Transforming Lives Through Positive Psychology | Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein

Mental health has become a cornerstone of well-being in today’s fast-paced world. It’s not just about managing life’s obstacles; it’s about finding purpose, embracing happiness, and thriving despite challenges. Positive psychology is a field of study that focuses on the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein, a true luminary in this holistic approach, has left an indelible mark on the field.

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Dr. Barbara Holstein

Dr. Barbara Becker Holstein’s accomplishments as an author, filmmaker, and psychologist are a testament to her unwavering dedication to helping others find true happiness. Her innovative projects, spanning books, films, podcasts, and workbooks, have transformed countless lives, offering invaluable tools and insights for personal growth and self-discovery.

At the heart of Dr. Holstein’s philosophy lies the transformative concept of “The Enchanted Self.” This powerful idea recognizes the unique energy force within each person, an enduring essence that, when nurtured and understood, can lead to profound personal transformation. ‘The Enchanted Self’ is about harnessing and cultivating one’s innate talents, strengths, and potential, empowering individuals to navigate their lives with resilience and joy.

Dr. Holstein’s journey began in a quiet, contemplative space as an only child. Often finding herself alone, she sought friendships wherever she could. This solitude, however, became a fertile ground for her creativity and introspection, laying the foundation for her future work in positive psychology.

“I remember being very insistent on keeping a diary, which I started when I was nine. I dragged my mother to downtown Bridgeport, where we lived because I had to buy a diary. The only thing that felt appropriate was a Girl Scouts diary since I was in the Girl Scouts, and I kept it pretty faithfully for three or four years. I still have those little green books.”

In those early diaries, she recorded the minutiae of daily life, such as what she ate for breakfast or how her mom made pancakes. “I wouldn’t have dared to put anything really on my mind in the diary,” she reflects, hinting at a more profound inner world that remained unspoken.

“Then, in my teenage days, I continued on loose leaf paper with tons of diaries and poetry. By the time I was about 16, I had read a couple of psychology books that fell into my lap. I don’t really remember how, but I was fascinated with the human mind.”

Her love for conversation mirrored this fascination with the mind. She vividly recounts an instance at 16 when she traveled to Boston to visit her grandmother. “I talked to the lady next to me for two hours, even though we would likely never see each other again,” she says, highlighting her innate curiosity about people.

Her parents, both educators, instilled in her a sense of possibility and encouraged her intellectual pursuits. An early memory from fourth grade stands out. She was tasked with giving a presentation to her class, a daunting prospect. Her father suggested she talk about “The Tortoise and the Hare,” a story that subtly imparted the lesson of perseverance.

“He helped me a little bit, and I practiced the story. After speeding through part of the race, the hare lies down for a nap and gets nowhere. Moving slowly and steadily, the tortoise wins. The fascinating thing about this was my father was at the same time giving me a message: that I should just plow on, and I would make it.”

Her mother, a schoolteacher, also played a crucial role in nurturing her curiosity. When she had to write a report on an insect, her mother suggested she pretend to be an ant and narrate life from an ant’s perspective. This imaginative approach helped her engage more deeply with her studies, even as she struggled with dyslexia.

“I could not read anything and was already in the third grade. I had a severe disability, and in those days, nothing was picked up. You just made it, or you didn’t. My teacher, Ms. Johnson, took me aside and said, ‘Look, you’re having trouble reading. I can tell. I want you to forget about sounding out words and memorize thousands of words. You can do it. Take your time, but you’ll do it.’”

Her teacher’s belief in her abilities led to a remarkable turnaround. By the end of the year, she was a top reader, surpassing her peers by several years in reading tests. This experience taught her the value of creative approaches to learning and instilled a lifelong belief in the power of perseverance.

Growing up with such inventive and compassionate role models, Dr. Holstein naturally gravitated towards intellectually engaging and artistic fields. She majored in philosophy at Barnard College, a subject that allowed her to delve into the depths of human thought and existence.

“That was close to the kind of deep thinking that goes with being a psychologist. It’s just a little more skewed to other facets of how the mind works and what’s real and what’s not. My parents got me on the phone one day when I was a senior, and they said, ‘So, okay, you majored in philosophy, and how are you going to support yourself?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I want to be an actress. I want to be a lawyer. I love philosophy.’”

Recognizing the practicalities of life, her parents suggested she consider a career in teaching, given her love for people and working with kids. She took their advice, earning a master’s degree in education from Boston University before ultimately receiving a fellowship and returning to earn a doctorate. It was during this time that she decided to focus on the human mind more generally rather than school psychology. “I realized that that’s where I really wanted to go,” she says.

Her initial interests in philosophy, poetry, and theater later blossomed into various avenues for healing, including workbooks, films, and novels. Her creative pursuits began to merge with her professional life, enriching her approach to therapy.

“My first poem woke me up during the night. It was somewhat deep and tied into a belief in God. I’m not sure where that came from, but I quickly found that all sorts of artistic things could relieve me in one way or another through the difficulties of growing up, and I experienced a lot of difficulties, as most of us do.”

This ability to connect with the human condition helped her relate to both children and adults alike. Today, she applies this empathy in her practice in New Jersey, working with patients ranging from toddlers to adults.

“My patients vary from 2 years old to 92 years old. There are people who are depressed and anxious, kids and adults that need support or advice, perhaps recovering from a trauma, such as moving, or divorce or illness in the family and also people looking to explore their enchanted self.”

However, she has always felt that traditional psychology falls short of helping individuals reach self-actualization, instead focusing more on solving problems. She believes therapy sessions are usually too brief to delve deeply into a person’s talents and hidden potential, which are crucial for long-term well-being.

“The problem is that the person’s real talents and hidden potential that they may need to serve them the rest of their life are often overlooked or, at first glance, hidden. If people haven’t been introduced and encouraged to use their talents, abilities and capacities, they’re often not ready to move ahead. Maturing and living a long life requires the ability to move in and out of crises and disappointments and to get back on your horse because there’s an energy inside of you that’s always there; it’s your energy, it’s your capacities, it’s your insights and your potential for something that maybe your parents or life stifled, and now you’re going to develop, that part of yourself that is enchanted, in that it is unique to you and can be replenished again and again.”

This insight, which she gained decades ago, led to her developing the concept of “The Enchanted Self,” an idea that struck her while sitting by the ocean.

“That enchanted self is the part of you that is like an energy force. It never leaves, and maybe even goes on to the afterlife, I don’t know. But it’s always there. It must be trained, utilized and understood to be effective for you.”

She began writing about this concept and was soon invited to speak at workshops, marking a turning point in her career.

“That was the turning point of turning from a very nice young lady therapist in her late 30s, doing a good job, to someone with unusual vision, a visionary.”

Her work in positive psychology, particularly with women, gained traction. In 1996, she started a website where women could share their stories, pictures, and poetry. This online presence allowed her to reach a wider audience and foster a community of support and encouragement. This site, still very active, was one of the first sites on the web for women’s wellness and creativity.

“It was and still is a beautiful, engaging, useful site. It went up at such a turning point in human relations—in 1996. At the time, most ordinary people did not have cell phones yet. You went to the library for information. It was just at the edge of all these changes. Looking back, I see it now as one of my visionary steps that I dared to take. A web home for women to share and learn and be productive before most women in the world even knew what the web was and certainly didn’t know what place it would play in all of our lives. Women came in and out of my life who were helpful. And that site, it’s still there.”

Through a series of serendipitous encounters, her career marched forward. “I think you have to kind of recognize special moments,” she says. One day, after training for the American Psychological Association, she was approached by a woman who told her about her TV show, which focused on the concept of goodness. The woman asked Dr. Holstein if she would like to be a guest on it.

“I almost fell in the street and got killed. I was like, oh, my God, I can’t believe this. I was her guest a few times. Eventually, I inherited the space once a month for the Enchanted Self show, and I did it for years.”

The show featured various guests, including actors, cooks, authors, healers, yoga specialists, other psychologists, social workers, and authors. This exposure led to the creation of The Enchanted Self newsletter, which was immensely successful.

“Women were welcome to send in their stories and poetry. We always had a major topic in the front of the newsletter. My friend, Doreen Lapperton Addison, often worked with me. We did mind-body workshops and even a dance that she choreographed. We performed at Brookdale College, our local college. I got to be the enchantress who was leading the ladies and children to a land where they could be their greatest selves. It was a lovely 23-minute dance. Looking back, I realize I was teaching others about how to come home to their Enchanted Selves in many different ways and, at the same time, teaching myself.”

Much of her work today focuses on women and girls, and she even has a channel on Roku called The Enchanted Self. She recognizes the unique challenges girls face today, particularly with the pervasive influence of social media and other modern temptations.

“I think in today’s world, where there are drugs, social media, and easy access to a lot of stuff, young girls are tempted by many things. The temptation has always been there. I mean, I tried to smoke cigarettes when I was a teenager. I’d lock my bedroom door and sit on the bed. And I was just lucky because I had allergies, and I’d cough my way until I put the cigarette out.”

Dr. Barbara Holstein

“There has always been a pull towards imagination and the push of hormones growing up. In today’s world, so much is apparent so easily. Often, girls don’t know how to caution themselves because the world itself isn’t helping that much in giving them a sense of how to handle hormonal development in their teenage years and how to handle falling in love or losing a best friend. How do you adequately handle these things so that girls don’t become depressed?”

Dr. Barbara Holstein

The pandemic exacerbated these challenges, isolating girls from their social networks and depriving them of significant milestones and opportunities for self-discovery.

“They’re social and used to getting together with their friends all the time. They lost graduations, parties, seeing their best friends, and certain opportunities to discover themselves better.”

In response to these societal shifts, Dr. Holstein has written workbooks, such as Looking Good, Feeling Good, for girls to help them navigate these turbulent times, often encouraging parents and family members to have meaningful conversations with them in the process.

“The way my books are set up, you can draw a picture, write a poem, and engage in discussions with your parents or family members. This involvement helps girls feel supported and understood.”

She also encourages kids to create selfie films as a means of expressing themselves. This method allows them to articulate their feelings more comfortably and privately.

“You know, a lot of kids don’t really want to talk with their parents. It’s hard. But if you let them make a three-minute film on their phone and sit in a different room, very often, they can say, ‘Look, I’ve been upset. I didn’t know how to say it to you.’ These workbooks and films are not just static like an old-fashioned workbook. They engage you in artistic ways to develop and share your wisdom. And that’s become very important to me to help these girls, almost a lost generation, find their resiliency and self-esteem and learn how to hold on to it.”

She emphasizes the critical nature of school years in shaping a person’s life while acknowledging that it takes a village to support a child fully.

“Sometimes honesty is the best policy when it comes to parents sharing aspects of their lives. It gives kids a chance to feel they can come out of whatever they’re doing that may not be the best for them. Parents often don’t tell the kids enough about themselves.”

She has written several books, including The Truth: I’m a Girl, I’m Smart, and I Know Everything, which inspired two other books, The Truth and Secrets, which have been adapted into plays and films. These works explore the complexities of the human mind and the challenges of personal growth.

“My first book, ‘The Truth,’ is a diary about a girl with at least 30 topics that really happened or could happen while growing up mentioned through her diary. It turned into two books, ‘The Truth’ and ‘Secrets.’ The diary format allows for a fuller development of character and background. The books also have space for the girl reading the book to keep diary notes that can remain private or be shared with her mother, family, etc.

I started to see certain scenes that would make very nice short film scenes, like how this girl felt when her parents were fighting and when she found out her father was taking a new job but hadn’t told her. She heard it through the grandmother and the parents talking secretly behind closed doors, things like that, which often happen in real life.”

She ultimately made a 16-minute film with the rest of her team. However, when they played it back, they felt something was missing. The editor suggested the actress go back and do all the scenes herself without the small crew watching.

“She moved to different rooms in her own house and out in the garden and walked in circles outside. We ended up with a magical 16 minutes, a film that is not only still playing at festivals but gave me the idea of selfie filmmaking, a way to bring aspects of drama to kids via their cell phones whenever appropriate—a way to be more in charge of whatever they want to be in charge of, whether it be making or acting in films to show at festivals or making a film to say what needed to be said to a parent that was too hard to say to the parent in person.”

Dr. Holstein has adopted another visionary approach now that everyone has cell phones. She passionately encourages individuals of all ages to utilize their cell phones as a powerful tool to share, care, and nourish their mental health. She dreams of someday hosting a captivating show that unites children and experts from various fields to engage in meaningful conversations about improving mental well-being while addressing crucial aspects of growing up.

In the meantime, she has made available most of her coming-of-age selfie films for free on Vimeo so that teachers, parents, therapists and kids can view these award-winning films. “Why wait? Kids, parents, teachers, and clinicians need the films now,” she says. Her curated showcase on Vimeo features these dramatic selfie films that offer valuable insights into the challenges of growing up, providing much-needed support for parents and children.

Then she wrote a third book, Conflict and a Bit of Magic, which follows the main character from the first two books, The Truth and Secrets, as she ages. “The series can help a kid and her parents get through some of those difficult times. Best to read them together if possible or at least share some of the pages,” she says. Dr. Holstein has also written several books geared towards adults, such as The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy and Recipes for Enchantment, The Secret Ingredient is YOU! With the help of producer Debbie Higgens, she also created Zoom dramas during the pandemic, adapting her scripts for virtual performances. This innovative approach allowed her to continue her work despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic.

“We did ‘Life is Complicated,’ a Zoom drama. It’s a dramatic adaptation of a script, and it has won awards in film festivals. These experimental films have been accepted because the world has expanded, and there is now a place for mobile filmmaking and experimental filmmaking.”

She likes to envision them as the extended drama of the main character in her books if she were older.

“It could be if she, another four or five years older, got married, and there were problems. They’re trying to have a baby. They’re not always nice to each other. There’s a dream sequence where her earlier self comes back and helps her pull herself together, which is one of the things that I believe. We go back to our early energies, and they roll into helping us get out of whatever mess we’re in this time.”

She continued to create three or four more dramas based on either books she had written or subject matter that came to her. In addition, Dr. Holstein has a podcast where she invites guests such as educators, parents, young people, environmental specialists and people from various fields to speak about their experiences. She also has a new podcast geared to helping girls. Some of the topics covered include resilience and self-esteem. She is actively looking for guests to do projects in these areas.

Dr. Holstein’s dedication to positive psychology and creative expression continues to inspire her work. She believes tapping into our energies and acknowledging our talents can lead to profound personal growth and healing.

“I think we shy away from improving ourselves because it’s human nature—it’s tiring and a little embarrassing to recognize certain things, even if it’s just to ourselves. But if you can have one episode where you recognize that your own energy saved the day, you’re more likely to be willing to play with that again and again.”

Her work as a positive psychologist and an author underscores the importance of positive psychology in fostering resilience and self-esteem. She hopes to continue writing and creating, helping others discover their enchanted selves.

“I do believe that The Enchanted Self: A Positive Therapy is a great book. It’s my masterpiece. It has exercises at the end of the chapters to help you connect with your talents and strengths. It’s about recapturing your own energies and getting rid of the garbage that hinders the flow of your own energy.”

She is now writing two new novels. One of the books is called The Girls Down the Hall, while the second is still untitled.

“They are about young women from the 1960s, which is actually when I started college. The reason I’m writing them is tied into so much stuff with abortion and all these issues turning on their heads for women. I don’t really talk about that directly, but I tell the story of these girls from their freshman year, and then, hopefully, I’ll continue each book as a series as they go through college. They show the complexity of women’s minds, the issues they face, the disappointments they meet, and that it was tough then, and it’s still very hard now, often for women to reach their full potential. But these are novels, and they’re interesting, and they’re fun. I am very enthused with them.”

Dr. Holstein’s journey is a testament to the power of creativity, perseverance, and the human spirit. Her work has touched many lives, helping people of all ages find their path to self-discovery and healing.

“For most people, we get caught in the belief system and the attitudes we got growing up, and we need to be shaken up a little to get to broader reactions and possibilities.”

Dr. Barbara Holstein