When was the last time you remember feeling like yourself? For many of us, it’s been way too long. My next guest’s book rekindles your natural sense of curiosity towards yourself, other people, and the great big world around all of us. You’ll be led one step at a time out of stuckness and into your most authentic self and a more joy-filled, purposeful life.
Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty, and my next guest is Sara Waters, who is here with me today to celebrate and talk about her new book, More YourSELF. Let’s get into it.
All right everyone, I am here with my good friend Sara Waters, and I’ve been flipping her book in the last couple of hours and last night, and man, I got to tell you all, it’s so nice to deeply connect with some deep words of wisdom, but stories that really resonated with me as far as going introspective.
And my guest today, Sara, is a person that reveals and takes these layers back and helps us identify with ourselves just a little bit deeper. Sara, welcome to the show, thank you for coming on.
Sara Waters: Thank you so much for having me.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to get started by giving our listeners an idea of who you are and a little bit of your background, please.
Sara Waters: Yeah, you got it. So I am, by trade, a psychotherapist. I specialize in trauma reprocessing and internal family systems work, and I’ll talk more about that here in a bit, but I’m a mom of a couple of kids and a wife, and I live in Castle Rock, Colorado. This is my first book ever, so it’s been a fascinating process and overarching theme, such a tough question when somebody is like, “Tell me about you, who are you?”
I have a really big heart for connection, connection to ourselves, connection to each other, and so this book really came from that desire to increase the cumulative, global connection in all things.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I love that so much. It seems like there was a lot that led to this writing which in of itself is a feat, so congratulations to pulling our wisdom out and bringing it together, and making it digestible for who you want to serve is so important and such impactful work. So when you decided to write this book, who did you have in mind? Who did you want to impact and help in that process, and who did you identify is that person?
Sara Waters: Well, it’s funny because when I first started writing, and I’ve been conceptualizing the book for years before I started writing and then actually started putting words on the screen three years ago, so December 2019, and I think when I very first started writing, I thought that I was writing to someone else and someone who I was going to help and give this wisdom to, and because I’ve been through some hard things and through my work as a psychotherapist learned what works and what doesn’t as we deconstruct pain and connection and this spirit of curiosity.
But I really quickly, probably within the first three months of writing, realized I really wasn’t writing to someone else, I was writing to my own 20-something self. Like, that whole decade of being between 20 years old and 30 years old, I was writing to that younger version of myself. So the stories and things, and it was also funny because I didn’t think I was going to include any personal stories in the book.
So it started off very clinical, very heady, very cerebral, and then I was quickly finding that it was just dry, and I had all these big feelings coming up inside, these memories of things, and so it was a handful of months in when I surrendered to the fact that I was going to have to include, in order to be authentic with the writing, I was going to have to include stories from my own life but to answer your question, as it ends up, I was writing to myself, just a younger version of me.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, wow, that’s so – I love that so much because I can definitely resonate with that. When I wrote that book, I too thought it was to help educators understand the refugee experience and able to relate with their students in the back, that kind of mentality.
But then I quickly realized, as I was writing my stories, this is a book I wish I had when I was younger. The pieces of wisdom or things that I wish I wanted to know, and so I realized that it was actually not just for the educators but the kids that they work with as well, whether it be high school kids or university kids that have that immigrant refugee experience and need a way to connect with the world around them.
So that’s so beautiful, I love that because it’s so important, especially around the work that you’re doing in the content of your book, which is really about, you go through these three sections, which I just love that you broke it down that way, and you start talking about your passion for connection, we really need to connect with ourselves first and foremost.
I just – I love that you started us there. Can you go a little bit deeper on that section with us and share what it means to go and be introspective and learn about yourself first and foremost?
Make a U-Turn
Sara Waters: That first section of the book is about deeper connection and utilizing curiosity within ourself. I feel like there’s just this incessant pull for our attention to all things external of us, what we’re going through in our life, things that are happening at work, the to-do list, relationships with people, reactions for other people. So that first section of the book and the beginning for it walks people through basic skills of mindfulness and introspection, which is a turning of our attention from what’s outside of us to what’s happening inside of us.
So everything from our thoughts to our emotions to what’s happening in our physical body, and learning how to hone in on that and gather wisdom and information from it, because it sounds so silly, but I feel like, at least for me in my adult life especially, I got so caught up for so long in the scrambling, just bulldozing and waking up in the morning, turn my alarm clock off and then getting the to-do list for the day done as efficiently as possible, and then calling it a night and then waking up the next day and doing the exact same thing on repeat.
And I wasn’t pausing to go inward, much less using curiosity within my own system because I don’t know, maybe as a 20-something, I feel like I had it all figured out, and then it’s probably pretty normal for 20-somethings a lot of the time, except for life wasn’t working the way that I wanted it to work. I wasn’t feeling and functioning like myself. It was really hard for me to find a truly sincere place of feeling like myself.
I couldn’t say that honestly, and so that whole first section of the book talks about how to do what I call a U-turn, shifting that attention from outward to inward. It talks about becoming the observer of our thoughts, the observer of our emotions, the observer of our somatic sensations. Somatic means of the body. So it’s actually happening physically and energetically in your body, and that’s just a lesson I feel like a lot of us missed
They weren’t teaching that in schools when we were kids. They’re much better about it now, they’re doing a lot of that in the schools, but introspection, I feel like for a lot of us, is something that we’re learning as adults. So that first section was first and foremost an encouragement and a guidepost for how to do that.
That first section also talks about the things that block us from what I believe is an inherent sense of curiosity that we’re born with and that is always on fire inside of us, but there’s all these things that block us from it. Things like junk that we just learned that was maladaptive from our parents or the community we grew up in or messaging from the world around us or hard experiences.
There’s a big section in that first part of the book that talks about trauma and it does work to reframe that word trauma, because in my world as a psychotherapist, we consider trauma as anything that has happened or a pattern of things that has happened to create a stress response inside of us. So when you think of it from that definition that really broadens what we consider trauma.
Like, most people will think of, “Oh my gosh, well, you know, I was sexually abused when I was a kid,” that was of course, a trauma, or, “I was in one of the twin towers during 9/11.” Of course, that was a trauma. And these really big scary events that had a perceived or very real threat to life or safety, and what’s misunderstood or misknown to the general public outside of the world of psychology is that there are lots of things that cause stress response inside of us and therefore are considered traumas that aren’t necessarily a threat or perceived threat to life or safety.
So for example, I think I mentioned this in the book, when I was between third and fourth grade, that summer, my family moved from one side of town to another side of town. It was in Topeka, Kansas and the school that we moved to was a better school. The neighborhood that we moved into was a safer neighborhood where I was going to have more opportunities, we got a little bit more land, we had an actual yard in our new home.
However, that transition was a huge trauma for me, not a big T trauma. It wasn’t a… I didn’t think I was going to die, but it’s what we call a small T trauma. So there was no real or perceived threat to life or safety but man, that transition just absolutely rocked me. And because my nervous system, my mind, my heart, my spirit was in such a state of transition, and it was scary and nerve-wracking and uncomfortable, that’s considered a trauma.
And so when we applied that to our lives, we think, “Okay, well, man, then that means a break up that I went through when I was in the 9th grade qualifies as a trauma,” or “When my mom had broken her leg and had to have a surgery in the hospital, that was al trauma for me because I was a little kid perhaps.”
So those things are all qualified as traumas, and the first part of the book helps readers to understand really what all encompasses that word, trauma, and how unprocessed trauma that’s still inside of us and we haven’t done anything about to heal it will absolutely block our inherent sense of curiosity. It’s just really hard to be curious when we’re afraid. That first section really focuses on, “What happens when I go inward?”
The other thing that was interesting to write about, because I had to do a lot of my own exercises and use my own guidance with myself as I was writing, was the process of challenging what we think we already have figured out, challenging our own belief systems, being willing to question that maybe this certain belief system that I have is outdated or no longer serving me or this behavior pattern that I’ve always justified.
Maybe that’s really fighting against me or the way that I react or respond to certain events or to certain people, maybe that’s not working so well for me anymore, and when we rumble with that, it’s not comfortable, but I would argue that it is lifegiving if we let it be. So that whole first section of the book is going inward and coming to understand certain concepts like the mindfulness, the introspection, the concept of trauma.
It’s also a process of exploring what we call multiplicity of personality. Oh my goodness, I could talk your ear off for days about this, it comes from the internal family systems model of — we say it’s a model of psychotherapy but really, it’s just like a life structure and it’s this notion that we all are accumulation of hundreds of sub-personalities.
So Hussein, for you for example, do you ever catch yourself saying, “Well, part of me feels this way about something, but this other part of me feels this other way, and they’re conflicting?” Like, do you ever catch yourself feeling that way or saying that?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Oh yeah, girlfriend, like every day.
Sara Waters: Yeah, right? Right?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Like I mean, I grew up an Arab Muslim in America and grew through a refugee camp, everything you’re saying right now deeply resonates.
Sara Waters: Totally. And so we have, every single one of us has this really complex system or what we call parts within us. It’s this fractured sense of personality. And the really good thing, just to throw the side bar in, is that we are not just the sum of all of these parts of us but rather we’re led by what we refer to in the world of internal family systems as self. Every religion out there has some concept that reflects this sense of what we’re calling “self” inside of us.
Whether it’s in Christianity, the voice of the Holy Spirit, or some people may refer to it as the source or the universe, or spirit, or intuition, and so that is ultimately our leader, that’s where our inherent sense of curiosity lives and moves from, but then, we have all these parts. So for example, when you think of where you come from and where you are now, can you think of any parts of you that have had to conform and be a little bit of a chameleon, depending on who you’re with or what environment you’re in?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Definitely. High school, middle school, and then even into college. Not necessarily conform, I always felt pretty good and confident, but for me personally, I mean, I had to walk the walk and talk the talk and dress, just to be accepted. That was a huge thing in my life up until about early 2010, ‘11, when I really started a business and went deeper into myself.
I started reading a lot more and then it really came together interestingly, had an amazing father but you know, a lot of his lessons I feel snapped into place, sadly, the moment he passed, but it really changed the trajectory of everything I was doing.
Sara Waters: Oh, isn’t that fascinating? So I mean, you and I have been talking for just a couple of minutes about this, and isn’t it intriguing how quickly memories and emotional experiences start to surface. Like, you remembering things that made an impact, the moments that were huge, right?
So you have what we might call like a chameleon part of you that has the capacity to help you shift and change, depending on the situation that you’re in or who you’re talking to, and that’s a brilliant part of you. It sounds like it was very necessary and helpful in parts of your life, right?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, absolutely. And it was the learning of how to tame it and then utilize it in a way that actually, I could live from and utilize it towards my purpose because it’s a gift, right? Because at first, having that feels inauthentic, right? Because sometimes you’re not into your real self, but when I started speaking and when I started just showing up to my business, my employees, all these things from my art.
When I just started showing up and being like, “You know what? It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, what matters is what is inside of me and how it comes out.”
Sara Waters: Ah, you’re making me so happy right now. Yes, you’re nailing it.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of work. And it wasn’t until I honestly got into therapy, right after I started writing my book, that I was utterly able to just, “Oh okay, name this thing.” I’ve had those feelings, I kind of understand them because I’m really intuitive as a creator, but they‘re almost like language lists.
But once I started learning about my deeper self, yeah and I feel you, I mean, like, my DNA is jam packed full of everything. From scholars, astronomers, to people who died and suffered, and all of those things coming from the Middle East. So you know, there’s parts of me that are angry, there are parts of me that are extremely excited. Like I pinch myself every morning when my wife.
Like I’m like, “There’s no fucking way I came from a tent in the middle of the desert, now, we own a home together. Like, this is amazing,” you know? So it’s one of those things for me where this is what I mean, your book deeply resonated with me. It felt like you were talking to many parts of me. So I didn’t mean to drift us off but—
Sara Waters: No, that makes my heart so full just to listen to this piece of your story, and when you think of things like what I was calling this chameleon part of you, that had to learn to adapt, and in the world of IFSS and psychotherapy, it’s this notion of there are no bad parts and this chameleon part of you was super helpful, and also can you imagine if that’s all that ran the show?
Like if that chameleon part of you couldn’t access a true more authentic self and was constantly just adapting to whatever situation you were. You wouldn’t feel much like your authentic self, right? That’s where good therapy is, as you said, comes in and things like writing a book. I mean, I can attest to that right now, it certainly makes you crack open some cans of worms and start to consider things that may lead you back in therapy, so you’re right on.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Exactly, exactly.
Not All Parts Are Bad
Sara Waters: And then, it’s this notion of diving even deeper with our parts and better understanding, “Well, how long has this been around for me and what is this part trying to do for me, and what is it afraid might happen if it calms down?”
I’ve got like, one of the ones that I feel the effects of quite often is my little miss independent part, is what I call her, and this part of me, man, she came onboard early. I had a household that was really chaotic with an alcoholic dad and a mom who was pretty tied up in codependency, and one of my survival mechanisms was making sure that I didn’t burden anyone. That I just took care of everything on my own, right?
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yes, man, you are speaking my language right now.
Sara Waters: Yeah, and it’s so real. I didn’t have the awareness, the self-awareness, and certainly not the language about this stuff ‘till I was much, much older. What I’ve come to realize is that, my little miss indecent part was a survival mechanism and she was a badass, man.
Like over time, she got me accolades and she got me on the hon roll and she got me a place on the dance team at the University of Kansas, and then for the Denver Nuggets Dancers, and then the Denver Broncos dancers, and then she helped me open my own business and she’s a total badass but man, I tell you what.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: She’s not cool at all, she definitely took you some places, for sure.
Sara Waters: She’s such a valuable part of me and also when she over functions, she pushes people away because she’s like, “I don’t want your help. I can do this myself.” And she gets overwhelmed because I take on too much. So every single part within us is a good, loving, well-intentioned part, but they forget that we have this inherent leadership within us, this sense of self that’s ultimately really compassionate and really curious and in some parts, want to take over and run the show.
So IFS in the psychotherapeutic setting is an exploration of all of these parts and figuring out which ones are trying to hijack our whole system and run the show and which ones don’t trust that we’re going to be okay if they don’t do their thing. So that first section of the book, there’s a lot of packed into that. That’s definitely the biggest and the most important section of the book, talking about how to go inward, what does that even mean, dialing up the courage to challenge what we think we know, possibly, for exchanging it for something that might serve us better.
And then coming to understand why all these various parts of us do and think and behave the way that they do, what are they trying to do for us. Sometimes, that leads us to the trauma and shows us, “Well, I’ve had to do this to keep you safe or to help you move forward in life.” So then we go back and we dissect it, we pull all those layers back and find often that those parts can be reframed.
We can, kind of like an employee, we can change their job description and we can take some of the burden off of them, now that we’re older, more capable, in a better place of life. So section one is, there’s a lot, man, it’s a lot of self-prioritizing but with a whole lot of loving guidance around it, but that’s the foundation for, like you said, feeling like ourself. It’s really hard to feel like yourself when all of your parts are running the show.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: You know, you hit so many marks right on their head because I just felt like, as I was kind of skimming through those couple of components of your book, like I said, I found components of myself that you talk to directly. And that first part is really important. It’s the first connection and the deepest connection one should create and think about, definitely is the one with themselves.
So I feel like starting your book off with that and launching into the stories and how you found yourself is just beautiful, but take us to the next step. You summarize that first construct very well and again, I feel like the next part of that is something that I went through as well, which is the deep connections with others. For me, it was like, it wasn’t the lack of like love or stuff like that in my family.
For me, I think it was just – there was just so much happening, and we all got traumatized in our own certain way. Living in the desert, in a refugee camp, and inside one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in Saudi Arabia, coming from Iraq, obviously later on you realize like, that was not only traumatic to me but everyone around me. So, growing up, I felt like I owed my family, my parents, my brothers, everything they’ve sacrificed for me “to be successful” right?
Get a great job or start a business, whatever it was, I felt like I always needed to overachieve, right? And again, there was a part of me that did that really well and showed up but there were parts of me that was like, “This is too much. How much more do I need to do to say thank you to them?” Because I just felt like I owed them, right? And that’s a mental thing that protected me because I felt so – I was so young and helpless that when I got older, I was like, “How do I say thank you?” You know what I mean?
Survivor’s guilt is a crazy burden, right? And so, the way I got through it was to learn about unconditional love, like truly what it means, and then I had to link that to myself first and foremost and then I started connecting it to my family. So in your next section, you talk about connection to others, right? Like it was meaningful relationships. Can you share a little bit about your story and what you found so profound about making those connections even deeper.
Sara Waters: Yes, well and actually, you set the stage really well for a bridge between section one and section two, and I just want to reiterate or reflect on what you said, which is it’s really hard to authentically connect with other people if you haven’t done the work inside of yourself first, and that flies in the face of a lot of social constructs out there.
There are a lot of people that marriage, for example, is a death to the self for the sake of this partnership, and this book and my mentality, flying the face of that. They say, “Oh no-no-no, if you are not okay within yourself, then there’s a trickle-down effect. You cannot bring your most authentic self to the table.” Well, that’s going to have consequences in your partnership.
So you got to be good and right and authentic inside in order for interpersonal connection to be good. Also, as I hear your story, my heart is just so full for that young kiddo, whether young boy or young man that was in the desert and felt this idea of like, “Well, yes, this is hard but I need to make sure.”
You were so conscious at such a young age already of how other people were being affected, and I need to go move on and do big things now and say thank you and like, woo man, you’ve lived some life and these younger versions of you when we don’t have the language or the cognitive abilities yet to reflect inward.
I’m just noticing like, wow, that’s a lot, and then that does play a role when it comes to connecting with other people. So a few things here. I believe, maybe this is just my own bias belief, I don’t know if this resonates with everyone or not, but I believe that all people are inherently good.
I don’t think I always thought that. In fact, I know that I didn’t always believe that. However, in the last 12 years or so, 12, 13 years of being a psychotherapist and being in this world in this industry, I’ve sat with, gosh, I mean, you name it. I’ve sat with people who have cheated on their spouses. I‘ve sat with people who have embezzled money.
People who have molested children, people who have raped women, people who have murdered another human, and I’ve sat with people who have cursed at me. And one of my very first sessions at a residential facility, I was working at with teenage girls of all things, I had a metal chair thrown at my head on my first day.
So lot of aggression, a lot of violence, a lot of really maladapted dysfunctional behaviors, and I still can tell you from the bottom of my heart, I have never sat with someone with whom I could not find goodness inside of them. I just believe that underneath all the bullshit and underneath all the pain and their stories and their dysfunction, there is something good in all of us.
So like I said, I know that not everyone agrees with that, but that is where I land and because of that –
Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that, I’ve seen some horrific shit growing up in that refugee camp but it’s all out of fear. You know, it’s just like fear going the wrong direction is just love, right?
Sara Waters: Exactly.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: It’s just sometimes that love of overprotecting or overreacting and it’s just untrained, unloved aspects of ourselves that we do these things, sadly. I’m talking from dictators down to just regular human beings.
Sara Waters: Amen, you got it.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: You’re striking that nail so deep.
Curiosity Can Cure
Sara Waters: Well, and it is so interesting and this is where curiosity comes in, and at its core, this book is about curiosity truly. Above and beyond all else, it is about curiosity, how to utilize it for good not evil, and when you get curious and not the like smart-ass kind of snarky curiosity of like, “What were you thinking?” or “Okay, yeah sure. Tell me about that,” but rather, coming from a sincere place of, “I truly want to better understand. I truly want to know more.”
When you do that, it does not matter who you’re sitting across from, whether it’s someone who has done horrific things, someone who hates your guts, someone who views politics differently than you do, someone who praise differently or lives differently than you do, it doesn’t matter. When you extend curiosity toward them and you are willing to with an open mind and open heart listen to their story, you cannot deny the fact that people are inherently good.
That even though it may not be rational or healthy or legal at times, their story and their behaviors always make sense. You can always draw a line of, “Well, now I can kind of understand why things have been the way that they are.” So as we start to talk about curiosity and connection interpersonally with other people, I mean, okay, here’s a backdrop. First of all, I started writing this book in December of 2019.
So I came out to meet with my editorial team and the people that were going to help me there at Scribe in Austin, Texas, in December of 2019. I’m writing a book about curiosity and connection, having no idea that we were getting to walk into the biggest shit storm of year with 2020, where assumptions, uncertainties and everybody thinking that they had the answers to everything would replace curiosity and disconnection.
Not just from a communal and conversational perspective, but from a physical perspective with quarantine. We were physically, emotionally, conceptually disconnected in every way you can think of. So here I am starting to write this book, I’m like, “Oh shit.” And in some ways, this book is meant for exactly the times such as this and in other ways, it was like climbing Mount Everest.
Like, how am I going to do this in a time where I have never seen in my lifetime anyway, a greater sense of disconnection and a greater resistance to curiosity, especially interpersonally with other people? So the second section of the book talks about a handful of things. It talks about using what we learned from section one about our own triggers, the way that our system responds to things that other people might say or do, especially those that we don’t function like or don’t agree with.
It talks about using more question marks than periods and how powerful that is. That second section talks about the utilization of boundaries, it talks about empathy, unconditional positive regard. It talks about the willingness to be wrong or consider that what you think or the way that you’ve behaved or things that you’ve done have harmed other people, and taking ownership for that. In the very beginning of the book, it’s so funny, I wrote this list of, I think there’s ten of them.
They’re sort of implicit agreements that you’re making. If you’re going to continue to read past the first few pages of the book, then you have to know like this book isn’t going to do you any good unless you can say yes to most of, if not all, ten of these items. And those things, those bullet points, are things like, “I am willing to consider that some of my beliefs, some of the way that I used my words and my actions might be harming myself or other people, and I am willing to wrestle with that.”
Another one of those agreements is, “I recognize the large amounts of discomfort in using curiosity and how vulnerable that is and I am here for it.” It’s the recognition that, and this is a doozy for people sometimes, “I recognize that my beliefs, my opinions are no more or less valid or important than those of someone else.” It’s a really hard thing to sit with that. It’s really uncomfortable.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I mean growing up a Muslim, and especially after a time like 9/11, I feel like my father taught me such a beautiful, poetic, deeply intuitive understanding of my faith, that we’re all humans and we’re all going to struggle and that we’re – he really told me the stories throughout my life of like, everything is temporary, don’t cling on because everything is temporary.
But learn from what comes in and out of your vision, in and out of your hearing, and that of your heart. He just had this really beautiful sensibility. He was an artist, quite literally. That’s what saved our lives in that refugee camp. So I’m very fortunate that I had such a stable, obviously he went through his own stuff, his own trauma and everything, but the way he taught me things is very exemplary, like he exemplified.
He didn’t just tell me pray, it’s time for prayer, or anything like that. He did it in front of us, he just prayed a lot. He kind of lived from that. For me, everything you’re saying resonates so deep, because of course people around me, growing up in a Christian world, right? And Judaism and Catholicism and Buddhism, I grew up in ESL. So think about all the different types of kids from different parts of the world.
So I felt very, in a way, fortunate to have been exposed to all of these different kids and was able to make friends with them and learn about their food, their culture, their language. We all were trying to fit into the American lifestyle but we all did it in funny quirky accents and it was just for me looking back, like that was such a beautiful time because it really opened me up to accept my friends for who they are and my beliefs were challenged.
So to accept more on like a visceral level as oppose to like, “Yeah, I tolerate it.” Tolerate it just means like you don’t necessarily agree but you are having to put up with it. That is not a very awesome place to live from. It’s more of like you accept this, you know? Whether you accept it or not, this is who I am and the more you accept it, the more we’re going to bond. I think that’s the thing that my father was really trying to get out.
It was like, create those meaningful bonds, love one another, if they’re not your brother in faith, they are your brother in humanity and that matters even more, and so hearing you talk about all these things really, this is what I’m telling you like I am so excited just flipping through your book. I’m like, “This is going to be a great conversation.” We might talk a whole hour.
Sara Waters: Yeah, totally. So listening to you talk and tell some of your story there too, so I reflect back on like 9/11 for example, and I was in my last year at the University of Kansas, and in my, I don’t know how old I was then, probably 22 or 23 years old or so, and I turn on the TV that morning. My mom called me and said, “Hey, you need to wake up. You need to turn the TV on,” and I turned it on just in time to see the second plane hit the building.
In my 22, 23-year-old head, I’m thinking, “Okay.” Well, I was terrified. I was really, really scared. And in my head, I thought, “Well, I live in Kansas. So if they are coming after the United States…” whoever they was, I didn’t know anything about it within that moment, but then they’re going to aim the nuclear warheads for Kansas because we’re in the middle of the country, like we’re all going to die.
So I was, to one of your points earlier, very much in a place of fear and uncertainty, and one of the things I talk about in the book, and this is so fascinating, there is a lot of neurobiology sprinkled throughout the book. I’m a math and science geek at heart, which is kind of funny that I landed in the world of psychology because there are no absolute answers, but I really like absolute answers, so I’ve had to marry the two.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: But it challenges that part of you though, right? There are absolutes, of course, but there is room for that space for curiosity, which I think really pulled you in.
Sara Waters: And I’ve had to learn that. One of the most fascinating things in neuro biologically is that when we are in a place of uncertainty, our neurology, our nervous system, the parts of our brain that are responsible for protecting us, that means just basic survival instincts, those parts of us read and interpret uncertainty and experience of uncertainty very similar to how they read and interpret the experience of physical pain.
So some of the same things are firing in your brain and through your whole nervous system, and if your nervous system is freaking out, if you have to slam on your brakes while you’re on the highway to avoid hitting a car, that feeling of adrenaline that rushes through your body, well, that’s your neuro chemistry but it is also your neuro electric, so your actual nervous system.
These things that are saying, “Ah, this is dangerous.” That’s the same kind of things that are firing when we are in a place in a moment of uncertainty. So when you think about it from a survival perspective, in that moment when it’s 9/11 and I’m waking up and I am seeing what’s happening on TV and I am thinking in my brain, “Oh my gosh, the nukes are coming for Kansas, we’re all going to die,” and this massive place of uncertainty because I don’t understand what’s happening or what’s going to happen.
Well, after I calmed my fear down after a few days and was like, “Okay, well I am still alive. Things are seeming to calm down a little bit,” then all the other weird feelings came in like suspicion and skepticism and anger at certain people or certain people that looked like certain people, certain people that believed religions of certain people, but the problem was there was a lack of curiosity.
It wasn’t a number of years, and of course I’m in Kansas, it’s a pretty conservative place to be and so I was surrounded by certain perspectives and I had not had much, really any exposure. Now, I will say the University of Kansas is a pretty diverse campus. I hadn’t done a very good job of developing diverse relationships and friendships. Everyone that I hang out with for the most part looked like me and believed like me, things like that.
So it wasn’t until I got older and I travelled more and I met new people, I went to Haiti at one point and spent some time with the people there and my mind was blown at the differences, and I’ve met people like you who, whether it’s where you’re from or the faith system that you’re a part of and using curiosity just to say, “Tell me your story. I want to know more about your life experience, your beliefs, how that resonates, why that feels true to you.”
Not from a place of trying to prove you wrong because that’s a lot of the toxic yuckiness that we are seeing these days in our culture, I think. Yeah, from a place of understand and recognize like, “Hey, I’m a blank slate. I don’t know what I don’t know, so please share with me.” That’s when I was like, “Oh, okay.” Now, there is the connection. That’s the medicine. I swear, curiosity is the medicine to this chronic epidemic of disconnection.
I just really believe it is. So that second section of the books is talking about how to notice within ourselves. It talks about triggers, what those are and how to look out for them and how to mindfully respond to them versus react. That section of the book also talks about the value of perspective taking and sitting down with someone, especially someone that you don’t agree with or someone you’re in conflict with, and say, “Tell me more.”
Instead of letting your defensive parts or your point proving parts run away with the whole situation, and then the last part of that section was the chapter was titled, “I’m not for everyone” and man, I got to tell you, that one was really hard for me to write but really hard to get to a place where I even understood what I needed to write about, because I’ve got parts of me, to go back to our parts language, I have parts of me that really don’t like it when people don’t like me, and it took me a really long time to say that out loud.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Speak on that.
Sara Waters: Yeah, right? I’m a performer, like I’ve been a dancer my whole life. I’m a public and corporate speaker now along with being a psychotherapist. Making people feel good and feel inspired and be entertained is like, that’s my jam, that’s what I do. And so to have to honor this notion that there are just going to be people in the world that for whatever reason, I’m just not their cup of tea.
They don’t like me, and that’s okay, that’s part of this diverse tapestry and really complex experience of being a human that I had to wrap my heart around with a little more surrender, and so this whole chapter talks, it gives a story about a woman who, she and I just don’t see eye to eye and that that’s all right. It needs to be okay. It flies in the face of I think a lot of us, myself included, when I was little, I remember being told by probably my mom, my teachers, various people, “You know, be nice to everyone.”
Like you have to be nice, you have to include everybody, be the good girl, be the sweet person, all that, and there’s some value to that for sure. I do absolutely believe in an extension of love to everyone but it is not a really healthy thing to educate our kids that you have to like everyone or you have to be friends with everyone. Sometimes it’s okay to just call a spade a spade and say, “Hey, we just don’t vibe,” or something about them is really activating for me and I can’t be myself around them.
Whether it is the way that they talk to me or the way that they show up in the world or who knows what, and that’s okay. We can still consider them with love. We can still hold them in a loving space and want happy things for them in their life without feeling like we have to be BFFs with them, and so that chapter of I’m not for everyone and not everyone is my cup of tea either, and that’s okay.
You don’t have to force it but if you can, I talk a lot when I talk about boundaries in the book of instead of making it these steel plate doors, maybe it can be more like a screen door where we can still access just enough curiosity to think like, “Well, maybe they are doing the best they can or maybe they do have reason for feeling and functioning like they do.” Because when I extend that kind of compassion to other people, even if they’re not my cup of tea, everybody is better for it.
There is a greater sense of peace, a general thread of love can continue even if you don’t want to hang out with somebody or do business with them, you can still regard them in a loving way. So that second section is very much about how to extend curiosity towards others and unconditional positive regard while also holding your boundaries and noticing that it’s okay that it’s complicated. It’s okay that there are some hard moments.
That second section also very much requires, to touch on something you said earlier, that we suspend the things that we feel attached to, which might be our own righteousness. I feel like there is such a toxic level of attachment to certainty in our culture these days and in our country and in our communities, everybody thinks they have the answer and they think that their way is the right way. Everybody else that believes differently needs to shut the fuck up and get over it and change your mind.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: I will give you a quote like you know, after all of that uncertainty, after 9/11, right? Like this is I think where my dad really, and my mother too, really helped me define who I want to become in a way, with this idea of everything is temporary, there comes a level of patience you got to really develop and practice, right? You know, my father was just like, “Just be patient.”
“Throughout this time, don’t react in a way that you wouldn’t want to react in. Just choose who you want to become.” At the time I was so young, it was my early high school years. At the time, it didn’t really resonate as deep as I’m sure he would have hoped, but obviously I was, again, very young, but it wasn’t until I got older that I realized like, “Wow man, that made so much sense for him to point those things out.”
That we, in the Arab sort of Islamic culture, we have this notion of “it’s written.” Meaning, there are things that are written for you and there are things that you get to indulge and decide on. However, there is a lot in the middle for you to create those decisions based on who you want to become. There has to be a level of flexibility. As an artist, you have to embrace that notion of uncertainty because there is no certainty in what you’re creating.
What you’re creating is the certainty, right? That’s what drives your work or what can drive your work beautifully, is that there isn’t an end all be all thing and a certain project that will take you to X, Y, and Z. It’s more like what are you learning from this and how will you apply it to the next thing.
Sara Waters: Right, what are you going to do with it.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: You know? So I totally agree like growing up here, there is a lot of, you know, a lot of my peers just wanted to know exact, and we all know this is not just numbers and digits and knowing. There is a beauty in knowing but there is a very much a beauty in unknowing as well.
Sara Waters: Heck yes.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Like you said, curiosity is just that much more beautiful, you know what I’m saying?
Sara Waters: For what beautiful seeds your father planted, even though you may have been too young to fully conceptualize it then, he planted some serious seeds that he must have known, as you got older and experience more of the world, were going to sprout and take better form but yeah, you’re speaking to something so important and that is the parents influence on kids.
We see a lot of parents that want their kids to be a certain way, do certain things, perform a certain level and a lot of my clients, I work with teenagers and adults in my psychotherapy practice and I get with my teenage clients, especially I get kiddos from pretty affluent families and just the area that my practice is in and the clientele that we tend to get, and there is so much pressure on these kids to be a certain way, do certain things, accomplish certain levels of things.
Again, what we find is that the lack of curiosity, the lack of saying, “Well, I don’t know kiddo, what do you want to do, not what you want to be when you grow up but rather, what makes you feel alive? What do you just like have this fire inside of you or what perks your interest? What’s fascinating to you?” With a question mark at the end. Like a sincere question mark with no agenda to it other than exploration.
There’s just such a deficit of that these days and really, historically in our culture, in a lot of ways. So that second section of the book about interpersonal connection really is about, “Okay, well now that I’ve rumbled with a bunch of my own strongholds and resistances and traumas and things and I am familiar with my own parts through introspection, now, how do I take this greater place of what we call self-energy?”
This sort of ultimately calm and non-agenda’d energy into my relationships with others, and magic just happens when you do that. My husband and I had a situation when we were first dating. I don’t think we were married yet, and something came up and we were arguing and my little miss independent part kicked into high gear and was like, “I don’t need you” and we were living together and I was like, “I am going to do my own thing.”
“I got my business, I got my kids, like I don’t need you” so we just – I literally avoided him in the house, you know, would like pass him without touching him in the hallways and things, and after about three days of my little miss independent trying to run the show, I was like, “Okay, well this is not working very well. It is not healing anything.” And so we sat down on the sofa in the living room and I told him.
I named my parts. I said, “Hey, my little miss independent part is ready to like take my life back all to myself and I don’t need you” and I said, “And my defensive part is pretty hot right now. She is pretty pissed and she’s right here too.” I said, “But I’ve been able to step those parts aside.” I said, “They are sitting right here so if they get pissed about something like they are going to kick into action. However, they’ve stepped aside for now.”
My husband, his name is Matt, and I told him in that moment. I said, “You are obviously in pain too. Help me understand. Tell me your perspective. Can you share with me what’s been really hard about what happened and how your thoughts and your heart are doing now?” And with that curiosity, with my parts, all my agenda parts stepped aside. I mean, everything changed, the whole energy.
He teared up, I teared up because all of the agenda, all of the point proving, your defensiveness, all that need to have walls between us just came tumbling down with the power of a question mark. That was it. I didn’t do anything fancy, I just asked him like, “Hey, I want to put myself in your shoes. Instead of being defensive, tell me where you’re coming from.” It changed the energy of the whole thing, and we’ve never found ourselves back in that spot.
Because now, we know how to use curiosity, and we know how to identify what parts of us are trying to come up and protect us. So that section too of the book is really an encouragement and a map of telling and teaching people how to do it, but to extend sincere curiosity at people before agenda without defensiveness, without point proving and really trying to extend the magic that can happen and share that with people, because once you do it once, it changes the game.
It really does, and when that happens, you feel more like yourself, which is the point of the whole damn book, right? Like you can’t feel and function like yourself when you’re in a place of defensiveness or point proving or shame or codependency for that matter. So section two is really about, “Okay, how do I take everything I learned in section one and now extend that and share that energy between myself and another person?”
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I love that so much. I mean, you really lay down a foundation in which someone can build on throughout your writing. It’s really beautiful, it is well-intentioned, and I think you did a great job by wrapping the book up by stepping out and zooming out, but I’ll leave that for our audience to dig into because I want to leave some curiosity left for your book, you know?
Sara Waters: Yes.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: But I surely enjoyed, again, just skimming through, but I know I’ll be devouring some stuff this weekend. So don’t be surprised when you hear from me from LinkedIn.
Sara Waters: I would love that.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Like, “Oh my god, I’m sobbing.”
Sara Waters: Yeah. And to speak really quickly about the third section of the book, to bring it all home, it’s the shortest section of the book, but it’s perhaps the most expansive, and it is about, “Okay, what’s the point of all of this? Why? What’s my place in the world? Why does it extend in curiosity? Why does being more myself, why does interpersonal connection matter, what’s the point? What do I want my legacy to be? What does that even mean?”
It brings home the whole rest of the book, section one and section two, and then this notion of, “Okay, I get it. This is valid. Therefore, I’m willing to move forward and try it all.” So I hope that that last section, it’s almost like an existential exploration, will take this essence of curiosity and how magical it is and help readers to understand, “Ah, now I understand why this matters and that’s what ultimately I hope that they walk away with.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that so much. Thank you so much Sara. I just want to say congratulations. Like I mean, this book is going to be incredible. I know it is going to have an amazing impact on people. Look, I don’t even know if I am in your audience, but I am, you know what I mean? Like just kind of flipping through this, I was like, “Wow, this really speaks to me.” So thank you for seriously just pouring your heart into it especially during the last few years, because I feel like we all went through an immense amount of transition.
But sticking to our — and I’m sure it clarified your message even further and crystalized it in the sense of who we are and who we want to become, and with ourselves and with others, and I love that so much. So thank you again, congrats. If there is one thing that you want someone to take away from this book, what would that one thing be?
Sara Waters: Use more question marks. In all things, use more question marks than you do periods.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: So beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and experiences with us today. More YourSELF: Question What You Think to Know, To Realize Who You Are from the Mind of an Internal Family Systems Therapist, that’s the name of the book. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you Sara?
Sara Waters: The best place to find me is sarajeanwaters.com, that’s my whole name, very Midwest, sarajeanwaters.com.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Can people find you on LinkedIn, is that a good place to reach out?
Sara Waters: Yeah, I am on LinkedIn. I’m don’t look at it very often but I’m on there and I do get notifications. So they can certainly find me, Sara Waters in Castle Rock, Colorado is my location. So that’s the one, that’s where they can find me.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Sara, for joining me today. I know I learned a lot. I’m sure our audience picked up a bunch of things, and hopefully, they’ll be picking up your book as well.
Sara Waters: I hope.
Hussein Al-Baiaty: Thanks again for joining me.
Sara Waters: Thank you for your time.