How I Take Care: Therapist and Mental Wellness Advocate Jor-El Caraballo
When therapist Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, thinks about self-care, it isn’t just a short game of bubble baths and face masks—it’s a long-term commitment to doing the things that will help you take care of yourself.
It’s that kind of holistic thinking that comes through in Jor-El's practice as a therapist and mental wellness advocate. It's what made him create Viva Wellness, the New York-based therapy office and mental health resource he co-founded with business partner and fellow therapist Rachel Gersten.
It's also what fuels his willingness to take up space and to lean into vulnerability—even when both are uncomfortable. These themes and more are at the crux of many of his meditations in the Shine app that support Black mental health too.
In this How I Take Care interview, we chatted with Jor-El about how he’s leaned into his authentic voice, what taking up space really means to him, how he's practicing grace in the face of changing habits, and more.
On understanding self-care outside of mainstream definitions:
So many people on social media have made self-care this sort of consumer-driven idea. There's a hyper-focus on the acquisition of things and consumerism, but I've also seen this trend in which self-care is anything that makes you feel good.
While that is in part true, I think that misses a really important idea: That self-care is actually about offering yourself the care that you need. Sometimes that doesn't always feel good. Sometimes it's hard and not shiny or pretty—and sometimes it means doing things that cost us things.
Self-care is paying your bills, it’s doing the laundry when you feel like you can't do it, it is having a difficult conversation with a loved one because there are things you need to say. It's not always going to feel good at the moment, but ultimately it's going to make you healthier.
One of my struggles over this past year has been exercise. I think like a lot of people, my motivation has dropped tremendously. My access to a gym is gone and structured exercise isn’t something that I ever grew up with practicing. For me, it was always a bit of a challenge. Then, the pandemic hit and here I find myself needing to find greater motivation and push through to even just take a long walk.
That is also self-care: To kind of kick your own butt and say, “I know you don't want to do this. I know you don't feel good. I know this feels harder than it usually does, but you still need to do it.”
Self-care is very complex and it requires things that just make you feel good—and it also requires doing things that sometimes don't feel so great in the moment, but benefit you in the long run.
On his path to becoming a therapist:
At the crux of my journey with mental health and becoming a therapist is just growing up as a very, highly sensitive boy.
That is very tricky territory when you are also a Black boy growing up in the Bible belt. There are a lot of ways in which I was performing gender and emotionality and expression that weren't so favored or appreciated. It put me in this mode of having to understand what those roles I was being asked to fill were—and how I could negotiate them.
Feeling the world very intensely was something I had to come to terms with and throughout my own process. All the different kinds of support that I've gotten over the years and the different knowledge I've acquired led me to this place of thinking about how I could use my personal experiences to be a well-informed and empathetic source of professional support for people.
It wasn't until high school that I took my first college-level psychology course. I just had the nerdiest teacher and she was so weird and lovely and nice. It was at that time that I realized counseling could be a space where you could really be yourself and support people to be their best selves. That was powerful to me.
On vulnerability as a work-in-progress practice:
Vulnerability is an ongoing work in progress for me. For me, it's a particular challenge because I grew up as that sensitive kid who was often told: “Your feelings are a bit too much. They're a little too intense. You're too deep.”
It's been something that I've worked on throughout my life, even pre-counseling. It was something that I was conscious of and trying to develop a healthier relationship to being vulnerable and sharing how I feel with other people.
I still work on that. I try and be conscious of modeling that for my clients, even in session, when I feel that my self-disclosure could be helpful to their process. It’s a dynamic kind of experience for me.
On bringing a therapy practice into his own life:
It is and it isn’t hard to practice what I preach. The blessing and the curse of being a therapist is that you understand so much. Therapists are generally, and hopefully, incredibly self-aware. Sometimes that's great. Sometimes that's not so helpful. Because of all the different experiences I've had with receiving support and instruction and training, they’ve helped me gain a lot more self-awareness.
I think I have a much better understanding of the things I need in a given moment, and I've gotten more comfortable giving that to myself. As I've gotten older, I've grown more and more comfortable with saying, “I'm feeling X way at this moment” or “I think I need Y so I'm going to do that and not feel ashamed of it.” And with that, also trying not to think too much about how someone else perceives that. I think that is something that we all struggle with.
On taking up space:
A lot of times, taking up space looks like making people uncomfortable, to be honest.
That has not always been my strong suit. There's been some growth for me to be able to be a truth-teller with whoever I'm around, especially if I'm around non-Black people and we're discussing certain topics.
I can take up space by saying truth to power and letting them deal with whatever comes up for them instead of working hard to take care of them emotionally or soothe their emotions. Because that's not really my responsibility. If that's not my role in the relationship, I don't need to take that on. Sometimes it's really necessary to just take up space and speak that truth—and then give people space to work through it.
I think that that's one of the things that our culture desperately needs for us to make some substantive change for everyone. People have to sit with those uncomfortable, painful feelings with themselves and figure out how they want to work through it.
On why holistic therapy is critical:
Viva Wellness came to be when me and my business partner, Rachel, we're really fed up with the systems that we were working in. It was all very focused on pathology and meeting people's very basic needs—not creating the kind of environment or circumstances that would really allow them to flourish in a holistic way.
So we created Viva Wellness to be this place where we could take care of people and support people in taking care of their mental health. But also: Making sure that they understand that all parts of who they are influence their mental health.
If we are working in therapy, for instance, and we're ignoring the fact that they walk in the world as a Black queer person, or they walk in the world as a single white woman under 30—if we're not looking at all the societal pressures that exist for that person and how that manifests in their mental health, we're failing them. We wanted to provide this space that is informed by just our personal practices of trying to take care of ourselves fully and wholly.
For us, it’s asking questions like: How do you take care of your mental health? Do you have actual symptoms or not? How do you manage your relationships? How do you manage your physical health from nutrition to sleep to movement?
We often found that traditional therapists and clinics would only focus on one question, which is: What symptoms are you having with your mental health?
But so many things work together to influence our overall health, and we wanted to make sure that we could speak to all those different dimensions for people and provide support.
On finding grace with changing habits:
There is nothing aspirational that I can offer at this point when it comes to habits—and I actually think that that's important to say.
My normal routine is to make sure that I'm meditating at least a few times a week, and making sure I get some substantial movement a couple of times a week. I'm a big foodie so creating tasty and balanced nutrition are things that I'm always conscious of.
These days it's been hit or miss with how well I'm able to achieve those things. I do my best to do those things and I have all my systems in place to kind of keep me accountable—but it's a struggle to keep up a routine. So I've just been trying to allow myself some grace.
Maybe these things can't be as regular as they weren't before. Sometimes you'll need to push yourself and other times you'll need to say, “I just don't have it today.”
I've been trying to live in that space for a little while now.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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