Kumkum Pareek Malik is a clinical psychologist with over 30 years of work experience. She trained as Fellow, Harvard Medical School at Cambridge Hospital, specializing in Mind Body Medicine. She has obtained her education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, The Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, and Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi University.
Dr. Malik has always been actively involved in her professional as well as her social community, and served as Board member of Charles River School, The Massachusetts Psychological Association, Norfolk Public Library, and Saheli, as well as most recently, True Story Theater.
However, Dr. Malik describes her greatest asset as the humility and respect she feels when sitting with clients who are brave enough to take off their social masks and make sense of their life journey.
Kumkum, this interview is long overdue. My most special moment with you was when I was sick and could not speak and yet you were able to understand what I was going through and help me beautifully. What is the secret to that understanding? What makes you such a successful psychologist?
I am humbled that one conversation was so impactful. Your questions beg another…what allows anyone to be successful?
To put it in perspective, yes, I am successful in the sense that my practice is 2.5 times more successful than the median practice in Massachusetts. It has been a journey, in which heredity and tremendous opportunities combined with relentless opportunities to work hard have combined in a beautiful alchemy.
And above all, luck has been my ally. Luck has been the hidden joker in my life. It has taught me to never imagine, even for an instant, that credit can be taken without gratitude for all that came my way without me deserving any of it any more than another person.
You Ranjani would call it Mangalam Shubham!
There was one decision I took very early on that could possibly be the most important one in my career. I decided I would not accept any insurance reimbursement. Like all life changing decisions, I went through severe hardship and criticism for that decision before it paid off.
As a result of that decision, my practice is not controlled by anything except what my client needs. I am free to put aside all my fancy degrees, all the knowledge I have acquired, all the “approved” treatments…and exercise my own judgment about what the clients words are actually saying, and what I should responsibly offer as an intervention.
In the end, what is it that we all want? Money? Power? Love? Yes, yes and yes. But underneath it all, every human being needs to know they matter. To someone. Every one of us wants to feel deep down that their life has meaning, that our efforts matter, have mattered, will matter in the future. Unless a listener can connect with that place inside the person who is asking for help, all else will remain superficial, just a band aid.
No insurance will allow me to work at that level. Science for all of its marvels lacks the language right now to “test” and “prove” that it is this dimension that controls our emotional well being. The challenge is to understand that it is not always lodged at a conscious level.
And of course, being a psychologist plays to my strengths. That always helps. Now if I were to be a dancer or a gymnast…I would seriously suck!
How do you define Emotional Wellbeing?
It is that ephemeral balance between what the world is demanding from you, and your capabilities. You may not be able to put words to it, but you know when it is off. The trick is to trust yourself, trust that you are actually getting a signal that something is off. All too often, we are quick to ignore this inner knowledge.
Emotional wellbeing is too often ignored in the world at large and yet arguably it is the most important aspect of life. What is the reason for this?
A tsunami of factors. Possibly the most important is a quiet cruelty that defines strength as “lack of vulnerability.” Young people are taught they must always have it all together. We function within a kind of social arrogance where to say or behave as though one is not on top of the game is immediate cause for being devalued.
There is also fear and ignorance about “mental health.” We immediately have visions of “crazy,” “mad,” etc. Emotional well-being is very different from mental illness, which is also shrouded in fear and ignorance. EWB needs to be seen as a fluid, dynamic state that can be augmented as well as depleted.
How do we go about seeking help when there are issues with emotional wellbeing?
I don’t have an answer to that. Just some thoughts. It is not possible for an individual to surmount stigma and fear alone. I believe our culture needs to evolve. The community has to commit to education around these issues, as well as a concerted move to care for our communities EWB. Unless help is made available easily, with warmth and affection and a normalizing attitude, it will remain a hidden plague that decimates otherwise healthy families.
In the current climate that is dominated by uncertainty, fear has taken people over. What advice would you give to people to conquer the fear?
This is an unnerving situation, and fear is an entirely normal response. We need each other; so social distancing is not helping our emotional well being. I am following it fully, and support it completely, but it has consequences for EWB. There are no easy answers to what might be a better alternative.
Given that this is the situation, there are many ways to rebalance. Let’s first understand what’s happening, and then let’s fix it.
The most common symptoms of fear at this time are vague dread, chest tightening, irritability, feelings of paralysis, and active fear.
Those symptoms are our survival system at work. This system recognizes danger, and is programmed for flight or fight. Think early humans, think danger from wild animals, think...run for your life, or stay and fight. It’s an automatic response, meant to keep us safe.
Due to evolutionary changes, this flight or fight response is triggered today whenever we feel psychologically unsafe. And the pandemic is triggering us in countless ways, from the threat of imaginary shortages to a tremendous financial uncertainty, and to a deep fear of physical vulnerability and lack of control.
Please remember, this triggering is an evolutionary response, meant to trigger action. But now, we cannot take the evolutionary response of flight or fight. There is nowhere to run, and no one to fight.
Your Autonomic Nervous System does not understand that. All it registers is...there is danger, take action! And as long as the danger persists, it will keep on and on and on....
We need to deactivate it. Downshift it. Bring your “activated” state down.
Here is a simple 3 step process:
1. Notice that you are triggered. You might want to try just noticing; withhold judgment if you can. Try to be gentle with your Autonomic Nervous System. It’s just doing its job. There is NO evidence of personal shortcoming.
2. Take slow deep breaths. Make the exhale longer than the inhale. Do this for as little as three breaths, or for as long as you like. No side effects except calmness, regardless of overdosing on it.
3. Do something that gives you joy...hum a song you used to when you were a kid, go look at pictures of your parents, remember that silly little roadside dhaba where you ate chole bhature? Savor that memory. Text a friend...just say...hey, how are you?
Try to build a daily routine...even a few minutes dedicated to calm joy is terrific. It’s called the Theory of Incompatible Responses in psychology. You cannot feel dread, fear and tension while also feeling calm and joyous simultaneously. It’s just not possible.
Kick your nervous system into calmness by the 3 step practice above. If you have other ways that work for you, stick to those. Trust yourself.
And remember...your mind is a many splendored thing. Use it to help you. Be determined to teach your brain something new. And remember, this too will pass. Nothing, nothing is permanent. Take comfort in that, and perhaps join a friend virtually for a hot cup of my favorite beverage: adrak ki chai!
What advice would you give someone as the one thing to do every day?
Hmmmm…I do not really believe in one size fits all, so this is a question that goes against my tendency to nuance interventions. Still, I respect the impulse behind the question, so here goes:
Ideally, Meditate. Every day. No matter what. Do it.
My mind gifted me with meditation at the age of nineteen. I survived a near death experience that left me with excruciating headaches in my final year of college. My brain downshifted…just to give itself a break I suppose. I could not but notice the relief, and began to cultivate that state intentionally.
If for some reason meditation is not possible, do a daily JOY practice. I prescribe both. Joy is a simple thing; it really is a very simple thing. Learn to recognize its simplicity, and what it does to your body-mind. If you have never experienced it, start right away. It is never too late to dip into joy. Finding out what brings you joy might be the single most important thing you can do to change your response to your life.
If I had unlimited powers, that is what I would wish for all of us. Joy. Every single day.
Kumkum, a personal question if I may. You are deeply respected in the community for the way you have lived your life, and the strength you display. You have not compromised your gentleness, your niceness, or your ability to trust yourself. What advice would you give to others?
Thank you Ranjani ji. Anything worthwhile is never achieved easily, and I have walked the walk.
I will start with talking here with young women, my absolutely favorite group of human beings:
I would suggest that women, especially young women, achieve clarity about the fact that it is not a level playing field out there. If someone calls you mean, selfish, angry, nasty, or crazy…take a hard look at them. They may not be right, no matter who they are. Perhaps these words are meant to silence the truths by which you are trying to live your life.
Do not accept love instead of respect. Choose respect, love may or may not follow. Love without respect is worthless in the long run, though admittedly totally intoxicating when you are in its thrall! And lastly, never trust anyone more than you trust yourself. Grow so that you can trust yourself.
For women over fifty I would say; sister, it is time to take stock. You have worked yourself to the bone raising a family, supporting all who needed it. Now it is your time to reap the rewards. Rest, indulge in your hobbies, make great women friends and let go of recriminations and anger, no matter how justified it is.
For men, especially men over 50, I would say, it is never too late to learn that your relationships require you to do take responsibility for them too. You will reap unimaginable rewards as soon as you understand that truth.
For younger men I would say; beta, she may be hot, but she has a brain too. Never underestimate a hot woman.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you Ranjani ji for this opportunity. It is not often that I talk so openly. Your questions truly got me to think and reach down deep.