Transcript: Michael Rothberg, LCSW, Core Psychotherapy (The Art of Volunteering)

The following is a transcription of The Art of Volunteering Episode S2E9: Michael Rothberg, LCSW, Core Psychotherapy.

Stormy Bell (00:00): Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Volunteering. Today we’re coming from the new Bell Recording Studios. Fresh paint, new sign. Just hope that you like the new look. It’s not completely done, so just stay tuned over the next few weeks to see if you like it. Today I have my friend Michael Rothberg with me. We’ve been trying for several months to schedule this conversation. He is a licensed social worker and we’re gonna be talking about how mental health and volunteering can support the other. Michael is a clinical social worker working in private practice in Cresskill, New Jersey. He provides counseling and psychotherapy to adolescents, adults, couples and families. Cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic theory are among the modalities he uses to treat patients. The most common diagnosis that he treats are depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and OCD. Michael, thank you for coming on the show today.

Michael Rothberg (01:07): Oh, you’re very welcome. Good to be here. I don’t know what the studio looked like before, but it looks good to me now.

Stormy Bell (01:14): Well, that’s good! It was kind of a beige wall and no sign. We’re just moving ahead.

Michael Rothberg (01:23): I gotcha. I understand.

Stormy Bell (01:25): People talk about volunteering being more than just helping the person or the lives that you’re impacting. It also benefits the person who does the volunteering. How does volunteering and mental health or mental wellbeing, how do they kind of work together and what would that look like?

Michael Rothberg (01:43): I guess I can use my own experience to kind of inform how I feel volunteering, what volunteering does for a person. I remember when I was in my early twenties, I was kinda lost. I had just finished law school and really didn’t wanna be a lawyer. I was really feeling like I really didn’t know what to do with my life. I felt just a lack of, you know, kind of knowing me. I felt just lost and unhappy. I had always thought about going to a career, helping people so I decided to join a volunteer agency. In the volunteer agency we were trained and we basically went out to people’s houses. I had some kids, like a big brother type of program, and then I had some older folks.

What I found was it gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me a sense of meaning and gave me a sense of myself. The feeling that you’ve helped somebody, at least for me and my personality style and for many other people, is really just a great feeling because even though you’re giving, you’re really getting a lot back. Not that you should give to get, I think it’s always good to give, but in the giving, you see the people’s lives getting better, and that’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to have and really kind of solidifies your place in the world if that’s what you wanna do. What I did was I kept on doing it, and I really liked it and it gave me energy.

Michael Rothberg (03:49): In my prior jobs, I would run out of energy. I’d be looking at the clock, I’d be like, when is this over? But when I was doing that, I never looked at the clock. I never wanted it to be over. It just fed me. It was like a source of fuel. When I went back to school, got my degree in social work and in school for social work, you do a lot of volunteering also. That’s part of the curriculum. Volunteered at a couple different places: mental hospital, psychiatric hospital, a counseling center. That further solidified, I knew I was in the right place and then I went on from there and just kind of eventually went into my own private practice.

Recently, I volunteered as a poll worker. Even that felt good. Just the idea of helping people that usually [get] lost when they walk in the voting place. They don’t know where to go. They got the sheets, and the whole thing is kind of overwhelming. People are very appreciative. It’s just a great feeling. You really get a lot out of it personally. It’s really very rewarding. I think mental health wise, it kind of helps with your sense of self, your sense of who you are, and really kind of builds that up. If you have a strong sense of self and you like yourself and you like what you’re doing, you’re much more resilient to when things go wrong and when things are in your life are difficult because you’ve got this purpose and you’ve got these things that you’re doing something productive and something of value to other people. I find it to be very grounding and very good for just level of self-esteem.

Stormy Bell (05:55): I’ve read that it does help give people a sense of purpose. It’s helping to be focused  not necessarily on the negatives of themselves. They’re finding something outside of themselves to be involved in and giving to something bigger than themselves. Do you find that?

Michael Rothberg (06:14): Yeah, a hundred percent. The sense of purpose is absolutely there. The sense of giving something to something bigger than yourself. I forget what the first part of what you said was.

Stormy Bell (06:34): Like you get outside of yourself. You’re not just focused on yourself, you’re focused outward.

Michael Rothberg (06:39): Exactly. For example, the day, the tasks, the errands, and just the hum humdrum of every day can really make you go inside your head and really kind of just get stuck there. When you’re helping other people, you forget about your stuff. It’s gone. You’re just there with them for them. It’s a great escape too. Obviously it shouldn’t be abused as an escape, where you’re just not taking care of yourself and you’re just doing that to the point where you’re literally self-sacrificing too much. In a healthy way, it definitely takes you out of your own head.

Stormy Bell (07:32): Okay.

Michael Rothberg (07:33): Yeah. So I would agree with that. 

Stormy Bell (07:34): Another thing that I had come across is that it can help combat depression. How would that work?

Michael Rothberg (07:41): Well, I think depression really happens when a lot of things are going on. There’s lots of theories about depression. Some people think depression is when you’re very angry at yourself and you’re very ashamed of yourself. So people get depressed because they turn their anger towards themselves. When you’re doing something that you feel good about, you’re not mad at yourself, you’re proud of yourself. If you have suffered from depression, and if you have suffered from anxiety, you know, taking that experience which was so painful and being able to understand that in other people and be non-judgmental. Really kind of just listen and not sit there and give advice and just kind of listen and be there for the person and just be a kind of a container where you can. Just be there and be there for their feelings.

It helps them, the person that you’re talking to not be depressed. Because depression also seems to happen when people are not expressing themselves. When we keep our emotions kind of bottled up. Obviously there’s more to depression than just, than just volunteering but I think it definitely goes a long way towards one feeling good about themselves, getting outta their own head that type of thing. I’m a big proponent of that for depression. It’s interesting because you also get to feel. When you’re sitting with somebody and you’re helping them, you get to emote too. You get to experience the joy of seeing their- or the sadness of their lives or whatever they’re going through.

Michael Rothberg (09:35): Depression, a lot of times, is a result of the body kind of revolting against itself when we’re not living our truths. We’re not living our true selves. There’s a lot of books written on this. One that comes to mind is a book by Alice Miller called The Body Never Lies. Famous book. Basically, when we’re not living our true feelings and we’re not bringing authentic to ourselves, our body gets mad and our body does weird things. We get stomach aches, we get headaches, we get aches and pains. We’re more susceptible to illness. We get depressed. It’s just an opportunity really to do so many things that fly in the face of depression. That fight depression. I think it’s a really positive thing in that respect.

Stormy Bell (10:30): Very cool. I like that. I think that’s awesome. Particularly from, I’m dating myself, when I was growing up, mental illness, mental health there [was] very much a stigma around it. Can you share how that’s changed over time to like what adolescents and young adults are experiencing now where they’re much more aware of what that is and being much more comfortable about speaking about it in a public forum? Just what you’ve seen.

Michael Rothberg (11:02): I’ve seen it change definitely. There’s less shame about it but there’s still a stigma. There’s still some people that are, because they’re so, I guess, afraid, they’re afraid to admit to any type of vulnerability and any type of that they need any kind of help in any way. Because that would mean they’re broken or damaged goods. I think, and I don’t mean to generalize, but for the most part, men rather than women seem to have more of a shame involved with mental illness. It’s definitely there for women too. I’ve got a couple clients that are definitely ashamed of what they’re going through but overall, especially this new generation, the newest generation, this new young generation, they’ll shout it from the mountaintops. They’ll basically say, yeah, I’m in therapy.

Yeah, that’s great. I love it. It’s great. You know, I gotta go talk to my therapist. Sorry. I’m, you know, can’t come, I have a therapy appointment. It’s very normal chatter for them. Normal just like, I’ve got a dentist appointment. So I definitely think it’s gotten better. You know, medications have their place, and I think people have over time really kind of seen that medications can help a lot too, and we can’t ignore that they can help. Why live a life that is full of pain if there’s something out there that can help you? I think people have come around to the idea that, hey, you know what? I don’t care. I just wanna be happy. Whatever that means. Whether it’s seeing a therapist, taking medication, or both. I think that it’s definitely gotten better. I still see it though. It’s still there.

Stormy Bell (13:03): Yeah. I work for a nonprofit and we work with high school students, and we actually partner with another nonprofit for mental wellbeing. Just identifying self-care, what that looks like, and cues that you might need additional therapy or resources. We’ve really seen that increase since the pandemic that really exasperated an issue. Our students are, they’re, it’s gonna take years for them to recover and catch up from what the pandemic did to everyone, especially the high school students who are all ages, but really high schoolers, it just rocked their world as it did everyone’s, but we see it.

Michael Rothberg (13:55): Yeah. I agree. I think it got avoidant people. It gave them an excuse to avoid more and people that are people people that like to be with people couldn’t be with people. It really didn’t work out well for anybody. It was bad. I’ve got some 20 year olds, people in their twenties that literally they’re socially behind where they should be, not because they have any kind of underlying social problems but because during that time, they couldn’t develop. They weren’t in school, they weren’t seeing friends. They got very used to doing things online, talking to people online, playing video games or whatever it is. Really kind of just got used to that and that became kind of the norm. It was very damaging in a way that I never thought it would be, but it really, it surprised me how I still see the, I guess the aftermath of it.

Stormy Bell (15:01): Right. That’s just something to be mindful [of]. Me being an advocate for volunteering, I can see how for that age range encourage them to get out and volunteer, to resocialize, to have those exchanges an opportunity to explore passions that might’ve been put to the side, because you couldn’t, or you talking about people who are very people people. Just re-energizing what that community looks like around them.

Michael Rothberg (15:33): Right. It’s really recharging even for introverted people volunteering.I think a lot of times introverted people or sometimes avoidant people because they really don’t like all the disappointment and all that comes with social interaction a lot of times. They’re self-conscious and all that stuff but when you’re helping somebody through volunteering, you’re really getting a lot of positive feedback. You’re getting so much. You’re getting smiles, you’re getting tears, you’re getting all types of stuff, and you’re feeling it too. It’s just it makes you wanna talk to people. It can bring somebody out of their shell too. Somebody that’s really in a deep, like after the pandemic, for example.

People just got used to being in this kind of isolated place. Volunteering really is a great way to reacclimate. I have some clients that are volunteer firemen and they love doing that. It gives them a great sense of purpose, and meeting the people they go out to. Whether it’s not necessarily a fire, but just some sort of, you know, like an old person who can’t get up or something like that. I think all types of volunteering is really great. I think people just think it’s giving a lot of times, and they feel like, oh, I can’t do that. I don’t have time for that. You know, what’s in it for me? There’s a lot in it for people that are doing it. It’s really a lot in it. There’s a lot to gain from it.

Stormy Bell (17:27): I was just gonna say I read someplace [that] when people volunteer, they come out with a soft glow. Like there’s this beauty to it that they just feel so good about themselves. It was not about them for the time. I guess that’s what it comes down to. It’s others and then how it makes you feel just all warm. Just, I don’t really know the right word, but I had read soft glow. I’m like, oh, that’s an interesting way of describing it.

Michael Rothberg (17:57): I would agree with that. Yeah. I’ve seen my wife come back from volunteering, and she might’ve been in a very critical or negativistic kind of mood, and she comes back and she just looks proud of herself. She’s got this I like life attitude. Very positive, more positive view on life and people. Yeah, the soft glow is great. I would say I’ve definitely seen the soft glow.

Stormy Bell (18:28): Very cool. You had talked about some of the volunteering that kind of led you into being a social worker or counselor. What was your volunteering journey like, a little bit more than what you had done?

Michael Rothberg (18:45): I was interested in psychology and I was also a lawyer. I was like how can I use my skills? You know, because I thought I was a good listener, and I thought I had some legal knowledge. I was an okay lawyer. There was this place at the time, I don’t know if it’s still around, but it was called Volunteer Counseling Services. It was in New City, New York. It was this beautiful big building, and basically they had trained professionals there that would train you, just lay people how to, you know, for the populations or whatever you were gonna do.

I was volunteering with mediating, doing mediating for divorce and stuff like that. I was also mediating, you know, just disputes. Then I was also doing outreach to people at risk youth and stuff like that. They provided the training. I remember one of the best things that I ever saw in any of my training, even in my graduate training, was in this volunteer place, the woman who was teaching brought out a big, big glass of blue water. Like a giant container of deep blue water. I think the water was colored with food coloring and we all were confused. Why are you bringing that out?

Michael Rothberg (20:23): We’re all just looking at each other, she says, this is the person you’re working with. This blue water. We said, okay. Then she got another thing of water, clear water, and she poured it in, and the water obviously became lighter in color. She said, that’s what happens to people when you join them in whatever they’re going through. The intensity of whatever they’re going through becomes less because you join them and they can share it with you. I thought that was just the best thing I ever heard. I just, that just spoke to me so much. To this day, I still think about it. That was kind of the image that I kept in my mind. I still, you know, it’s always something that’s on my mind.

Stormy Bell (21:13): Oh, I like that. I mean, it applies to what you do as being a counselor, but that applies to volunteering. Like the impact we’re having on someone else’s life. We’re lightening the load, we’re uplifting them, we’re just coming into the place where they’re at and joining them, and kind of like, you know, from Avatar, I see you. They’re being a part of that and you’re just the waters becoming less blue.

Michael Rothberg (21:41): Yeah. It’s just like, even if you have a family member who’s upset and they come to you upset if you, if you automatically jump down their throat and start giving them advice or telling them not to feel that way, as opposed to joining them, oh, that must be awful. Tell me more about that. You know? Wow. They see you understanding and all of a sudden they feel understood. That understanding is the lightning of the water and you’ve helped them get there simply by just being present.

Stormy Bell (22:15): That’s amazing.

Michael Rothberg (22:16): Yeah. That’s really something.

Stormy Bell (22:18): So some of the questions I asked my guests are why do you volunteer? We’ve kind of covered that also from your days of being a volunteer, can you think of a blooper, something that didn’t go, not necessarily wrong, but as you expected it? You are expecting it to go one way, and it went completely different. Like, what did that look like and what did you learn from it? Anything come to mind?

Michael Rothberg (22:56): Yeah. I remember there was one time this, I don’t know why this one came to mind. I haven’t thought about this in years, but I went to see this one kid, and he said meet me behind my house. I met him behind his house and he had a dirt bike. He said come on, get on. We’re gonna go for a ride. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to be unsupportive of the kid so now I’m on this dirt bike, and we’re flying through like you know, like bumps and jumps, and I’m terrified for my life! I’m like, what am I doing? Oh my God.

I felt like I was enabling this kid for this dangerous behavior. I was like, not only am I putting my own life on the line, this kid I should have told him not to do this. This is terrible. We’re gonna die! Thank God we made it back okay. But yeah, I was a little outta my league as far as how I should have handled that. If I had a little bit more training, I probably would’ve been able to kind of talk to the kid and be more honest with the kid and not worry about disappointing him so much, but at the same time, be nice and say like, hey, I don’t think this is a great idea. I went back and I told the people there at the place and I said, this is what happened.

Michael Rothberg (24:14): They said, oh, okay. Don’t worry about it. It’s okay. Nobody got hurt, but this is what you do next time. You know, go for it, just don’t give up. You’re gonna make some mistakes and that kind of thing. At the time I was like, oh God, this is so bad. It was terrifying. 

Stormy Bell (24:33): But you made it out alive so that’s good.

Michael Rothberg (24:36): He was going so fast and we didn’t have helmets on. It was just absolutely insane. We’re okay so that’s good.

Stormy Bell (24:46): That’s funny.

Michael Rothberg (25:25): Yeah. So that one stands out.

Stormy Bell (24:50): Alright.

Michael Rothberg (24:50): When you go into somebody’s house, you know that’s a big deal for somebody to let you in their house. That’s their place. They’re sensitive about their house. They’re either proud of it or not proud of it, or a mixture of those things. It can feel weird being in somebody else’s house, different smells. It might not feel, may not be what you’re used to as far as just the way things are set up or the way the lighting or whatever it is. It might be filled with too much stuff and it might feel a little uncomfortable, but you get past that and you manage to just focus on the person, and that stuff kind of falls by the wayside.

Stormy Bell (25:38): I could see that. Some of the volunteering that I’ve done, not necessarily in someone’s house, but just being in different settings and just like, okay, focus on the main thing, which is typically the person that you’re with or the activity that you’re doing. If you were to encourage someone to volunteer, what would you say?

Michael Rothberg (26:02): Well, I would probably say, have you thought about volunteering? Depending on their answer, I’d say well, let’s say they answered and they said no. Why would I do that? My answer would be, well, it sounds like you’re struggling. You’re feeling a little bit lost in life and without purpose and meaning, and this could be really good for you. Not to mention the people that you’re helping, but I think more importantly for you right now, the person I’m talking to, I think this could really help you find who you are and what you’re good at and what you like to do and how rewarding it is to do things for other people. I think that could really set the stage for your career, for a second career, for older people that have retired. It can be amazing for people that are out of the workforce and they haven’t done anything in a while.

They feel kind of bored and it can be really amazing for them in addition to younger people who really don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. So I think just for all ages, it’s great. I think it’s great for parents to kind of encourage their kids at a young age. My parents took me when I was younger to a soup kitchen. I think that just seeing that other people, you know, not living in a bubble and seeing that other people don’t have it the way you have it a lot of people and just seeing the satisfaction of giving somebody a scoop of whatever it is you’re giving them at the soup kitchen, and how appreciative they are.

Stormy Bell (27:55): Dr. Kathleen O’Connor was a guest on here, and some of her responsibilities oversaw enrollment management at Lasell University. I’d asked her about high school students when they volunteer, what does the college look at? She was explaining, when you see someone who volunteers versus having a lot of just clubs, it means the volunteer is able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. More apt to be able to take in new situations, help people who are different than themselves and feel comfortable in those settings. There was a lot of benefits of what they were looking for on a college application for volunteering. I think that’s very true with someone who has had that in the younger years. Those experiences for going into college, for going into the workforce where you have people who aren’t like yourself for a variety of reasons, and just being able to adapt and volunteering gives that opportunity at a young age to prepare you for that.

Michael Rothberg (29:02): Yeah. Like, it always seemed like a box you needed to check off when you were getting ready for college, you know, I have to have volunteering experience. People just did it because they needed the experience, but then you ended up, wow, I really like this. This is actually, this is actually something, and this actually is meaningful. I can see why the colleges value it. I don’t know who’s looking at the applications, I don’t know if they’re just checking off boxes, but I would assume that some people really do care about boxes. I think it’s a great thing to do when you’re younger. I remember doing it in the beginning of high school. I volunteered and I remember it really gave me a sense of confidence. It really gave me [a] sense of confidence like nothing happened before. Getting good grades, doing well in school. That was fine and everything, but that hands-on kind of experience that really made me feel alive.

Stormy Bell (30:11): Well, that covers all my questions for today. I do appreciate your time. I may have you back on, we’ll cover a different topic sometime.

Michael Rothberg (30:24): Sure!

Stormy Bell (30:24): All right, well I wanna thank all my listeners today and my guest, Michael, for sitting down and listening to this conversation. I hope that you found value in it, I know that I did. Just consider getting outside of your normal activities and get involved in a nonprofit, after school organization, or anywhere that volunteering is promoted because not only with the people you help benefit, you’ll benefit and you’ll have that soft glow that we spoke about.

Michael Rothberg (31:02): Wanna volunteer to train my dog to stop barking?

Stormy Bell (32:36): We could try that too. I just wanna thank everyone. See you next time on The Art of Volunteering.

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