Staying Sane in an Insane World

Greg Harden is a Social Worker specializing in Peak Performance Consulting & Speaking with the University of Michigan. In August of 2023, Harden’s book, Stay Sane in an Insane World: How to Control the Controllables and Thrive, will be released. In his book, Harden shares a multitude of stories and advice with all people looking to build better lives and become “the world’s greatest expert on themselves.”

Harden is a proud Detroit native who began his childhood as “your typical smart kid.” Throughout his life, he became a “warrior and survivor of a world gone mad,” using athletics as a tool to aid in his transformation. He received a scholarship to run track and joined the football team at the University of Michigan. While in school, Harden learned from a mentor, Dr. Howard Brabson, a faculty member in the School of Social Work. Dr. Brabson taught Harden to be a change agent, teaching the importance of  how “it isn’t about the degree, it’s about who has the degree.”

Following school and working with a residential treatment program with Dawn Farms, Harden’s first job was at Beyer Memorial Hospital in Ypsilanti as a clinical social worker in a drug and alcohol treatment program. He has also done work in the Medical School and the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. Outside of the University, he trained managers and supervisors in the Managing the Troubled Employee program. He trained managers to be more efficient in their roles by getting people to use available resources in their companies. He also worked to superimpose employee assistance programs (EAPs) into athletics and to train coaches to use counseling services and personal development programming, helping student athletes and others become the best version of themselves. 


Carly Silverstein, Sack the Stigma: Was there a specific time in your life that sparked your interest in a mental health related career? 

Greg Harden: I had a habit of being available to people who needed someone to talk to. I decided if I was going to be helping people, I might as well get a license and be certified to do it. So, I did just that, and I trained to be the best at advising and allowing people to vent. When people come to talk to you, sometimes they don’t want to be counseled–sometimes they just need to vent and let off some steam. People often just need an advocate or someone who is trustworthy to share the intimate details of their struggles. So, when we talk about the book I’m producing, it’s really not about me, it’s about the work, and that work is so exciting. Imagine your job is just being able to support people and teach them to become the world’s greatest expert on one subject, themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not how people talk about mental health. You can see that someone needs help, but, until they see it, it doesn’t matter. People won’t ask for help from you unless they trust you. 


STS: What is your general philosophy that drives you in the work you do?

Harden: My philosophy is to help people become the world’s greatest expert on themselves. When we talk about this philosophy, it involves skills. You have to help people develop skills that allow them to do critical self-assessment to help examine what’s working and what isn’t. You have to be sophisticated enough to look at where you need change, whether that be the way you think or the way you behave. You want to help people create and become an individual they can trust with their life. If you can’t trust yourself with your own life, there’s a lot of work to do. That’s my philosophy: Become the world’s greatest expert on you, and create a person that you can trust with your life. The secret, that’s not a secret, is self-love and self-acceptance. In any setting, that’s where everyone is trying to take you. The ultimate goal is to get you to love yourself so you can protect yourself against you and all other weapons formed against you. 


STS: What are some of your go-to strategies to improve mental health and focus?

Harden: I introduce people to a whole concept of identifying and eliminating self-defeating attitudes and behaviors. This is how I can open up the door to talk about drugs, alcohol, or any other difficult topic. In any setting, if you are trying to help me become more effective as a person, one has to be sophisticated enough to examine what’s working and what’s not working. So, my job is to get the person to say: “I need to look at my drinking.” I have to teach you how to identify self-defeating attitudes and behaviors, and then, instead of continuing the negativity, I introduce the idea of self-supporting attitudes and behaviors. In my book, I talk a lot more about these concepts, too. I also superimpose SWOT analysis from the business world. To get businesses to look at how they can improve, you do this by looking at what the strengths and weaknesses are of the organization, its opportunities, and its threats to success. In therapy, you might not want to use the word ‘weaknesses’ but, ultimately, if you look at a person and say: “If you were a business, would I invest in you?” people start to get brutally honest with themselves. The hardest part is getting people to realize that this ‘homework’ is something they get to keep, not just something they toss outside. The biggest problem with athletic counseling is people coming in for “x” reason, you have a couple sessions, and then the athlete leaves, thinking everything is great. Then, a year later, they come back with another problem or the same problem. What people have to understand is we’re talking about mental fitness. Mental health and mental fitness have to be together. You have to train yourself to be mentally fit. 


STS: In your time working with athletes, how have you seen the view of athlete mental health change?

Harden: The Big Ten Conference organized a Mental Health and Wellness Cabinet and invited the Presidents and Athletic Directors to identify and select members of their staff to be a part of this. Commissioner Warren, Adam Neuman, and others instituted an opportunity for fourteen schools, plus some non-conference outsiders, to come in and work together to talk about the issues of mental health across the BigTen and beyond. That’s change. Teams always sit in rooms with other schools and talk about this game and that game, but this was about sitting down and talking about how we can help these young people who are struggling mentally. When we talk about “Sack the Stigma,” this effort alone pushes the agenda. You have people from all of these institutions talking about how they destigmatize mental health and things that might work, what has worked, and what hasn’t worked. That, in and of itself, is major. 


STS: Could you tell me a little bit more about the premise of your book?

Harden: The premise is pretty straightforward. It’s really just about getting people to dream big, believe big, and become big. Not everyone is going to be a millionaire or a professional athlete, but you have to dream that your life is going to work. You have to dream that your relationships are going to work and you can identify which ones are healthy compared to which ones are not. The whole premise is to set it up so people can challenge themselves, train themselves, and talk to themselves. There is a story in that book for everyone. It’s full of short stories. There are segments and snapshots of what worked in people’s lives and what they had to change in themselves in order to go to the next level. People will find something in this book that resonates with who they are and who they are trying to become. You’re an amazing human being, not if you’re a star, but if you can raise some good children or have a healthy relationship with a significant other. It’s about being amazing in the role that you’re playing.


STS: What was your motivation to write this book?

Harden: If we’re talking football, then I am in the fourth quarter. If we’re talking hockey, then the third period. This is the closing act. I’ve been bothered about writing books for a long time, and I’m finally at a stage in retirement that has made it a lot easier to focus on the task at hand, which is to create a vehicle in which people can have insight into how I approach things. Clinicians can consider some of it, but regular folks can look at it and say, “Oh wow, I can relate to that.” It was a blast. It was hard work, but it was worthwhile. You want to leave something because you can’t get out of life alive, so you better live it to the fullest. This is an extension of me being on a mission, and our mission shouldn’t die because we die; you have to keep on going. 


STS: Why did you choose the title Stay Sane in an Insane World?

Harden: Just from being in sessions, can you imagine sitting down and trying to teach a young gymnast that it’s predictable that this is not easy. It’s predictable that order and chaos are fighting for supremacy, that you don’t want to study, that you wish everybody liked you, and that you’re confused by the activities in the world today. People are fighting depression and despair all of the time. We want to introduce you to meditation, and, if necessary, medication. That’s the spectrum. Sometimes, it can be as simple as teaching somebody meditation, and they can shift and change the way they are talking to themselves. However, sometimes, they might need infinitely more than that. We’re trying to get people to invest in something larger than themselves and not get consumed by the world they live in. You have to be realistic with what people are facing today in what they’re trying to juggle, process, and interpret what the world is giving to them. I thought the title hits you right between the eyes, because it has to become your mission. You always ask companies what their mission statement is. The vision is straightforward. My mission, for my life, is to stay sane in an insane world, to be positive in a negative world, and to believe in myself without question or pause, while everyone around me may doubt who I am and what I’m trying to do. We have to learn to love ourselves and trust ourselves. 


STS: In what ways do you see your tools as beneficial to athletes, and how do they translate to life outside of athletics?   

Harden: For athletes at the college level, as soon as they understand how much the mental game is part of the game, they increase their chances of being better. It also teaches them something they never thought they’d ever hear: I’m suggesting that if you are a better person, if you’re managing your relationships and inner thoughts, if you’re treating people with dignity and respect, and if you’re giving 100%, 100% of the time, then you’ll be a better athlete and a better person. If you are treating your teammates with dignity and respect, as well as yourself, your significant other, the professors in your classes, and your coaches, you are increasing the chances that you are able to train your mind to be stronger and more sophisticated than the person next to you. You want to be an outlier. Desmond Howard was an outlier. He was the odd man out even though people liked him. When everyone else was partying and having a good time, he was training by himself, trying to be an A-student, and trying to get comfortable in front of the camera. This was not the typical way for a 19-year-old. He wanted to be the absolute best version of himself: that was his mission. 


STS: What do you say to the athletes who say, “What I’m doing is working for me already,” knowing that they’re not doing everything they possibly can? 

Harden: You say, “peace be with you, carry on.” If you’re happy, that’s all that matters. I care about you, but I can only work with you if you have an interest. If you’re not interested, then it won’t work. If I can tweak your interest, then let’s go, but how to tweak their interest is the big question. I have data that says the people I work with are at the top of the ladder, and if you just want to be on the ladder, I’m not mad at you. I’ve also taught the people I work with that they have to decide that your career could end tomorrow, so it’s in your own best self-interest to stack the deck in your favor and be top-tier. You can get someone’s interest by speaking to their ego and saying, “You’re good, but how much fun would it be to be the best?” You have to be really critical in terms of understanding this person has a lot, and you can tell them they can have more if they relax more and treat themselves better. 


STS: Many people forget that therapists are constantly learning, too, as there is always room to grow. What has been the most impactful thing you have learned from working with others in the mental health field? 

Harden: You have to trust the group dynamics and the audience. If I’m working with a group of students involved in athletics and they’re doing a small group exercise, I have to be willing to pose a question and be confident in the silence. I have to trust that someone in that group is capable of critically evaluating what the group or the team needs to do and what’s best for them as a whole. It’s awkward, but you have to get comfortable waiting for someone to raise their hand. You have to listen to what they say and take it and turn it in a way you want them all to go. What I’ve learned is that, finally, coaches are changing and institutions are getting it. We don’t want to merely react to a crisis or to chaos. We have to learn to trust the 80% that are not the problem and focus on them as well as the 20% that are creating the problems. If we just focus on the problem person, we aren’t understanding the concept of peer expectations. The peer group will determine whether or not we will follow the rules that we set for ourselves. You have to invest time and energy into training captains and finding out who the informal leaders are on a team. You have to believe that there is a whole cast of characters that want it as bad as the coaches and everyone else who is on the team. 


STS: What is the most important thing you hope readers take away from your book?

Harden: Everyone believes in something different, but you have to believe in something. I need everyone to believe that there is one creature that was created that has the capacity to transform themselves. Human beings are the only creatures that can decide today to be different than they were yesterday. I can decide I’m going to invest in being caring and compassionate with people or wake up tomorrow and create an opportunity to reinvent myself. A dog can’t do that. A cat can’t do that. A cow can’t do that. A human being can transform themselves. To be deliberate and intentional about changing how you’re operating is important. Changing your inner voice and how you talk to yourself is the secret weapon, as well as how you let other people talk to you. Change is inevitable, so are you going to be a part of change, or are you going to have your butt kicked by it, because change is going to come. 


STS: Why do you think it’s important to Sack the Stigma?

Harden: The stigma ebbs and flows. You may think we’ve done a good job of destigmatizing and asking for help on mental health issues, but there are always new people and new classes of students to work with. Today, someone may think they’ve done a great job and are a great resource, but, if they stop, tomorrow, someone new is going to come in who has never been helped and who thinks asking for help is a sign of weakness. This is a recurring theme. You anticipate the need to “Sack the Stigma” over and over with new people. Everyone needs to have a chance to rethink what mental health and mental fitness mean to them. “Sack the Stigma,” night and day.


STS: How do you “Sack the Stigma”?

Harden: Mental struggles can often feel overwhelming to handle, because some things feel out of our control. As Greg Harden advises, it’s important to “Control the Controllables” to help you become the greatest expert on yourself. There will always be factors we cannot control and things we do not expect, but, if we commit to building better habits, we can learn to better manage our resources to handle situations that later arise. If you would like to continue becoming the world’s greatest expert on yourself, you can order Greg Harden’s book here:  




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