It’s impossible to have a conversation about some of the nation’s top psychologists without bringing up Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo. She’s published multiple books on self-improvement and overcoming the battle with our inner selves, given talks at numerous events, appeared on The TODAY Show and Good Morning America on multiple occasions, and has made a career out of turning complex psychological ideas into concepts that are easy to digest. Dr. Lombardo has also founded her company EleVive, geared towards improving teens/tweens’ relationships with their parents.
We sat down with Dr. Lombardo to discuss how she approaches psychology and some common threads she sees with the many people she is fortunate enough to help. She also touches on what true success means to her.
Tell us about the epiphany that you had the day you decided to change your life path and become a psychologist. I was working as a physical therapist, a job that I absolutely adored. To be able to help people walk again after a stroke or get them out of pain when they’ve had chronic back issues was an absolute thrill. One particular client, however, changed my initial belief that I would be a PT forever. This gentleman, David, had a surgical amputation because of complications from his diabetes. He came down to the physical therapy gym, and it was my job to help him learn how to walk again. Despite being excited to see him, he wanted nothing to do with me. In fact, he yelled and demanded that he go back to his room. Later, the team was doing rounds where the doctors, nurses, and therapists talk about each patient and how we can best serve them. We all agreed that David was struggling. That made sense. It was the next event that changed my life forever. The attending physician, the surgeon who had literally cut off David’s leg, said “I’ll give him Prozac.”
Now, there is certainly a time and place for medication. At the same time, it seemed to me that someone should be talking to David, helping him process what happened. It was right then and there that I realized this was my purpose in life: to help people deal with what life throws at them. Luckily, we don’t all have amputations, but we do all deal with the disappointments in life, struggles, and challenges. I realized that I wanted to help people deal with whatever life throws at them so that they can flourish. And so, I went back to school to study psychology.
You work with celebrities, athletes, CEOs, and other high-net-worth people. What do you find is the common thread in individuals that are career and success-driven? The majority of my clients have two things in common. First, they will say, “No one would ever believe I’m seeing you.” This is because, on paper, they are very successful and they know that and are grateful for their success. At the same time, the majority of them also ask me, “Is this as good as it gets?
For years these individuals have been pursuing a goal that they thought that, once they achieved it, they would finally have happiness and strong self-worth and peace in their lives. While some certainly do, many others still struggle with their own inner critic and really determining how to live a more fulfilling life. We know from the research, and I see it over and over again, that more money does not mean more happiness.
The good news, however, is that happiness is a skill. When we learn the right skills and practice them, everyone can be happier and more fulfilled. That’s what I do with my clients. With the ultimate goal always to “put me out of business,” I always tell my clients I want them to learn the skills so they can become their own coach and don’t need me.
You have had huge success working with teens. What are some talking points that are easy for parents and guardians to remember when facing challenges communicating? Do you use them on your two teenage daughters? It has always been difficult to be a teen, and now even more so. With rates of stress and anxiety skyrocketing, many teens are really struggling. It has also never been tougher to be a parent of a teen. And yet they still need us to help them flourish into purpose-driven adults.
A quick acronym that I like to share with parents is FAR because we want our teens to go far in life. “F” stands for “find the positive.” So often parents witness a teen’s behavior and label it as being lazy or self-centered. And yet, they are often doing the best that they can. Focusing on the positive in your teen will help them feel more open/close to you and more open to your feedback. This does not mean give a trophy for everything they do, but rather highlight the values and strengths that they have. For example, applaud when they put a lot of effort into studying for a test, to highlight their diligence and grit.
“A” stands for “avoiding personalizing.” As parents, it’s easy to personalize our teen’s behaviors. For me, this used to come up when I would go into my daughters’ rooms and find a complete mess. I would personalize their lack of cleaning to mean that they think that I am their maid. In fact, having stuff on their floors did not bother them at all. They did not expect me to clean it up. When we don’t personalize others’ behaviors, we can avoid judgment or feeling resentful, which can help your relationship tremendously.
“R” stands for “refrain from making them wrong.” The teenage brain processes information differently. When your teen is upset about something, such as a breakup or acne on their face, rather than trying to tell them why it’s not a big deal, empathize with them. To them, it is a huge deal. Listen and empathize with them when they are struggling. This will help your teen feel closer to you, which in the long run will allow you to share different perspectives and different approaches that they will be more open to.
I try to apply these concepts with my teens. And the beauty is, when things don’t work, I am open to feedback from them. Ultimately, of course, I am the parent. However, I try to keep communication open so they can share with me what’s going on with them. My teens have taught me so much, helping me to be a better mom.
You are a celebrated author with four books under your belt and two on the way. What is the common thread that ties them all together? I think most self-help authors write for themselves, in addition to serving others. I know I do. My first book was about happiness, A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. Before I wrote the book, I was relatively happy. Then I had a client who had experienced a horrific accident, resulting in both of his arms being amputated.
I distinctly remember before going in to see him thinking, “How am I going to help this gentleman? Obviously, he feels depressed, helpless, and hopeless because he lost both of his arms.” In reality, he was not experiencing any of those. He was one of the happiest people I have ever met and his happiness was caused by his focus. Instead of being angry or helpless that he lost both of his arms, he was so grateful that his life had been saved. He truly believed that he was still here on this earth to do something very positive. I remember thinking, “I want to be that happy.” That started my journey of scouring the research to really determine what makes us happy. It turns out it’s not what a lot of people think, like having more money or a bigger house. There is actually a science to happiness. So, when we apply the right skills, we can all become happier, no matter what is happening in life. I applied the skills in my own life and wanted the world to have access to such important information.
Better Than Perfect came about because, despite feeling happier from what I learned when researching A Happy You, I came to realize that one of my biggest obstacles for happiness was my perfectionism. I saw this a lot in my clients, too.
Perfectionism is more than just having a neat junk drawer. Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mindset. Something is perfect or it’s a failure. You make one mistake, and everything is wrong. This impacts not only how we feel about ourselves, but also how we feel about others. If our partner forgets to do one thing, we may view it as they never help out. This can lead to negative self-confidence as well as strain in a relationship.
I remember my first week in psychology school, madly taking notes as my professor was speaking and it hit me: Why do I have to get a Ph.D. to learn this? We all would benefit from better understanding how our mind works and how to help it work for instead of against us. That’s really my mission in my writing, speaking, and coaching—to give people the tools to have their minds work for them instead of against them. What goes on in our minds impacts every single facet of our lives. If we want to be physically healthier, have better relationships, be more successful at work, then we really need to optimize our mindset.
What is the “Green Zone” and how is it your invisible best friend? The Green Zone is a place where we are living in our authentic selves, where stress levels are low and our inner critic is not taking over.
Ever notice how when you’re really stressed, you don’t always act in the most compassionate manner? Well, I sure do. That is the opposite of the Green Zone. The Green Zone is when we were in a place of contentment and less distress. It’s your invisible best friend because that is where your inner light can shine, the true you who is here to do amazing things.
When we are in the Green Zone, or low levels of stress, our frontal lobe tends to be more predominant. This part allows us to engage in executive functioning, problem-solving, perspective-taking. So when a challenge presents itself when we are in the Green Zone, we feel more empowered, more confident in capabilities, and better able to solve the issue at hand.
Now, we are happy from the “Green Zone.” Explain how to deal with the “Red Zone.” Ah, the Red Zone. The red zone is basically the opposite of the green zone.
Consider stress going from zero (not at all) to ten (the most stressed out you have ever been). The Red Zone is when you’re at a seven out of 10 or higher. And when we are in the red zone, we are not always the people we want to be.
Physiologically, there is a biological reason for this. Remember, when we’re in the Green Zone, we are using more of a frontal lobe—the part of our brain that engages in executive function, problem-solving, perspective-taking. Here, you can see different perspectives, and even if you don’t like what someone does, you’re more likely to give them a benefit of the doubt.
In the Red Zone, however, we’re using more of the limbic system. The limbic system is a survival mechanism: fight or flight. In the Red Zone we tend to engage in “negative filtering,” where you are focused exclusively on what’s wrong and failed to see what’s right. When we’re in the Red Zone, we tend to feel like a victim of our circumstances. We tend to personalize other people’s behavior, we tend to view ourselves and others in a more negative way. This is when the inner critic tends to take over. The result? Feeling more stress, being more irritable, not being able to concentrate and focus as well, and even a negative impact on our relationships.
The goal is to get out of the Red Zone so you can be the true you!
What is prosperity to you? How are you helping your patients find it? Prosperity is more than financial abundance. Prosperity is really more holistic. It includes emotional well-being, physical health, strong relationships, and living a life of purpose and passion.
One of the ways I work with my clients to help them redefine how they define success. In our society, success is often defined by things like having more money, looking a certain way, having a certain job title. Yet in working with clients for the past two decades, I can tell you that that’s not what brings true success. In fact, the majority of my clients are very successful “on paper” but come to me wondering, “Is this as good as it gets?” Fortunately, the answer is no.
True success, as I have discovered, is three ingredients: passion (positive energy even during difficult times, which includes living outside the Red Zone), purpose (having meaning and fulfillment in your life), and people (optimizing relationships). When we cultivate all three of those pillars, true success and prosperity flow.
With COVID-19 at the forefront of so many conversations and along with politics, how do you tell those suffering from mental health issues to deal with it all? First and foremost, it is vital that you give yourself some grace. If you are struggling with mental health issues, make sure you get the help that you need. That could include professional support as well as self-care.
Next, consider that there are always two approaches to dealing with an unwanted situation: problem-focused and emotion-focused.
Problem-focused coping refers to changing the problem itself. This could mean taking positive, proactive steps to change political policies that you don’t agree with or taking measures to ensure that you and your loved ones are safe during this pandemic.
What people often forget, though, is that there’s a whole other strategy to dealing with issues, and that is emotion-focused coping, where you address your emotional reaction to what is happening. This means getting out of the Red Zone so you not only feel better, but you also can use more of your frontal lobe to start to take steps to improve your life.
I like to remind my clients that life is a series of ups and downs. If you’re in a down spot right now, keep going because a better time is ahead.
Do you always take your own advice? Ha—I try to always practice what I preach, but I AM human.
What is key is figuring out what you need to be the best you, and that varies from person to person. I have come to realize if I get the sleep I need, exercise, and meditate on a regular basis, I can better deal with whatever is happening.
Of course, I am not perfect. I remember one time in the thick of the pandemic, I was definitely in the Red Zone. One of my daughters did something that, if I was in the Green Zone, would not have been such a big deal, but my irrational emotional reasoning limbic system took over. I remember literally putting both hands over my mouth to make sure I didn’t say something I would regret.
The beauty is, though, even when we make mistakes, we can use them to become even better. When I act in a way that’s not consistent with who I want to be, I try to apply what I share with my clients: it’s not failure, it’s data. By data, I mean information. So if I lose it on my kids or feel really stressed out, I will later ask myself, “what are the ingredients I went into this with?” Usually, we have certain triggers that put us in the Red Zone. For me, one of those triggers is being tired. So, I make sure I get the sleep I need and set boundaries with my family regarding having any important conversations before 8 PM. I am an annoyingly happy morning person, but by the evening I am pretty much spent.
We are thankful for you and the gifts you give to the world. At the end of a long day, what are you thankful for? Oh, I am so thankful for my job, which feels much more like a calling. I am also so thankful for my family and friends. Being the mother of two daughters is such a gift. I’m grateful for the love that I have in my life that I choose to nourish and grow.
Photography: Nathanael Filbert
Creative director: Derek Warburton
Hair and makeup: Rebecca Gaspar