Interviewing Vassia Sarantopoulou

Vassia S.Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Vassia Sarantopoulou. She is a Psychologist with a Master in Counseling and a Master in Child Psychology, living in Leiden, but working in both Leiden and The Hague. Vassia is the founder of the Anti-Loneliness Project and among other things, her main goal is to help others overcome loneliness and to support them through challenging times in life.

Joana Moreira: How did this project came to life? Why is it so important to overcome loneliness?
Vassia Sarantopoulou: Thank you for this question, Joana. This is something that many people ask me. The Anti-Loneliness Project is the mission that I aim to accomplish through my work: I want to help people feel that they are not on their own; there is always a helping hand next to them, to help them deal with their struggles. And although it’s a universal thing, no one dares to identify themselves with it or even talk about loneliness. But loneliness is an umbrella under which a lot of other issues are covered: pain, loss, stress, depression, grief, fear, anger, etc. And especially when loneliness has this dysfunctional effect in our life, it is important to try to defeat it. However, loneliness is not necessarily something always to avoid. Contrariwise, it is more important to embrace loneliness, to know yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses through this lonely period and then come up as the best company of yourself: because if you love yourself, you don’t need others to confirm their love to you. Their love sums up as something complimentary, not necessary.

JM: I understand that most of your clients are expats. You, being an expat yourself, are able to empathize with their situation. In your experience, do expats have specific needs in terms of mental health?
VS: Yes and no. Expats clients do not differ in the issues that they are challenged by on a daily basis and I see that during my sessions and workshops with them: stress, conflicts, fears, divorce, sadness, are some of their main complaints, and as you can see, Joana, they are the same issues that everybody else on the planet is dealing with. However, being an expat adds an ounce of instability, insecurity and agony to all the above mentioned problems. Yes, you are a stranger in a new country (an “Englishman in New York”, as Sting sings it), either you come willingly or you followed your partner, but still for a long time in the beginning you are possible to feel like an outcast. You miss your friends, your family, your food, your neighbourhood, but at the same time you are excited to make a new start and meet new people, and that’s a significant conflict by itself. And I always take that into consideration with the people that seek for my help here in the Netherlands.

JM: In your blog you write “Know Yourself. YOU are responsible for how you feel.” I truly agree with you! How can self-awareness and control of your own feelings help in your life?
VS: My favourite topic! Thanks for that, Joana! As I always explain to my clients, we cannot expect from other people to change and therefore we cannot blame them for how WE feel about THEIR behavior. So, for example, we say “What you did made me angry”. No. The fact that we became angry is merely our decision. We could react in so many ways, but we chose anger. So: the others are responsible for their actions and their feelings, and we are responsible for ours. If we try to save others, change them, control them, then our goals and our feelings become dependent on them and thus we give them control of our life. Good news: you don’t have to wait for others in order to change your life and to find your inner peace, happiness, etc. Mark your boundaries, protect yourself, and decide every moment of how YOU want to feel.

JM: You combine CBT – Cognitive Behavior Therapy with mindfulness. Why is this a good “marriage” in therapy? Are there specific issues in which this combination is particularly efficient?
VS: CBT is mainly oriented into knowing your automatic thoughts and your core beliefs. And that is something quite important especially if you have been using generalizations and thinking patterns that bring conflicts in your relationship with yourself but also with others. On the other hand, we should not forget our emotions and how to be in touch with our body and our senses at the present time. And that is offered via mindfulness. I cannot say I prefer one more than the other, because it’s like saying I prefer living with my heart instead of living with my mind. We need both and we need to know how to balance both of them for maximum results.

JM: I know you are often involved in several projects. Do you want to tell us a little bit about one particular project that you find most interesting in this moment?
VS: Difficult decision… Well, I love the support groups that I am facilitating currently: the Divorce Support Group and the Group “Find your Inner Peace and Balance”. The dynamics you get through a group are so interesting and it’s always nice to work with people that have something in common: some painful experience or a goal to achieve. But I am also going after some alternative ideas, like combining art with psychology (you know better about that, Joana), and in the near future there is a project coming forward based on an idea that I and some photographers friends had a couple of months ago. I’ll keep you posted. Other than that, I organize workshops almost every month, but for more information you can find out everything on my website or on my facebook page The AntiLoneliness Project.

Thank you so much, Joana, for the interview. I really enjoyed the questions, I hope you enjoyed it as well. Looking forward to us working together soon!

JM: Well, it was my pleasure! And I’m already excited about the projects we’ll bring on.