about this at length, but what she did at the time, when I would come home crying, feeling scared, and just sad from being picked on, is she would take me by the hand and she would, you know, bring me to the bullies house. And in essence, what she does, she faced my bullies for me. And I remember after that day, the girl who laughed at me, I’m not sure what happened. But suddenly, like she, I was included two things. Suddenly, I became a part of the friend circle. But at the time, the belief I internalized about myself was, I need this, I need these kids to like me in order to be okay in this world. And my mom did it for me. And now everything’s okay. I just needed to stay this way. So, that started at about age six for me. And that was really my foundational belief through most of my childhood into my teenage years. So that’s where a lot of the social anxiety came from is like it really even to this day, I’m still working on some of this in my own hypnotherapy, but there’s a part of me that is like, Man, this is do or die. Like if these people don’t approve of you, or if something is up like, this is really intense, it literally feels like do or die inside of me.

So, the other side of that, growing up, like many Asian kids, for our parents’ education was their ticket to a peaceful life. Getting good grades is really important. And to my parents who no fault of their own, they weren’t really educated about emotions. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue about that. And to them, as long as I was still getting good grades, I was eating, I was clothed. Everything was hunky dory. Yeah. So from my perspective, I really didn’t have a true conversation with my parents until I was about 19 years old, and shit hit the fan and I ended up in the mental hospital. That’s when we really started to like, dive deep and have these bigger conversations, like what does success mean to you. And we really started connecting, I think it was a real wake up call. And again, my mom and I have debrief this, but to my parents was a real wake up call, when they were growing up in China, the school system had a big role to play in teaching kids values. So parents didn’t really have to do much of that. The US is obviously very different when church and state are separate. And from an American perspective, schools have nothing to do with teaching kids morality or set of values. So I just I didn’t get a lot of that there wasn’t any dialogue about that in in my household. So fast forward to when I was 19 years old. And yeah, I think that psychiatrists got it right that as a 19 year old, I really didn’t have any values. And my family wasn’t religious, we really didn’t talk about anything of that nature. And of course, being in a competitive School District. And I was also as 19 year old feeling the stress of SAT and colleges and like really needing to do well and perform. That level of stress also played an influence on my mental health. And as well as myself believes that like, again, it’s do or die, you got to perform well in order to be worth something in this world. 

So now, when I look at some of the practices that really helped me transform the way I see myself, it’s one, if I recognize that not everybody has access to travel. But if you have the opportunity to even move somewhere else, or to even change your environment, somehow changing jobs, changing cities, the way I see, it’s just like hunger is assigned to eat. I see emotional pain as assigned to change. That’s really all it is. It’s just a sign that your body is telling you that something in your life needs to change. If you can bolster yourself up with the belief that, hey, it’s possible for me to change my life. Curiosity is the hook that did it. For me. It’s like just really, every day just being like, I wonder what else is out there. I wonder what the rest of my life has in store for me, let’s see what’s possible. That curiosity was a form of energy that really kept me going. But also on a more concrete level, the first thing that gave me a sense of relief when I was really struggling with depression was reading a book by Eckhart. His book, a new earth was the first bit of peace that I felt when I was really down in depression. This idea that you are not your mind, you are the observer of your mind, giving a bit of that distance. Then learning how to meditate. I started with Zen meditation for a little three day retreat, then working my way up to a 10 day Vipassana and being in a supportive environment like that, where you can be taught how to really sit with yourself and how to learn how to not react with attachment or aversion to your thoughts or sensations. Yeah, I’ll also say, you know, when I got to Australia, I was taking Wellbutrin, this antidepressant medication, and my doctor in Boston would only give me a three month supply because that’s the most they can give you. But I was going to be there for a year so Australia had these free health clinics that anybody could show up and see a doctor. So I initially set up an appointment to be like, Hey, can you give me more of this medication when I run out? I take one a day. But I had a really odd experience there because I brought my bottle of pills, and I handed it to the doctor. And he read the label. And he looked at me. And he asked, he was like, do you? Do you smoke cigarettes? And I said, No, doctor, I don’t smoke cigarettes at all. Why do you ask? Well, oh, it’s like, well, here in Australia, we only prescribe this medication Wellbutrin to help people quit smoking, It’s not associated with depression. So yeah, that like kind of gave me pause. It’s like, Oh, that’s so weird. Like, this whole thing kind of feels like a farce now, feels really subjective already. But the beautiful thing was after that moment, this doctor was like, Look, Wellbutrin doesn’t have any withdrawal symptoms. I was pretty stable at the time, I was like, yeah, I’m working. I live with a bunch of roommates feeling pretty good. And he’s like, Listen, I don’t think you need to take these pills if you don’t want to. And the next thing he did, he said to me really changed my life. He said, I’ll sit with you and let’s look at every area of your life and you tell me what you like and what you don’t like, and I’ll help you come up with a plan to take care of your mental health.

Sasza Lohrey    

Wow  what’s his number? A lot of people need a doctor like that.

Lilly Wang  

Yeah, I will say that I have shared the story with my Aussie friends and they had the same reaction. They were like, Who is this doctor? That is so exceptional, I need to get in touch with. And this is a free health clinic. And the amazing thing is like the reality is like this doctor was able to spend about 45 minutes with me on this initial appointment, he assessed my diet, he could tell that I’m someone who values creativity. So he’s like, when you go grocery shopping, I want you to fill your refrigerator with as many colors as you can. And then he recommended Mediterranean diet and gave me all these tips and chefs to look up. He’s like, yeah, let’s look at your social life. Who are you spending time with? Do you feel connected? How are your social connections, your relationships? How’s your connection with your family? Right? Like, who are you surrounding yourself with here? What is community like for you? And then we talked about movement and exercise? And what are you doing to stay active? And what do you like and what doesn’t work for you. And it’s just really like, I left that appointment being like, wow, for the first time in my life, I feel like my health is being cared for. So that was like November 2017. And that year, for New Years, you know, I set a resolution that starting January 2018, I’m not going to take these antidepressants anymore, I don’t think I need them. And after meeting this doctor, I feel empowered. I feel supported by a medical professional to take a really holistic look at my mental health and feel able to take care of myself. And through that and surrounding myself with a supportive community and people who are like minded and also cared about the same things that I did. I set up three different communities for myself, one my coworkers, I work two jobs. So two sets of co workers and also my roommates. I felt very nourished, socially, and communally. And I also moving to Australia, I picked the dream neighborhood I wanted to live in. So I had access to parks. I had cute cafes, and bookstores and vegan restaurants, I could just walk to my head, a thrift store across the street from me, and these are all things that I knew made me feel really good and just excited about life. So having that right on my doorstep was another amazing source of joy in my life, also doing work that I cared about and having enough novelty in my life to again, I know that moving to Australia is available, especially right now. But even if it’s changing, something’s up because I was in Australia I was just, again, curious. I was like, Hey, I found this promo agency that staffed people to work events and stuff like that. And I was like I’m in a foreign country. Sounds kind of fun. So I signed up for their roster and they just had a calendar of events and you can just apply to any which one that you like, and so I would work horse races like I’ve never been to an Australian horse race. It’s like their Kentucky Derby. So I Yeah, like, worked horse races and work the gambling machines. I sold bagels at farmer’s markets. I was just like, hey, why not like, let’s give this thing a try. And for me, I know that was nourishing for me because I, at the time really valued novelty and spontaneity. And I had this curiosity that I wanted to satiate. So I found that very nourishing, also developing a creative practice. And reading that book, The Artists Way, which I highly recommend, for anyone who is interested in developing their creativity is basically, you know, a form of therapy. And there’s exercises that you do over 12 weeks. But it really helped me clear some of my creative blocks. And through doing morning pages, and taking myself out on a solo date every week and treating myself well and taking care of my inner child and inner artists, that had a huge impact on my mental health. And then I was feeling more alive, that creative spirit that is deeply spiritual in many ways, having those practices and committing to them. 

And the last thing I’ll say concretely is sticking to a routine that works for you. I know that’s kind of tried and true advice. But to give you an example, really what kept me grounded through two years of travel solo, and even nowadays, when a lot is uncertain, I start my day with five things. The very first thing I do is I meditate. And I do a style of positive meditation. And then I do what’s called morning priming. So this is a Tony Robbins technique, but it’s basically 10 minutes where you check in with yourself. And you start by listing three things that you’re grateful for, but not only listing them, you really feel them, you imagine like, hey, if I didn’t have a roof over my head, I’d be out in the street, and it’d be cold. So, oh, wait, I actually do have a roof over my head, like, Oh, thank goodness, and you feel that warmth of gratitude in your heart. That’s the first part. The second part is you think of wishes and prayers for your friends and family. So you think of just what you hope for them. And I just think of family members and all my friends and what I truly hope for them and the people that I love. And the third part is, you think of three things that you wish to happen that day and how you want them to feel. So I call this emotional intention setting. Because there’s a beautiful saying that goes, you get what you want in this life when you can feel how it feels to have it. So it’s not only visioning Yes, it’s helpful to have those visual details for the mind to hold on to. But it’s also the emotions. It’s like, I did this for a long time with my relationship with relationships in general but I would listen to guided meditations like picture your dream relationship picture, being in the kitchen with that person and you’re cooking a meal together? What does that feel like? And you have a ritual of actually trying on that feeling. And the more and more you do that, you’re actually priming your heart in your mind to move more in the direction of things that will bring those feelings about in reality. So I think of three things that I wish to happen that day and exactly how I want them to feel. An assignment you’ve done a good job is when you get up after that, and you’re like yes, you’re like excited to start the rest of the day. So meditation, morning priming, and then I do morning pages. So that’s just three pages of stream of consciousness, writing. Anything that’s just helps you clear out your inner critic, just get everything out on paper. And then the fourth thing I do is called reading my life script. So this is a more extended version of that emotional intention setting that I mentioned that I basically just have a Google Doc on my phone. It’s probably like three full pages or so of the script of my life in present tense, how I most want to go. So it includes things like projects I want to do, what my relationships are like how I’m feeling every day, and I read it to myself every single day. So it’s a longer form version of putting yourself in the emotional states that you most desire. So for instance, my life script is titled My epic fucking life. It starts with I’m in flow and I’m glowing and I’m expanding with ever present peace and love and creativity and joy. It starts that way. And then it goes to even like my relationship with money. It also goes into my relationships. I go pretty in depth of my relationship with my husband and the marriage that we have. And I describe our house. 

Sasza Lohrey  

And it’s essentially just language in the present to manifest the future, kind of without limitation of how far down the road or involving what areas of your life to manifest kind of your ideal feelings and circumstances and kind of reality

Lilly Wang 

Exactly. So the key point in this practice of life scripting is to write it from an emotional standpoint. So you start with the feelings. So yes, you can be descriptive about your home. But how do you feel when you step foot into that home? Does it feel warm? Does it feel sunny? Does it feel nourishing to you? Do you feel safe? Does it feel inspiring, right, and even like, go in and actually highlight and add color to the most emotionally resonant words for you.

Sasza Lohrey  

Wonderful, thank you so much for sharing those practical tools. As we get ready to wrap up, I kind of wanted to just summarize some of the thoughts and the feelings from throughout the interview and also bring it back to this definition of mental health that you’ve presented us with what that doctor in Australia did was tried to equip you with some of the tools and kind of knowledge to reorient yourself and to kind of reshape different areas of your life, but empower you just with the idea that you didn’t necessarily need these and the humor behind the fact that they’re they use it for people who smoke cigarettes, but I just loved his holistic approach. And that, I think, is something that varies across cultures. And part of what BBXX is trying to do is give people a holistic approach to human relationships, and intimacy, and all these different areas, from mental health, to psychology, sexuality, communication, these are all tied in together. And what we’re talking about in this interview is a holistic approach to mental health, and how all these areas of our life are connected. And yes, maybe meds, and maybe a label or a diagnosis or a part of it. But so are our relationships, hashtag BBXX the food we eat, what we’re putting in our body, what ideas we’re letting into our mind, the people we’re surrounding ourselves with the limiting beliefs or labels we do or do not accept the ways we are kind of allowing or pushing ourselves to grow outside of those preconceived notions, and really approaching mental health from this much bigger, broader, healthier and kind of necessary point of view. Because if we’re talking about in this case, mental health, as you’ve discussed, as a lens through which we see ourselves in the world around us, we’re missing a huge part of the picture if we’re looking at mental health in such a narrow space, and we’re going to be missing a huge part of ourselves and the world around us. And so really needing to expand that perspective, in that point of view in that definition.

Lilly Wang  

Absolutely. I just want to really emphasize how you really understand mental health. And you summed it up so beautifully, that really our mental health touches everything in our lives, and everything in our lives touches our mental health. It is that lens through which we see ourselves and the world. And tied to that idea is something I see as, as another limiting frame on mental health at large is when we talk about mental health as an illness, you know, as these neurological conditions of depression and anxiety as illnesses. When we use language like it’s a chronic disease, then we often have a belief that like I’m ill. I live with this chronic disease of depression. And it’s really interesting that even I did a poll just on Instagram, where I asked people “is depression, a temporary illness or a chronic disease”, and two thirds of people said chronic disease. And that was very surprising to me. And I think, historically, there’s been a lot of public health campaigns and mental health awareness campaigns or advocating for the validity of mental health conditions to be taken seriously, which is great and so much progress has happened there. But I just caution us to label ourselves too much as patients rather than someone that just has a set of beliefs that might not be working for me right now. Or someone that has An opportunity to change some things up in my life that aren’t working for me. So I really see, mental health is just what are you believing about yourself and about the world around you? And how is that impacting things like your mood and your behavior.

Sasza Lohrey  

I loved the concept of how we think about health, How is your health doesn’t necessarily imply you’re sick, you can be in good health, you can be healthy, it can be neutral, it can be positive, it can be negative. So mental health, not being contextualized strictly as the negative or condition or disease, but kind of something we all have, we all have mental health, and kind of a status of mental health, whether it’s good, bad, neutral, and shifting that perspective. And then, again, going back to some of the things you brought up in the beginning, and in your writing, talking about mental health as being not necessarily a health issue, but a social issue. And if we can’t have healthy relationships with others, which is basically a factor of our connection to ourselves. So one, if we can’t have a healthy, honest, authentic and connected relationship with ourselves, we can’t achieve that with other people. And if we can’t achieve connected respectful relationships with other people, then how are we going to be able to show respect and connection to the world around us. And so this really isn’t just a personal health issue, or even a health issue. At the societal level, this is a much deeper issue, but also possibility to change.

Lilly Wang  

And I really, that’s why I so resonate with BBXX, his stance on relationships, and psychology, and mental health and sexuality because these things are so intimately connected. And why I see mental health as not only a medical issue, I think the medical industry has been tasked with providing sources of support medication as one example. And what’s a great example for some that really do well. And that’s that form of support and medication saves lives. But why I see mental health as a social and a spiritual issue. It touches everything just like BBXX, his approach about how your relationships can be a proxy for and not only a measure of your progress. But hey, better relationships is one of the main drivers of why we work on our mental health and I freelance in the mental health world right now. Writing and creating content for first mental startups. And as part of that I do a lot of campaigns where I interview people about Hey, like, why do you work on your mental health? Why are you proactive about taking care of your emotional fitness? And we’re not only seeing a therapist in crisis, but why do you even value this stuff, and nine out of 10, people will say, it’s because it makes me a better person to be around. If I don’t work on my mental health, people don’t want to hang out with me. But it’s because when we’re more self aware, mobile more balanced, when we’re more able to manage our emotions, yeah, it makes us a better partner, it makes us a better friend, and it creates stronger connections for us in our social lives. And that’s ultimately why we care about this in the first place, and why we talk so much about mental health and work on it and invest in it.

Sasza Lohrey    

It strengthens the connections between and then it kind of that comment brought me back to how you talked about these synapses and the connections between neurons, synapses in our brain, and how those are constantly being shaped and reshaped and that this work, and these tools also quite literally shape those things. And so thank you so much for sharing all of your own personal experiences that I’ve no doubt people listening have been able to relate to endure kind of personal struggles and figuring out who you are and what you’re grounded in and what you want to build the foundation of self based upon and your values, your kind of path to healing, and the role of travel in that healing. And just kind of this overall process of getting in touch with your own humaneness in a way and I really just absolutely loved, in the questions you’ve shared. What are my beliefs about myself, and some of these practical tools and actionable advice that you shared such as kind of manifesting and really thinking about what you want it to not just look like but feel like. And So I would love for people listening to put those questions to the forefront of their mind and talk about them with friends. I really just absolutely loved that quote, you talked about, that we are not broken machines, we are simply humans with unmet needs. That was huge for me, and really thinking about what our unmet needs. And when you think about it that way we don’t need to be fixed, there’s not necessarily something wrong with us. It’s just needing to one know who we are, so we can understand what our needs are, so that we can figure out how to have them met, and really be able to self actualize. And so thank you so much for everything that you’ve shared. And my invitation would be to remind people of the importance to feed our need for change.

Lilly Wang   

Well said, absolutely.

Sasza Lohrey 

Thank you so much for joining us today. And I look forward to our upcoming collaborations.

Lilly Wang  

Yes, absolutely.

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