080: Boston Speaks Up with Yvonne Castaneda, Mental Health Professional & Boston College Professor
Yvonne Castaneda is a licensed mental health professional and part-time faculty member at Boston College School of Social Work where she teaches courses such as Basic Skills in Clinical Social Work and Social Welfare Systems.
Born in Los Angeles, Castaneda spent much of her childhood in Miami. Her parents were immigrants to the United States – her father from Cuba and her mother from Mexico. Her parents never had formal schooling, but they emphasized the importance of education and work ethic.
Castaneda has never shied away from the challenge of a new job. Throughout her life, she has worked as a waitress, bartender, schoolteacher, operations manager, personal trainer, fitness center manager, linguist and translator for the Department of Justice and DHS (DEA, USCIS and FBI), social worker, yoga teacher, and life coach.
In 2005, Castaneda began her career in fitness with Equinox Fitness in Miami Beach and within a few years, Castaneda was promoted to Personal Training Manager. In 2010, she took a leadership role with The Sports Club/LA, which ultimately brought her to New England to be the General Manager of the SCLA in Boston, one of the more high-end gyms in the city. She has also worked as a General Manager for Healthworks Fitness.
Castaneda dealt with mental challenges throughout her young adult life, and thought often about how to embrace her vulnerabilities to help others. She describes her challenges as “severe mental health issues, addiction and an eating disorder for roughly twenty years,” all of which ultimately became the driving force that brought her to the field of mental health.
In addition to her role at Boston College, Castaneda is a licensed clinician (LICSW), and the author of the book, Pork Belly Tacos with a Side of Anxiety, which chronicles the struggles she had throughout her life. She wrote this book for young adults, specifically children of immigrants who struggle with the identity conflict found at the intersection of cultural norms and white American societal expectations.
In this episode, Castaneda dives headfirst into her story, inspiration for writing her book, the many lessons she’s learned across her wide range of experiences throughout her life, and so much more. Her willingness to open up and embrace vulnerability was jaw-dropping and we are so honored to have her on the show.
Where did you grow up? And how would you describe your childhood?
I was born in LA and lived there until I was seven, when we moved to Miami. I have an older brother, and both of us can agree that although our childhood may not have been perfect, we certainly always felt loved and cared for. In LA, we lived in a part of the city that was predominantly Mexican, and we did everything with my mom’s enormous Mexican family- lots of outings to Tijuana, Rosarito Beach, Yosemite Park, etc. In Miami, we were exposed to a new culture when we met our father’s Cuban family. The city in the 70’s wasn’t as heavily populated by Latinos, and we grew up in a neighborhood and went to schools that were predominantly white. I know that I was heavily influenced by television, books and movies in that all three led me to believe that I needed to achieve the American “ideal”- a picture perfect life with a husband, kids and a dog.
Who were your role models growing up?
My father was and remains the most impactful role model I’ve ever had. He was just the coolest guy ever, and although he didn’t have formal education beyond the third grade, he was extremely intelligent and wise. In the evenings after dinner, he’d sit on the couch and read books on philosophy, history and politics, and he always seemed to be engaged in some kind of heated discussion on the fate of Cuba with either a neighbor or the mailman. He was an incredible human being who taught me the importance of work ethic and responsibility, and from him I learned to value truth, respect and compassion for others because he modeled these values for us every single day of his life. He also never took himself or any situation too seriously, and he loved to laugh. I am fairly certain my dad was an old soul from day one.
What is one of the biggest lessons you learned from your parents?
The most valuable lesson I learned from my parents is that no amount of money or material things can ever trump health and family. My father told me that so long as we have breath in our lungs, a family and a roof over our heads, we are “rich”. I’ll never forget that conversation, because it is something that helped me get through some really dark times. It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn, because I was vulnerable in my 20’s and trying so hard to “keep up” with what my peers were doing; I wanted the perfect career and house and partner and money and all of it, and so learning to truly value my health and my family came after I came out on the other side of these dark moments.
What is the first career you remember wanting to pursue?
I grew up with either my fingers on a piano or my nose in a book, and this love of reading made me fall in love with storytelling. I had a very vivid imagination, and I would imagine myself sitting at a typewriter in some cabin in the woods, penning what would no doubt be the next great American novel. A few months before my 10th birthday, I asked my mom to buy me a typewriter because I wanted to write books and stories. My mom had zero idea what I was talking about- I don’t think she even knew what it was, but she saved money from her paychecks each week and took me to Sears to get that typewriter. Problem is, at ten years old, I had no idea what to write, and so I put a piece of paper in the typewriter and wrote: Someday I will write a book.
Unfortunately, for as much as I wanted to be a writer and as grounded as my parents were when it came to values, in general I was often confused and scared about what to do with my life. I was interested in careers that had little to do with money and more to do with contribution and service, but these choices were always met with skepticism. At one point I wanted to go to the Peace Corps after college, and the first question asked by extended family, strangers and many of my peers was, “But how are you going to make money?” or “Is there any money in that?” I studied International Relations in undergrad and if I had a penny for each time someone asked me those questions, I am fairly certain that indeed I would have had a lot of money.
As an entrepreneur, do you have any advice for young people that have an idea they want to pursue or passion for something they want to change? Where should they start?
What a great question. I think the first and most important thing to do is to remove the financial piece out of any idea or endeavor. I’d encourage them to explore whether it’s something they would do anyway, for no compensation. For so much of my young adult life, I chased careers for the sake of money, and they always ended in disappointment because I had no “fire” for the job. As a society, we place so much emphasis and value on financial success and less on fulfillment, and I believe it’s possible to have both. But you need to have fire in your belly for your idea, be it owning a landscape business, opening a restaurant or pursuing a career in diplomacy. It’s also important to recognize that passion might be the driving force behind an idea, but a greater purpose and a connection to something outside of ourselves is what can ultimately fuel the project. The world would be such a different place if rather than focus on using our skills and talents for the purpose of our own comfort and entertainment, we used them in service to others.
What was the primary inspiration for writing your book?
I always knew that I wanted to share my experiences for the purpose of lifting others, and I also knew that I had to wait until I was fully ready to share it. I started writing it in 2013, and it was clunky and awful, so I put it down because I sensed it wasn’t time and I wasn’t ready. When I got to graduate school in 2016 and started an internship at Excel Academy in East Boston, a school with a predominantly Latinx student body, I realized just how much stories written by someone from the Latinx community were needed for young adults. So once again I sat at my computer and began to write it. Many times I wanted to quit, to be honest, and that was even before I started the process of trying to find an agent or a publisher. I was rejected by the Literary Agent Mafia over and over again, and received more than 100 (kind) rejection letters from publishers. And still I could not let it go, because I kept thinking about all the Latinx young men and women suffering from depression and feeling incredibly alone, as I felt at one point in my life.
The Latinx culture is one of shame and silence when it comes to mental health issues, and I hoped the story would give them permission to explore their own experiences and seek help from a professional. By openly sharing all the things that nearly took me down, I hoped to open a door for others to perhaps find their own way to peace and forgiveness.
Is there a particular person or event that helped shape the career path you took?
I am fairly certain nearly every single person I ever trained or managed told me that I should have been a therapist! Giving people a non-judgmental space in which to share their thoughts and emotions has always come naturally. But really it was one conversation with a friend of mine who helped me go down this path. I thought becoming a therapist meant another eight years of school, i.e. a psychology degree followed by a Masters and a PhD, and although indeed that is a valid path, she thankfully opened my eyes and helped me realize that I only needed to get a Master’s in Social Work or Mental Health Counseling. That night I was on my computer researching programs and the next day I made an appointment with a dean at BC. The rest is history, as they say. I am grateful for her guidance to this day.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome getting to where you are today?
My own challenges with mental health and addiction/eating disorder were hard to overcome, but the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced is changing what I believed about myself. Growing up, both cultural and societal factors cemented a belief that my self-worth was rooted in my appearance and achievements, and so I spent much of my life trying to find fulfillment and happiness in my body and in my career, a contentment that never seemed to materialize. Dissatisfaction, fear and pressure led to anxiety and depression, and not having an outlet, I relied on unhealthy behaviors to cope with it all, which of course only made things worse.
I knew deep down that I couldn’t simply focus on changing the behaviors; I knew the problem was something much deeper. My walk with God has not always been consistent, but I’d always maintained my faith, so I prayed a great deal and asked for clarity and understanding, which He delivered. Healing was a long process- it was not an overnight endeavor, because it meant turning inward and exploring things about myself that were not at all pleasant to face. But damn, it was worth it.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your experiences coaching others thus far?
No two people on this earth are the same, and maybe that’s a beautiful thing because we all inevitably learn from and lean on each other. Everyone has their own path, and I will never know what someone really needs- only they know that. One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn is that it’s important to let others make mistakes, to let them experience their own struggles, because sometimes a great deal of resistance is needed in order for us to grow. Best I can ever do is support and encourage others to explore themselves, to know themselves better, even if that process is painful and uncomfortable.
Another lesson I learned is that the statement “people don’t change” is simply not true. But I learned that it’s not my job to force that change- that’s disrespectful on so many levels. What I learned is that with encouragement, support and love, people can change themselves, that wounds can heal, and that we can be better humans for each other. There’s way too much conflict in the world, and on every level of society.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I treat every single day and each interaction as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. I base my transformational style on the values I hold near and dear: respect, truth and compassion. I respect the unique experiences and beliefs of each person, and I am generous with compassion. I am fearless when it comes to being honest and truthful with others, even and especially when said truth might make them uncomfortable because as I said before, I think resistance is necessary for growth. I believe wholeheartedly that the tiniest of changes in one person can impact so many other people, and I focus on connecting personal growth to a greater purpose for each person.
What sorts of challenges and opportunities have you found in the pivot to virtual business and networking during the COVID-19 pandemic?
There have been many challenges and opportunities during the pandemic. Telehealth has been a blessing as it has made it very easy for many people to be able to access much needed mental health services. The downside is that given the dramatic increase in need, the field of mental health was and is woefully unprepared for the increase in demand for services.
FINAL QUESTION: We like the idea of ending our episodes with a challenge for the listeners/readers. Whether it be reaching out to an old friend, reading 5 pages a day from a book, creating a new healthy habit… what is one challenge you have for the listeners?
Ooooooh I love this idea.I would challenge listeners/readers to verbalize three qualities about themselves for which they are grateful every single day, as opposed to giving thanks for tangible, material things. For example, I am grateful for my kindness. I am grateful for my sense of humor. I am grateful for my commitment to honesty. It’s harder than it sounds! It’s going to feel weird and uncomfortable, but it’s important to lean into that discomfort.