As I had the conversation you’re about to listen to with author Jesse Giunta Rafeh, I kept finding myself wishing that I had this sort of experience with a psychotherapist when I was a young adult, stepping into the world and finding my way across that bridge from childhood to adulthood. In her new book, Life Launch: A Roadmap to an Extraordinary Adulthood, Jesse walks young adults through a map of the questions they should be asking themselves.
Rather than telling them what to do, she instead helps them unlock insights they already have about themselves. This book covers it all. Emotions in spirit, body and mind, and relationships. Along the way, it touches on everything from finance to career, to alcohol and drugs. And even if you’re not a young adult, my guess is that you’ll still find what Jesse has to say interesting. I know I did.
Nikki Van Noy: I am joined today by Jesse Giunta Rafeh, author of the new book Life Launch: A Roadmap to an Extraordinary Adulthood. Jesse, thanks so much for joining us today.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Thanks for having me, Nikki.
Nikki Van Noy: I am so excited to talk to you, to talk about the things that you’re discussing in this book. I’m in my 40s now but as I flip through here, I found myself really wishing that I had a book like this when I was in my 20s.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Thanks Nikki, that’s the highest compliment.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s so true. It’s such a memorable point in time. I feel like it’s one of the rare moments of my life that I can think about and really viscerally bring myself back to easily.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Yes, totally. I think it’s such a powerful time because it’s this transition point where, when you’re a teenager, you don’t have enough ego strength or self-esteem to really look at yourself and take in input and criticism and make big changes. You’re just trying to survive it to get to adulthood, basically. Then when we get to our 20s and 30s, we’re now ready to take that deep dive. Who do I want to be? What do I have to change in order to get there?
Plus, you haven’t established any bad habits yet. The amount of change that you’re able to make can happen in a much shorter period of time. It’s the most exciting group for me to work with as a therapist.
A Personal Journey
Nikki Van Noy: I love that point you just made about the bad habits. I’ve never heard anybody say that before. I want to talk a little bit about what led you to this particular career. You work with young adults in this age group as a therapist. What drew you to this niche?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: It really started from my own personal journey. As a teenager, I had a really difficult time. I was an only child of two Stanford graduate parents, which on one level was fantastic. I went to really good schools, they taught me strong values, I attribute to them my adventurous spirit, but on another level, it felt like the expectations that I had to reach were too high. I was trying to reach them, I did really well at that in junior high, I was on student council, I played three sports, I was on the honor roll, but when I got to the ninth grade and my cousin, who I was very close to, committed suicide, my whole world fell apart.
Now, not only was I grieving his death, but I was dealing with every emotion that I had stuffed down and I was dealing with pressure that felt immense. I couldn’t be the person that I thought my parents wanted or needed me to be. I went down a dark path of going to a number of therapists who didn’t know how to help me. I got misdiagnosed, over-medicated, but from that, at the very end of that journey, at the very end of high school, I met a therapist that really changed my life. When I met her, not only did I find my own inner peace and happiness and reconnect with my parents in this new way where there was acceptance and love and connection, but I also realized that I was extremely passionate about the process of helping other people find their own fulfillment.
I went straight through college and straight through grad school and I studied psychology and I was a licensed therapist by the time I was 26 years old. My favorite people to work with were people like me. At first, it was teenagers and then young adults, but the last 15 years or so have just been lots of young adults and helping them find their way and reaching their dreams. It is the thing I’m most passionate about in my life. Maybe besides snowboarding.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that and you know, as you were talking, I was thinking what a cool experience for the teenagers and young adults who came to you, especially at the beginning of your career, that you were so close in age. I’m guessing it felt less like an adult telling them what to do and more like someone who could actually really relate to where they were at in life.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Yes, I think that’s strategically why I started there and I became this bridge because teenagers could relate to me. They picked my picture off of Psychology Today to be their therapist, because I looked young and relatable and I was young and relatable, and then I was able to communicate for them what they couldn’t communicate to their parents.
I became the go-between, between these two generations, and that worked fantastically.
Nikki Van Noy: This is a question of ignorance that struck me when you were talking about your own experience with therapy when you were in high school. My thought process was, that strikes me as a difficult age to be going to therapy because I would think that most therapists would either specialize in children or adults, and you are neither of those things at that age.
Are there a lot of therapists who deal specifically in that shorter timeframe?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Yes, there actually are. When you go to therapy grad school and therapists are picking their specialty, there are people who are so excited to work with teenagers and people who are saying, “I’ll never work with teenagers!” You know, I was one of them who was excited to do it because I think they’re real and they’re going to tell you the truth. They haven’t developed the skill to have empathy in the same way as you get when you’re a little bit older. So, teenagers would come into my office and just be like, “This is awkward,” or “This is not helpful,” or “I don’t know about that, that’s stupid.” I appreciated their honesty because it allowed me to then go, “Okay, this isn’t working for them, let’s redirect, let’s phrase it in a different way.”
But for other people, that’s kind of intimidating, because they’re just going to tell you like it is.
Nikki Van Noy: I can see how that would be refreshing as a therapist, to know exactly where they stand and where to go and all that kind of stuff. One of the things that I was really intrigued by about your book–in which you cover a ton of topics, ranging from finance to relationships–is that you actually start out by discussing, in three separate chapters, anxiety, depression, and anger. Talk to me a little bit about why that is?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: My idea for the book was in order to get anything you want in life, my philosophy is you have to get your emotions in check first. Anxiety, depression, and anger kind of cover, one, the most common mental health problems we have, but also, if you know how to deal with those three things, you know how to deal with pretty much any mental health problem you can think of.
The idea of the book is let’s get our emotions in check, let’s get the philosophy that we want to live our life by so that we can feel good because it’s really hard to go fix your finances if you can’t get out of bed because you’re so depressed, for example, or start exercising when you’re anxious about leaving your house.
Let’s get our emotions in check first and then we’ll go conquer the other parts of our life.
The More We Love Ourselves
Nikki Van Noy: Such a good point that is really making me wish that I had started therapy before I was in my late 30s. I’m curious, in your work with young adults, what areas do you find that they either struggle with the most, or have the most questions, or need to do the most work around?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: There are two separate things in there. What do they want to talk about the most? Their relationships. Because young adults get really excited thinking about who their romantic partner’s going to be, and their friends are extremely important to them. If young adults feel loved and fulfilled by their relationships, then they feel like they can conquer anything.
That’s the number one thing they want to talk about, how to communicate, how to connect, how to get the right romantic partner, how to maintain a successful romantic relationship. I think the number one thing they need to work on, from my perspective, is how to love themselves. How you get all those awesome relationships and your other goals is to first start by having confidence in yourself, feeling good about yourself, and treating yourself in a way that’s going to motivate you to want to go after getting the things that you want in life.
A lot of times, I use relationships in my therapy sessions to help redirect the focus onto what are the things that they still feel insecure about? Are there things that we need to work on so they feel less insecure about it? Or do we just need to change their perspective about themselves so that they can see themselves in a different light?
Because the more we love ourselves, then the more love we have to give, and the more accepting we can be of other people, and the more we can push ourselves to go through our fears to conquer bigger goals in our careers, and our finances, even physically.
Nikki Van Noy: I can’t tell you how much hearing that gives me hope for the future. Because loving yourself, I feel like it is one of those things that we all sort of know to say from a very young age. It’s a cliché, it’s easy to say that you love yourself, but actually getting the tools to understand what that means, and what it looks like in practice, is an entirely different thing. I think it is something that a lot of us, at least in previous generations, were not really armed with.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: 100%. I think here’s the thing. We’re not actually set up psychologically to love ourselves and to be positive. There are two different reasons for that. The global reason for that is that we’ve out evolved our minds. Our minds have come from a time when we needed to survive. The most important thing wasn’t that we feel love, and we’re at peace, and we’re happy. It was that we didn’t die every day.
The best way to make sure you didn’t get eaten by a tiger in the jungle, or kicked out of your tribe, or starve to death, is to make sure that you’re constantly assessing danger–being hyper-vigilant and a little bit anxious. That’s the best emotional space to be in to make sure you’re alive.
The problem is, most of us, hopefully, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re not facing life and death on a daily basis, so you don’t need to be in a hyper-vigilant anxious state all the time, assessing danger, and looking for what’s wrong in your life. But your mind is going to operate that way unless you’re really conscious to do something different.
That’s one thing I talk about in the book is why we’re programmed to be that way, and how to start to undo that process, because we can change it. It just takes conscious effort because if you let your unconscious run you, that’s the state you’re going to be in.
Then the second part is on an individual level. When we were growing up in our families, our parents are not perfect because they’re human beings, and perfection doesn’t exist. They’re going to have their own flaws, their own insecurities, and their own off days.
But as kids, we need them and they are in charge of meeting all of our needs, our physical needs, as well as our emotional needs. So when a situation happens, where our parents don’t’ meet our emotional needs, we have two choices, we can either decide, from our little kid brain, “My mom and dad are actually perfect, and if I had just done this thing different or this thing about me wasn’t wrong, if I wasn’t so stupid, if I wasn’t so unlovable, if I wasn’t X way, then they would have met my need,” and then we move forward.
The other choice is to think–and actually, as a kid, because you think in black and white as a kid, there is no gray, I should add that–the other choice when you’re in a situation where you’re emotional need isn’t met by your parents is to think, “The reason they didn’t meet my needs is because my parents aren’t perfect.” Now, kids don’t choose that perspective 99% of the time. Why? Because if they choose that perspective, it’s much scarier. It’s out of their control when their needs are going to be met and not met.
You’ve heard it, the stereotype is when people get divorced go, it’s my fault. The reason kids do that is because it’s much safer to believe that the world is under their control, their emotional needs are under their control. So they think of it that way and that system works as a kid, but then we get to adulthood and all the beliefs that we’ve developed in order to make our parents perfect so that we didn’t have to be scared that the world is out of control, we now attach to our own self-esteem. So, there is no person that ends up in their 20’s and 30’s and doesn’t have insecurities.
It’s just not possible. So, what the book is about is how you start to undo that program. How do you start to look at yourself in a more realistic light, and to start to see your parents as human, and connect to them in that new adult-to-adult way?
Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms
Nikki Van Noy: So much of what you just said is really empowering and one of the things that stood out to me is that we all have insecurities. It can be easy to chalk those insecurities up to issues, or something that specifically went wrong with you, or is innately wrong with you. So, I love hearing no, this is just how we’re built as humans. So, it is understanding those and getting the tools to work through them and beyond them.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: That’s right. I like to look at everything as, “Oh, this is just a maladaptive coping mechanism that was probably adaptive at one point.” I believe that human beings do the best that they know how to do at any given moment.
So the trick is to go, if you struggled with drugs, if you got angry at your friends, if you pick bad romantic partners, whatever maladaptive coping mechanism, however, it is coming out for you, to really forgive yourself and go, “Let us figure out why I chose this path, and let’s correct it, without taking that behavior or action as a part of my identity.” Because I think, that’s not who you are. That is just how you adapted to cope, and that is the best you knew how to do at that time, but then that doesn’t mean for the rest of your life you have to say, “I am an angry person,” or, “I am going to have depression for the rest of my life,” for example, or “I am a drug addict.”
You can just go that’s how I coped then, and then you build this other system to connect more to what I call your true self, which is the person that is the best version of you. That’s who you really are, not the maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that distinction between identity and mechanisms that can be changed. Another thing that struck me when you were talking is, at the beginning of this interview, you talked about how younger people don’t have these bad habits so engrained. Linking that back to our unconscious program survival mechanisms, it makes sense that we could change these behaviors and rewire our brain so much easier when we’re at that younger stage in life.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: That’s exactly right. That is what inspires me most about working with people in this age group. That’s what inspired me to write the book because you are really at the beginning. Yes, you’ve had a childhood where you of course adopted some insecurities and some maladaptive coping mechanisms, but it is completely your choice who you want to be and where you want to go. That is my job, to help people by reading this book and in my office to realize that the canvas is blank. You get to paint whenever kind of painting you want to create your life.
Nikki Van Noy: I have to say, as a parent, you are making a really compelling argument to just include some therapy money along with the college education tuition for my kid. Just to give her a head start to have these conversations and gain this awareness as she steps into the world.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: You know I don’t think it is a bad idea. There was a time, about six or seven years ago, that I added coaching into my practice. A lot of therapists were like, “Jesse, why would you want to become a coach? You worked so hard,” because to become a coach you don’t have to go to school. It is not really regulated. To be a therapist, I went through this whole licensing process. I got 3,000 hours, it was a lot more schooling.
It seemed to them like a downgrade to include this other modality of helping people, but the reason I added it is because therapy often has a stigma. So, people think “I have to have a problem. I have to be emotionally struggling, there has to be something wrong with me to go seek out a therapist.” But as a coach, people think, “No, I am just going to go build the kind of life I want. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with me.”
I think that we go to the gym for our bodies, we go to school for our minds, why wouldn’t we put at least as much effort into our emotional health? To me at least, I want to leave this planet feeling like I was this fulfilled, and loved, and had as much fun as I possibly could, and that takes work just like the other things take work.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely and none of those three things are actually extricable from the other either.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: No, you need them all.
Nikki Van Noy: Another thing I wanted to ask you is I am curious if, over the last 15 years, you’ve seen general differences in your clientele. The things that they’re struggling with or working on or is it pretty consistent over time? How much of a cultural impact has there been in terms of what young adults are thinking about and dealing with today, based on your work?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Overall, my philosophy of working with people has shifted as I have aged myself, but it’s not that different. But I would say there is a shift happening culturally, at least here in America, where, when I started, people’s goals were much more centered around, “I want to make as much money as possible. I want to have kids, I want to start a family, and I want to drive a nice car.” It felt more materialistic.
Whereas in recent generations it’s shifted to, “I want to have a job that fulfills me. I want to make sure my life is fulfilling. I want to have kids if that’s right, but if it’s not going to be the best thing for me then I don’t want to do it.” It feels like we are shifting from the survival consciousness that I talked about in the beginning. People are already going from a place of, “I don’t need to gather as many resources and reproduce as much as possible. Instead, I want to set myself up to feel good.”
So, some people then will come in here and say, “But the anxiety and depression rate is rising. If we are shifting to be wanting to be more fulfilled, why isn’t it working?” And I think the reason for that is because people are seeing what they want and then judging themselves that they can’t just go out and feel fulfilled, without the work. There is an assumption that now that we know we should think positive and be grateful, that we can just automatically do it.
But it is not that simple. It takes work and so I think what is keeping people stuck and making them more anxious is that they don’t realize how to get to where they want to go, and that their mind is working against them.
Nikki Van Noy: I feel like there is so much reason for hope for all of us in that.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Yes! We are all in the kindergarten of wanting fulfillment and I see as time goes on, it is going to become more and more accessible as people key into how to get there. I am an eternal optimist. I see that as then changing our country, the world, in a lot of ways because our values are going to be more based on fulfillment, connection, love, and community, versus where we were coming from, which is the animal kingdom of, “I need to be in charge and have as many resources for myself as humanly possible.”
Nikki Van Noy: I am curious, I know one of the areas that has continued going strong throughout this pandemic, in the midst of all of this unemployment and job uncertainty, is therapy. Have you continued to practice as this has gone on?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Yes. It’s funny because, before the pandemic, I did about a third of my sessions online, video calls, and then 70% in my office. And so, when it moved obviously to 100% video calls, and I was wondering if the people who come see me in person are going to want to keep doing that? That is a different format and also, financially, is that going to work out? But it turns out, at least in my experience, everybody still comes in.
We all adjusted to the video together and I feel really grateful that I still have the opportunity to do my job and be there for people in a time when I think they need support.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely, I mean it is hard to think of a time when therapy has been more important and I am so grateful to technology for that reason.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Exactly.
Nikki Van Noy: So as we are going through this, are you at a point where you are able to identify, or look out at the future, to think of issues that young adults might need to think through differently? Or that might be present that weren’t before as a result of all of this?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Another thing I didn’t mention that’s changed over time, with technology getting better, and communication moving from talking to typing, I have noticed that I have more people on my caseload that have some social phobia. It’s hard to know how to communicate, how to talk, and to get themselves out of the house to go connect with people in person, which I am a big believer in. I think there is a huge value in connecting to groups online and having friends that way.
Some of the older generation is judgmental, like, “How can my daughter say she has a best friend and she’s never met this person?” But I’ve seen deep relationships formed in this way. So, I am not poo-pooing that at all, but I also think there is a huge value in being face-to–face, and doing things, and being outside, and connecting person-to-person and I worry that this is going to make it harder.
When are we going to be able to hug again? When are we going to be able to feel comfortable being in groups again? I worry that the social fears could go up.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. That is one of those things I think about a lot, and it seems like there are sort of conflicting tides, where I feel like on one hand, we are all appreciating physical connection more than ever before. So, will we swing in that direction? It is interesting to think about, and concerning also in some ways.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: I think in large, part of it will depend on how long we’re inside. Humans are very, very adaptable. So, the longer it goes, the harder it will be to come out. We’ll find our way. Especially with the new age of being connected to being fulfilled, that we will figure out what works for me to make me feel happy and connected and all of that.
Nikki Van Noy: Jessie, I have taken so much away from this conversation and I am curious about as far as the book goes, do you feel like there are applicable takeaways for people who are outside of the specific age range that you are primarily talking about or is this pretty firmly a tool for young adults?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: The answer is, there are things that are applicable to everyone. I had to pick an audience and I picked my people that I love helping. I’ve already had some of my mom’s friends who are reading the book, they are in their 60s and they are writing me like, “You know, I just realized I never got the kind of friendships that I wanted to have and now I am going to go after it.” So, I think as long as you’re old enough to understand the concepts, it’s got stuff for everyone. It’s my life philosophy on how to be fulfilled, which can be started at any time.
Nikki Van Noy: Wonderful. Jesse, such an honor to talk to you. I really enjoyed this conversation and have taken a lot out of it. Again, the book is Life Launch: A Roadmap to an Extraordinary Adulthood. Outside of the book, which is now available on Amazon, where else can listeners find you?
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: They can find me on Instagram and Facebook by looking at my name, which I am sure will be in the show notes, and they can go to my website, which is jesse-giunta-rafeh.com, and just read a little bit more about me and my blogs and get a feel for me on a deeper level if they want.
Nikki Van Noy: Thank you so much. Best of luck with the book.
Jesse Giunta Rafeh: Thank you so much, Nikki.