If you’re familiar with the various psychology blogs out there, you’ve probably heard of Rosemary Sword. Along with her colleague Phil Zimbardo, she recently wrote a stunning article for Psychology Today called “The Elephant In The Room,” which focused in on the psychology of Donald Trump. It’s currently the most popular article on the Psychology Today website. But she’s not just popular online. She’s a successful therapist who has published books, codeveloped time perspective therapy, and even created apps that help people in the realm of mental health. The head of Yale’s psychology and law department just requested that she and Phil Zimbardo write a chapter together for their newest book, “Duty to Warn, When Mental Illness In A Leader Could Mean the End of the World.”
Here at Psych2go we were lucky enough to get in contact with her and ask her questions we thought our readers would like to hear Rosemary Sword answer. What follows is an extremely insightful look into the world of psychology through the eyes of someone who has lived an amazing career. She touches on her own areas of expertise, her take on various theories in psychology, and her advice for all you aspiring students out there.
Could you tell us a little more about ho’oponopono? How is it useful in today’s world of psychology?
Thank you for these questions. It’s rare to be asked about ho’oponopono, which in our greater Western society, has become known as “Hawaiian psychology.” I’m delighted. Ho’oponopono is an ancient Polynesian practice of Forgiveness. There are four steps to the process:
Remorse – the realization that you have knowingly harmed someone or something, perhaps the Earth, and therefore yourself (the belief is everyone and everything is connected) and want to make amends. Once this realization is attained, you ask:
Forgiveness – which is difficult to do for many, especially in person. When asking for forgiveness, it must be sincere. Any “yeah, but”s won’t cut it; the desire for forgiveness must come from the heart. If it’s impossible to ask forgiveness face to face, or over the phone – maybe the relationship is so far gone there’s no way you can communicate, or the person has passed on – then ask it silently. The next step is:
Gratitude – for the other person, or the Earth – for the lessons they’ve helped teach you as you journey on your path. Express your gratitude with a heartfelt “thank you.” Feeling Gratitude leads to the last step:
Love – which is also nice to express, if possible, with a handshake, hug, by planting a tree, whatever is appropriate. Once the process is completed, if the other person isn’t receptive, give them time and know you’ve done your best.
One benefit of practicing ho’oponopono is its effect on the intrapersonal, in other words, you become more aware of how you affect others and the world around you which can lead to greater empathy and compassion.
Regarding ho’oponopono’s use in today’s world of psychology: Following these simple guidelines with clients wanting to correct a misunderstanding or offense has worked well for me. For some, ho’oponopono will be too simple, too “woo woo – where’s the scientific/empirical evidence?,” which is unfortunate. Our society and greater culture often denigrate the simplicity of the wisdom of Indigenous people. But I hope there are students and clinicians reading this who would consider adding ho’oponopono to their practice. You don’t have to take a course, or gain certification in this method, unless you want to; nor is it really even necessary to credit, label, or specify this approach. Just follow the steps outlined above. But before you use it with clients, try it in your own life to see how it feels and if it works for you.
Are there any other aspects of tribal or ancient systems that you think are useful to mental health today?
Perhaps the most important aspect of an indigenous “psychological system” – one I believe is universal – that would be useful to mental health today is the understanding of the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. In other words, how and what one thinks, affects not only one mentally and emotionally, but also the physical and spiritual aspect of an individual. Although some science-minded people don’t subscribe to the concept of spirituality (not to be confused with spiritualism, or religion of any kind) or an afterlife, most people in this world do. This being said, mental health practitioners with the former mindset might have a difficult time grasping the importance of the spiritual aspect of a client who does believe. Psychosomatic illnesses are an example of two-thirds of the mind-body-spirit equation. I do not know of an accepted “illness” or diagnosis that includes the concept of the spiritual aspect of a person in Western Medicine. In indigenous healing methods, like ho’oponopono, by healing the mental/emotional “ailment”, the spirit is healed and sometimes, so is the body.
As an aside, in an indigenous culture, someone suffering from what would be considered an ailment of the spirit would likely be diagnosed in Western Medicine as suffering from psychosis, or schizophrenia, ailments of the mind. I don’t have a solution to this problem, except keeping an open mind and respecting your client’s belief systems is essential for their healing process.
How Did You Come across Time Perspective Therapy? Did it suddenly just “hit you” or was it something you developed gradually?
Time Perspective Therapy is based on Phil Zimbardo’s Time Perspective Theory. The genesis of this theory is Phil’s famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, during which time he noted the time perspectives of the participants as well as those working on the project became warped – the past and future disappeared, there was only the present.
In 2008, my husband Rick and I attended the Hawaii Psychological Association Conference to see Phil’s presentation on his Time Perspective Theory. Phil was also promoting his new then book The Time Paradox. He outlined the different time perspectives – Past, Present, and Future – and the subsets he had created – Past Negative, Past Positive, Present Fatalism, Present Hedonism, Future, and Transcendental Future. During the presentation, Rick and I realized the method we were using in our clinic included aspects of Phil’s theory. (In ho’oponopono terms, Remorse has to do with a Past Negative experience, Forgiveness is the Present, and Gratitude and Love, while rooted in the Present, can also carry us into the Future.) Phil was asked by a psychologist in the audience if he had developed a therapy based on his theory. Phil laughed and said, “I’m a researcher here to tell you about my research. You’re the clinicians, you come up with a therapy!” Rick and I met Phil after his talk and while he signed the book we purchased, Rick mentioned the above and declared we were going to turn his theory into a therapy. Phil asked us to stay in touch and let him know how it goes. We started reading The Time Paradox on the flight home and finished it the next day.
Phil’s theory is so straight forward, it wasn’t difficult to develop a logical therapy, which we did that weekend. We started using Time Perspective Therapy (initially called Sword Time Therapy – which sounded a little too violent, not to mention laughable) with our clients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As an aside, PTSD is comprised of a traumatic event which leaves one suffering from depression, anxiety, and stress. After two weeks, the results were pretty amazing. Our clients not only grasped the concepts, they were healing more rapidly. After two months, we contacted Phil with anecdotal evidence and continued to send him new info as it developed. After six months, Phil sent two of his graduate student researchers from the Bay Area to conduct a study on our clients.
The researchers lived with us for two weeks (our clinic was adjacent to our home.) During that time they administered psychological tests and interviews on a test group of thirty-two of our war veteran clients suffering from severe to extreme PTSD. The participants were chosen for their cross-cultural/cross-generational range (Iraq veterans as young as early twenties to World War II veterans in their mid-eighties.) The researchers also observed the study participants in social situations, and returned home to compile the data.
The results were mind blowing. Overall, the study participants experienced 89% less depression, 70% less anxiety, and 52% less PTSD symptoms. The study continued for four years and each year the results maintained or improved. Phil, Rick, the researchers and I felt that if Time Perspective Therapy could work so well with these veterans suffering from PTSD, then it would work for people suffering from depression, anxiety, and stress. Our findings have been published in psychological journals as well as in our book The Time Cure, Wiley, 2012.
Readers can receive a free download of The Time Cure Therapist Guidebook if they are interested in seeing how TPT works in six sessions. Just contact me at timeperspectivetherapy.org.
Can you reveal an example in which Time Perspective Therapy helped one of your patients?
I have permission to share information about Keiko; her story (we prefer using “story” instead of “case study” because “case studies” are real people, not lab rats) is in The Time Cure. Let’s start with some background
I had known Keiko’s mother, a well-known artist, for many years and had met Keiko socially when she was about ten. At that time she had a different name; her mother had named her after the street she grew up on in the 1960s. She later told me she changed it to Keiko because she admired Japanese culture. Keiko (which means “Blessed Child”) was very shy and didn’t speak. Throughout the years, on occasion, I would see her with her mother at school events, but we didn’t communicate beyond my saying hello (she still didn’t speak.)
Late in her sixteenth year, Keiko’s mother called our clinic and asked if I would see Keiko because of her concerns about Keiko’s introverted behavior. She compared her older daughter, an independent, successful costume and make up designer in Hollywood, to Keiko and they were different as night and day. Keiko refused to learn to drive a car, stayed home the maximum number of days allowed before Child Protective Services was called, had dyed her natural blond hair jet black and taken to wearing Goth attire and makeup, had a bunch of tattoos and piercings, spent most of her time playing games or reading, and rarely left the house except to go to the bookstore. Keiko had been to two other mental health professionals but, according to her mother, they didn’t click. (As an aside, Keiko’s mother also mentioned her medical insurance would no longer pay for counseling sessions and asked if I was open to seeing Keiko in exchange for art. I agreed. When you are in private practice, you can do this sort of thing.)
CBT/positive psychology (4 sessions) – Keiko started therapy shortly before the development of TPT. In our first session she explained that when she was seven or eight years old, she had seen a psychiatrist who had diagnosed her with endogenous depression, a genetic predisposition to being depressed. He had prescribed medications but her mother didn’t want her to be medicated. Once she had been diagnosed, Keiko started behaving as she thought she should: depressed. She didn’t smile, turned away when someone looked at or talked to her, exacerbated her innate shyness, and didn’t leave the house unless she had to. Hence, the behavior I noticed when she was younger. When I asked why she stopped seeing the second mental health professional, she said while he was “a nice old man” and tried not to act shocked by her appearance, she could “see it in the eyes – or rather the skin around the eyes – it tightens up. People can’t help it.” She told him something her mother didn’t know: she had started cutting at age fourteen. At this point the psychologist felt ill equipped to help Keiko and referred her to another doctor who prescribed antidepressants. Keiko took them for a while but stopped because she didn’t like the way they made her feel, and she continued to cut.
Keiko described her life and personality prior to the onset of her “childhood depression.” She had been an intelligent, contented, but shy child; interested in all things artistic. I helped her pinpoint a particular incident, when Keiko was six years old, in which her mother’s former boyfriend had terrorized and raped her mother, causing Keiko to hide in a closet for several hours at a time. These rapes occurred repeatedly; eventually, Keiko came to prefer isolating herself in the closet. After discussing this initial interview with my husband, Rick, we determined Keiki didn’t so much suffer from endogenous depression as she did from childhood PTSD brought on by continued frightening experiences and feelings of powerlessness. Psychological testing (PTSD, depression and anxiety tests were administered) confirmed this new diagnosis.
Keiko and I discussed her cutting and Keiko explained that it was an expression of a way to take her mind off her emotional pain. I gave her my cell number and asked her to call me next time she felt like cutting and to think about the events that lead to the desire to cut and try to sort them out. Compassion rather than shame, understanding instead of judgment, and willingness to communicate led to an immediate reduction in Keiko’s cutting incidences.
Keiko attended a total of four sessions prior to the advent of TPT. In that time she shared additional traumatic experiences including school bullying incidences. We discussed how her Goth appearance (to me, quite elegant and beautiful) was likely an extension of her hiding in the closet as a child. Although she felt better after sessions, her fatalistic view of the world would inevitably creep back.
TPT sessions (8 sessions) – Keiko, now 17, was helped to see her experiences in the framework of time perspectives; Keiko’s past negative experiences could be replaced with past positive memories, moving beyond Keiko’s present fatalism. Then we commenced planning Keiko’s future. Keiko graduated from high school and was working part-time in a quaint curio shop within walking distance of her mother’s house. She still had no desire to learn to drive and was afraid to ride the bus. She was in a relationship with a younger high school student whose life was chaotic and she wanted to “fix” him and his life. But after several months, as her boyfriend started a downward spiral into drugs, Keiko recognized that she had no control over someone else’s life and started fully focusing on her own.
She became more practical in her thinking and realized that if she wanted to embrace life and her many talents, she needed to get away from those she depended on: namely her mother, her father (her parents were divorced and she rarely saw him), and me. She had no desire to go to college and instead wanted to join her sister in Hollywood to see if she could eventually acquire a position in the entertainment field. She began working in earnest on her brighter future. One of her goals was to legally change her name to “Keiko,” so I helped her in this process. She lived frugally and accumulated her earnings until she had saved enough to pay for a plane ticket and a couple months’ rent in Los Angeles.
During Keiko’s last TPT session, she took the same psychological tests she had taken during her first visit. Here are the results: Trauma pre-therapy – severe/post-therapy – mild. Anxiety pre-therapy – extreme/post-therapy normal. Depression pre-therapy – severe/post-therapy – normal.
Keiko’s brighter future – Keiko is now in her mid-twenties and is no longer a cutter. The last time we communicated, she was working at a vintage clothing boutique in Hollywood where her appearance is a benefit rather than a disadvantage. She takes the bus everywhere. At first she lived with her sister, whose career in makeup and costume design continues to flourish (Pirates of the Caribbean and Lone Ranger film series, as well as many others) and on occasion, she helps her sister on-set. More recently she moved in with her boyfriend and is contemplating a move to Seattle.
Keiko shared, “In the future, I want to create a wholesome atmosphere in my own family. No fear. No hiding. Just love.” When I last saw Keiko, she showed me her then newest tattoo: a rose vine twined around a sword, a visual metaphor of my name. When I think of Keiko, out in the world, living her life, I feel blessed to know her and to have been able to help her. And I reflect on the fact that the mental health field offers counselors opportunities every day to experience incredible rewards.
The Aetas App was something you were instrumental in creating. Can you give our readers a quick run down?
Sure. Our first app, Aetas, which means “time” in Latin, is based on Time Perspective Therapy. At the risk of seeming morbid, when my husband was terminally ill (gastric cancer), he asked me to do four things when he died and one of them was to develop a video game that would appeal to people, especially young people, to help them if their time perspective was skewed. Once he passed away, I spoke with Phil Zimbardo and my son, Sean, a teacher by day and game/app developer by night. Sean explained that video games that have to be played on a computer are, for many, inaccessible, and we should create an app people could use anytime, anywhere, on their smart phone or pad. We wanted to include so many components, education, a quiz that self-scored, a guided meditation, and fun games, that Aetas became a very complicated app to develop and design. And it took a team of mental health and other professionals to help with certain aspects of the app (see http://www.discoveraetas.com/team-aetas/.)
An important contributing factor to the development of the Aetas’ meditation feature and ultimately our second app, Aetas Two Minute Meditations, was finding a way to help my daughter remotely when she started college a few weeks after my husband died two and a half years ago. The university she attends is on the East Coast; I live on Maui, where she was born and raised. Once in a while, she needed a boost to help cope with grief and the intense stress of starting school so far away from home, which in itself is enough to stress out any new student. She would call me under duress and I would lead her through brief guided meditations. Whenever this happened I started clocking how long it took for her to gain a sense of well-being. It took about two minutes. From there it was easy to connect the dots.
Here’s a run-down of Aetas (our second app, Aetas 2 Minute Meditations, follows):
- Educational – learn about the major time perspectives (past negative, past positive, present hedonism, present fatalism, and future) and how our behavior and decisions may be based on our biased tendency to overuse one or two time perspectives when the ideal is to develop a balanced time perspective that is flexible to adjust to current situations and personal needs.
- Interactive – Aetas has two interactive segments:
- Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI) – take the 15 statement ZTPI to discover your personal time perspectives.
- Visual aids to help learn to regulate your breath, slow your heart rate, and re-energize your brain.
- Self-soothing – three 2-minute guided mediations are provided:
- Breath – helps calm, center, and relax
- Letting Go – helps let go of negative experiences and gain confidence
- Focus – helps relax, refresh, and instills a sense of well-being
- Play – three games are included:
- Breath – helps you practice a slow breathing technique
- Stress Relief – put your negativity into the orb and see what happens
- Light Dance – helps kick start your brain, especially after the meditations
Early Aetas users mentioned they found that the meditations were helpful on a daily basis and asked if we would develop an app that had only meditations. These users were diverse in age (the majority being young), socio-economics and ethnicity, but they had one thing in common: they suffered from stress and anxiety caused by day-to-day life and new/changing situations. They supplied us with a list of topics they felt would best benefit them as well as others. We were happy to comply and expanded the soothing background audio selections and used Hubble Telescope images to produce an elegant, user-friendly app: Aetas 2 Minute Mediations:
- Acceptance – encourages open-mindedness of others and situations
- Beautiful – get in touch with true inner beauty
- Breathe – helps calm, center, and relax
- Control – helps decrease controlling behavior
- Creativity – inspires your inner visionary
- Fear – helps diminish fears
- Focus – helps relax, refresh, and motivate
- Love – inspires unconditional love
- Negativity – helps reduce negative thoughts and actions
- Past – helps let go of past negative experiences
- Sleep – helps calm, relax, and prepare for sleep
- Stress – helps reduce anxiety and stress
- Worthy – helps boost self-esteem
Those interested can check out our website: discoveraetas.com
(BTW – the other three things I promised Rick: 1. Finish The Time Cure follow-up book we started with Phil when Rick was ill. Am happy to report that Phil and I recently completed Living and Loving Better. Our publisher is McFarland Publishing, Inc. and will be released in the coming months. 2. Continue to spread the word about TPT; in December I presented Time Perspective Therapy at the first psychological conference in Warsaw, Poland. 3. Buy myself some diamond earrings from Rick for Christmas which I did and have worn ever since.)
What do you think about what the potential of using apps like Aetas will be going into the future of psychology?
In the not-to-distant future I think apps will be used by mental health professionals as a supplement for clients in between face-to-face sessions. And for some people, apps will probably replace face-to-face clinical sessions all together, especially if they just require a little help. But as human beings, we need human-to-human connection, so I don’t think apps will replace the value of talking with a knowledgeable, compassionate, living, breathing person, at least not for a very long time.
Can technology (such as smart phones and social media) be a benefit to our mental health if used responsibly, or do you think the net consequences outweigh the benefits?
Oh, I definitely think technology as stated can be a benefit to our mental health if used responsibly, otherwise I wouldn’t have developed Aetas. Like almost anything, we can overdo it, especially if we’re prone to being an addictive personality. We know that too much of anything isn’t healthy. But there are warning signs we can look for – like are we isolating from friends and family, or forgetting to eat meals – or only eating crap, or ignoring people because we’re plugged in. We all know what to do: unplug and reconnect with real live humans.
You wrote an amazing book called The Time Cure. How does the writing process of a psychologist differ from that of a novelist or even a different non-fiction writer like a historian?
Great question and I feel equipped to answer it because I write fiction as well as non-fiction psychological stuff. There’s a big difference: Non-fiction is vegetables, fiction is dessert. But one or both of the following are the same for either: You are writing because, a) you have something to say or information to share, and/or b) you have to – maybe it’s a school assignment, or a blog column that’s due. Another thing to remember is: you, your personality or an aspect of your personality, will come through the written word, no matter what you write.
Non-fiction comes from your mind and no matter your profession or the subject, it’s all about research and writing what you have to say/share, and more research and more writing and then refining the information you are imparting and then reading what you wrote and finding you missed a couple things so you go back to researching and writing until you think you’re done and send it off to your colleagues or friends for review or if you’re lucky your editor and find you didn’t write it in a way that’s easy to understand (you know what you meant – why don’t your colleagues/friends/editor?) Then you rewrite and resubmit; and this might happen again. Hopefully, in the end, you’ve chunked down hundreds, maybe thousands of pages of information, included what you have to say/share, and created something that has good nutritional value and is easy to understand for your audience, whoever they may be. The process can be frantic and as exhilarating as it is a pain in the ass, especially when there’s a deadline.
Fiction comes from an entirely different place – the soul – so for me, the process is different and more complicated. Fiction is an art form but instead of using canvas and paints you’re placing thoughts and ideas into words and paragraphs until you have your finished piece. It’s important enough for you to want to create this story and your ego is such that you’re pretty sure people will want to read it. So you start by staring at the screen, willing your fingers to work their magic. When they don’t, after a good amount of time, you get up and make a cup of tea. Then you go back and stare at the screen some more and think about what you were going to say and how easy it will be once your fingers start to work. And they do. But when you read back what they typed, you realize it’s your shopping list. So you delete and get up and dust the furniture and vacuum. Then you go back and stare at the screen and as you stare at your hands you notice your nails need to be filed so you get up and do that and then decide it’s time for lunch. And it goes on like this until you realize nobody’s really interested in what you have to say so you have dinner and watch The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and go to bed. But something magical happens overnight and you wake up with conviction and you actually start to write your story. And you realize you need to research so that what you are referring to in your story has some sort of basis in reality. And you write some more. And pretty soon you have the first bit. And then the second. And you become obsessed with writing your story so you ignore things that need to be done (it’s now been a month since you vacuumed.) But you’re writing! And when you are pleased with what you have so far, you send it to some readers for honest feedback. When they give you their feedback, you take a few days to be depressed. Then you decide what’s helpful and what isn’t and rewrite. Then, when you feel it’s ready, you send your baby out to agents or publishing houses.
As an aside, while writing Living and Loving Better, which delves into some dark but current subjects (toxic relationships, shunning, bullying, and such), I also wrote a work of fiction, Josh Redux, to help balance my mind. Josh Redux is a Venn diagram of soft sci-fi, RomCom, and spirituality. If you like authors Doug Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or Christopher Moore (Lamb: The Gospel According to Bill, Christ’s Childhood Pal), you might like Josh Redux. I’ve already gone through the reader process and am searching for a publisher, but if anybody is interested in reading the manuscript, let me know.
What advice do you have for all those aspiring psychology students out there?
Well, I’d offer pretty much the same advice as I would one of my young adult children if they were in the field:
- Read Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, and Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. They have nothing to do with psychology – but good stuff.
- Be passionate about whatever you choose as a career. Actually, be passionate about life! Quick story: two of my four kids started as psychology majors. After three or four years, they both said, “Mom, I realized I’m doing this for you and I really want to be (fill in the blank).” Hey – that’s more than okay! I’m grateful psychology helped them figure out what they were passionate about.
- Discover and be your authentic self. This is no easy feat. At a young age we start layering who we think we should be according to what we are told on top of who we really are and can find ourselves “pretending” to be somebody we really aren’t. If this is the case, excavate your authentic self out of the deposits of earth that have been dumped on you to find the real you.
- Keep an open mind and think out of the box. Throughout your studies and career you will be presented with new theories and ideas. Be open to what others – including your clients – have to share; it may be mind-expanding and lead you to new discoveries.
- Stay humble. Hopefully you aren’t in the field for the money, title, or prestige. Hopefully you’re in it because you have a “calling”, a desire to help people, because you want to understand first, yourself, and then others, and that counseling is something you could be good at. There are a lot of people in the world who don’t believe psychology is worth its salt. When you hear this rhetoric, the tendency may be to blast them out of the water with your superior knowledge. Don’t do it. Don’t pour gas on a fire. Stay humble. If you can’t help them open their mind, it’s okay. Be polite and walk away. Then have some ice cream.
- Be grateful. You are where you are – yes, because you are brilliant, and have loads of determination, and very likely a hard worker, but also – because others have helped you on your path. A grateful attitude, starting now – and even for those hard lessons life deals you – will go very far in your practice and in your life.
- When in your practice (a term I don’t care for – we shouldn’t be “practicing” on people, we should be helping them), you know you’ve reached success with a client when they are healed to the point where they don’t need you anymore.
- And finally, in social situations, when lay-people (meaning anyone outside the field) find out your field, they might start acting a little weird or standoffish because they think you are diagnosing them, which is intimidating. If they are brave enough to bring this up, assure them you don’t do that (even if you do.) I’m not big on lying, at all, but in this case, a little one may open the door to a wonderful relationship.
Which psychologist had the biggest influence on your work and your rise to prominence in the early days?
Gosh! You make me sound so important and I’m really not. There are two psychologists who have influenced me the most. The first was my super-smart, super-compassionate husband, Rick Sword. Being married and working together can be a boon but it also lends itself to homicidal ideations. Especially when you’re both workaholics. But we pushed each other to go further and farther than either of us thought possible. He was an out-of-the-box thinker and I have a great appreciation for that quality. And most of the time he laughed at my jokes. The second most influential psychologist is my mentor, colleague, and most importantly, my dear friend, Phil Zimbardo. Rick, Phil and I were a good team. Now that Rick has passed on, it’s my honor and privilege to continue the work with Phil. He’s dynamite.
Well, there you have it folks! We really appreciate Rosemary Sword giving us this interview, and we hope that is has been an enlightening read for our audience out there. We’re going to have a lot more interviews coming up, so keep your eyes peeled. It was an honor to be able to interview and feature Rosemary Sword and hear her story, and her latest development. We hope this interview was both informative and inspiring.
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