Dr. Robin at home in Philadelphia
Life is good. Life is bad. Life is messy—and you can't fix it if you won't admit it's broken. Take it from psychologist Robin Smith, PhD, The Oprah Winfrey Show's therapist-in-residence, who's wowing viewers with her own brand of levelheaded empathy.
With a laser-sharp but thoroughly compassionate approach, Smith has joined The Oprah Winfrey Show as a regular psychological consultant. This is a considerable departure from seeing patients in her hometown of Philadelphia. Whether she's in private practice or on a television soundstage, the fundamental tenet of her work is that we each are a crazy quilt of often tacit lessons learned as children and that we're not done growing up until we acknowledge and understand the messages of our upbringing. "What people create in their work lives and families is about unfinished woundedness," she says. "Look at your adult relationships and you will see what's still unfinished in your childhood."

Dr. Robin's own readily acknowledged wounds have to do with coming from a proud family where the message was all about presenting a front of perfection and accomplishment but not about what she calls self-care. She was the youngest child in a family for which high achievement was mandatory: Her father, Warren E. Smith, MD, was a psychiatrist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke Swahili, Japanese, German, and Greek. Her mother, Rosa Lee Smith (now 84), was one of the first African-American women to graduate from the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work. Her grandmother, Addie Belle Spencer (now 102), is the child of a freed slave and became a nurse in her 60s.

Smith, who's 43, grew up attending a Quaker school and black churches, but also the synagogues of Jewish neighbors. "Part of what shaped me was being exposed to so much diversity," she says. "All the gentleness of the world was in our home—my parents never yelled. There was a mandate to love everybody. But my parents went directly to compassion, skipping accountability and personal responsibility. They'd loan money that would never be paid back and then reward you by continuing to be your friend because you said you were sorry. You don't have to do the work in my family. You can misbehave, perpetuate the jerkiness, and feel like you can get away with it."

Going along with the family dynamic of uncritical support and rescue, Smith didn't recognize the toll it was taking on her own emotional health. "It's important to know who to be friends with and who not to," she says. "I'm grateful for the bigheartedness of my parents that lives in me, but I don't want to be a doormat. I'd make excuses for outrageous behavior from other people, and I did it flawlessly." She was able to change, she says, through therapy and the support of better-chosen friends. "I don't believe in the quick fix of the illuminated moment and then you're free," she says. "My resilience has come from surrounding myself with people who could let me fall to pieces and tolerate the messiness, unlike my family."

Such public airing of personal laundry has not exactly thrilled Dr. Robin's relatives, though they remain close to her. "The reason I do what I do well is that I've stumbled and barely gotten up many days," Smith says. "That's the part my mother doesn't want you to know. She wants you to see the evolved Robin."

When Smith was divorced at 28, after five years of marriage, she was unable to manage much personal deportment beyond a clean sweat suit. Her mother urged her to put on lipstick before going out. "There's no furniture in my living room and everything is falling down around me, and she's asking me about lipstick," Smith says. "She'd say, 'If you tell your friends how you're doing, what are they going to think?' and I'd say, 'They're going to think I'm in trouble.' It's taken me until now to separate from that very poisonous message of lying about how you're doing. What's underneath is fear that if people know your vulnerabilities, they'll reject you."

Facing the fear is a recurrent theme in her practice. "You don't even know how scared you are until you're not," she says. "I try to get people to the point where fear is not the guiding light, not what runs their lives."

Given Smith's success, it's surprising to learn that she describes her career choice as a fluke. After graduating from high school at age 16 and LaSalle University at 20, she was teaching gymnastics and trying to figure out the trajectory of her life. One day, on her way home from work, she saw a billboard for Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and literally made a U-turn to ask for an application, still in her shorts and a T-shirt.

Today she is an adjunct professor at her alma mater, having earned a master's degree (as well as a PhD in counseling psychology from Temple University), and conducts leadership training for organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Victoria's Secret, and the IRS. "All companies are macrosystems of families," she says. "Conflict management, anger, accountability—they're the same issues that come up in personal relationships. In the same way that a family has a scapegoat and a shining star, those roles show up in the corporate culture. And they're major energy drainers, dangerous to the survival and thriving of the system."

In 2004, Smith wrote a small guide to personal empowerment called Inspirational Vitamins, choosing 16 words (such as trust, gratitude, and awakening) that she calls key nutrients for creating healthy emotional lives. In her new book, Lies at the Altar, Smith adapts traditional wedding vows to show how couples might enter into marriage with out-of-sync notions. ("Forsaking all others," for example, could mean different things to different people. Is it a promise to be monogamous? Or an exclusion of other close friendships?)

One of Smith's vitamin words was hope—but with a caveat. "Hope without action is destructive because it goes to magical thinking," she says. In times of heartache, she's seen clients cling to hope to avoid grieving. But as Smith has learned, if you can't grieve, you can't move on. A year after she found a man who cherished and respected her, she witnessed him collapse in cardiac arrest at age 49 on a remote beach in the Caribbean. "The lesson was about not postponing joy," she says, "and about the ability to transition when you simply don't want to. Life has its seasons, and you must be able to transition or you'll be wearing a parka in the summer and a bikini in the winter."

If Smith's own life can serve as a blueprint of change for others, that's just fine with her. "There's a passage in Ezekiel that asks: Can these dry bones live again?" she says. "My own life has had such dry spells, such desolate times, but I know that dry bones can live again, that hopeless things can be turned around, not with magic but with hard work. I feel that's what I'm on the planet to talk about."


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