Dr. Theresa Nicassio is an award-winning author, gourmet raw food chef, and Registered Psychologist. In this conversation we spoke about her relationship to both creativity and to growth. I’ve highlighted the sections which most resonated with me, but please mine it greedily for your own creative food.
conducted and edited by Christine Bissonnette
How do you express yourself creatively?
I think I express myself most creatively through possibility thinking. I’m a psychologist. I’ve been doing that for 29 years. When I find a problem, I get really excited because I feel that with every problem, there’s always a solution… even if I have no idea what it might be.
What follows a problem is a process: defining the problem, feeling the angst of not having the solution, and then letting an inner process of imagery combined with possibility and my own resources (it’s very multi-dimensional work) take over. The answers eventually show themselves, either as an image or an idea.
Sometimes I receive the answer in the middle of the night. It’s not uncommon for my ‘Muse’ to visit me at about two or three in the morning.
What does that ‘aha’ moment feel like to you?
It feels urgent. If I don’t capture the essence of that moment, often times it’s lost.
The answer doesn’t always have an entirely organized quality to it either. Sometimes it’s just pieces. I’d see this blue, purple, and yellow, and I’d think: ‘that’s it!’ Even though I wasn’t entirely sure how these colours fit together. I just knew that these were keys to whatever I was working through.
My attempt to make a vegan mashed potato without potatoes is a good example. It started with the cauliflower mash, a popular substitute but it had this really strong cauliflower flavour and the texture wasn’t right. It needed something creamy, but neutral coloured. Avocados were an option, but then my mashed potatoes would have been green. Nuts or bananas would have made them too sweet. I was stumped, but then, one day while walking outside with my husband, the answer came to me. “Oh my god,” I said. “Lima beans!” Lima beans are creamy, and they’re white, and they’re easy. I tried it, and it worked. After getting the texture, I redirected the flavour with some cumin and other spices.
There’s still further to go to get that authentic potato flavour, but I’m closer.
A lot of creatives get asked ‘where do you get your ideas?’ I’m not going to ask you that. But what I’m curious about, is how do you feel about having ideas?
It’s a double edged sword isn’t it? I personally feel very lucky to have ideas that I’m able to manifest into form, but it is hard to have a lot of ideas… the world doesn’t like change. Have you ever read the book ‘The Courage to Create’ by Rollo May?
No, I have not read that book! I’m writing that title down now though.
He has not been alive for some time. He’s an early existential psychologist. A brilliant man.
He was asked to compile his ideas about the creative process into a book. He’s talked about creativity in the context of science, psychology, art, philosophy, mythology, and politics. A wide range. He actually felt embarrassed about putting this book together, because he thought it was too random.
One of the many things that Rollo May talks about is the quality of anxiety that’s inherent in the creative process.
This is not only scary within ourselves, it’s also scary within society.
From a psychological perspective, having ideas can also be socially challenging. Sharing our ideas can feel like a challenge to others. We are habit driven, and we don’t like to do things differently. So when someone suggests a different way, it threatens the way that we’ve been doing things already.
When my dad taught me how to drive, he told me ‘when you’re behind the wheel, you’re driving a loaded weapon. You have to treat it with respect.’ I think of my creative ideas in a very similar way. I have this vehicle and it can serve, but I have to do so as responsibly as I can.
Thinking back to a past self who wanted what you have now, what were the things stopping her from getting it?
I couldn’t see beyond the world that I knew. My perception of myself was basically of a dowdy middle aged woman.
I never could have imagined that I’d have an award winning cookbook, and be competing for the best in the world. Who would dream that? I loved my little cozy world, but now the world has opened up. It’s caused a huge shift in how I see myself. I feel as though I’m stepping into and accessing the power that is open to everyone.
What do you mean by ‘the world opened up’?
Do you mean that you felt different in your world, or that the world felt different to you?
I think it’s both. My self perception of who I am and what I have to offer the world is more the intra psychic.
But when it comes to the outside world… a year ago next month I flew to New York City to meet with producers for TV, radio, and print. I met with a producer of the Today Show. I was talking to people who weren’t even in my world.
I had to accept and allow myself into this new outer world.
That’s that inner limitation. There can be possibilities, but if we don’t step into the movie, it will just pass us by.
Was there an event or a change in thought that started this momentum?
This is a long story.
It started with my daughter. I decided that I was going to co-write a book with her. She became a vegan when she was twelve, and was very passionate about this way of living. She was already talking about wanting to share this information before I’d decided to help her. “Let’s do a recipe book together,” I said (not realizing what a big deal it was).
We started the project together. I got really into it. A publisher interested in publishing the book once it was done discovered us, but they had their own opinions about what the book should be. My daughter was becoming a teenager, and she didn’t like being told what to do.
Not too long into the project, we had a talk about the book. “This is your project,” she said. It was just too much for her to navigate at the time. The book wasn’t part of her path. So she stepped out, and I stepped in fully.
Another unexpected thing that happened was that I ended up taking the photos for the book.
I’m not a trained photographer, but I discovered my gift for photography through this project. Early in the process I took photos of the dishes I was making so that I could remember what I had made (my memory had become terrible due to the damage of 45 years of gluten exposure). One day, I crossed paths with a woman at a workshop and I shared these photos with her. “Who took these?” she asked. “I did,” I told her. And she said, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t tell you, but I’m actually a professional food stylist/photographer, and these photos are amazing.” She said “girlfriend, you need to get a real camera.”
So I did.
The next shift happened when my publisher got very sick, and had to drop the project.
While initially this news felt devastating, it actually became yet another opportunity for me to to step into my power in a way that I likely may have never done.
I’d heard about this course called Bestseller Blueprint, that Steve Harrison and Jack Canfield offer. I listened to one of their webinars and there was some really good information. I signed up for their course. This was a big deal. It wasn’t cheap. It was $1000. But I decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to learn everything that I could, regardless of whether I got a new publisher or not.
This was a huge turning point. The information was incredibly empowering. I tell everyone who’s thinking of writing a book, that this was the best $1000 I’ve ever spent.
Then I started meeting with potential publishers. Every meeting, one of the first questions they would ask me was
“How many photos do you want in the book?’
My answer: “As many as possible!”
“So,” they said… “you want to make a book with vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free recipes, and you want lots of photos… how many pages do you want?” I said “I’m not sure… probably around 250 or so.”
I also wanted to use the book to talk about the value of reconnecting with the earth and its creatures, to offer a compassionate and fresh and psychologically-pertinent perspective about food and body image, as well as wanting to empower readers around their own health with the resource that I wish I could have found when I was sick and didn’t know where to turn.
“This is too much!” they told me.
But I knew it all belonged together. I just didn’t know how.
I decided that it was important that I maintain the integrity of my vision, and honour my art. I felt that by working with a publisher I would end up losing something. I looked at some self-publishing options, but I didn’t like them either. I wanted to create a high quality book. I wanted to best graphic designers and editors. I wanted it all.
So, after talking it over with my husband, we decided to start our own publishing company. After that, there was no turning back.
This alone was a very creative process, because I had to put together the pieces. It was really strange—it was as if someone else was guiding me and my hand through the journey. Sometimes it felt like my dad was still coaching me, even though he died in 1999. This part of the process still leaves me curious. I mean really, I thought that my path was to be a psychologist, not a cookbook author…and especially not a super-particular one at that!
I didn’t just want to make this book for people who were already eating this way. I wanted to make it for those who were suffering; for people like my dad who in the last year of his life lost his feet and low legs. I want to touch as many lives as I can. Especially those who aren’t in that other world of privilege. I really wanted to find a language in the book that would be accessible to everyone. I hope I achieved that.
What was one of your proudest accomplishments from this book?
My biggest recipe discovery was the butter cream frosting.
49-52 percent of the US population is diabetic or pre-diabetic, but then we have traditions where we use so much sugar! Birthdays are an example. “So happy you’re alive. Here’s something that we know is going to harm you.” It doesn’t seem right.
I worked for years on the buttercream frosting recipe. I tried all these crazy things (I tried coconut milk, I tried to dehydrate the pulp of a coconut and pulverize it into a product like powdered sugar. I once tried to do something with xylitol… that one was a disaster that almost destroyed my blender. My daughter, who is now also a raw food chef, would get so mad at me. She would say ”Mom, give it up! Butter cream frosting will always have icing sugar and butter in it.” I said
“Sweet heart, you may be right, but I’m not going to stop trying.”
It’s such a big challenge when everyone believes in one way to do things. With the buttercream frosting, my biggest challenge was the density. It needed to hold itself together as well as be creamy and melt in the mouth. Eventually, I thought of coconut butter combined with coconut cream. I made this lemon buttercream variation, and when my daughter came home from school, I pulled out a spoon and said “try this.” She put the frosting in her mouth, and then turned to me. She said “what the heck have you done?”
What do the following sensations feel like in your body.
It starts in my throat. I feel a tightness in my throat. It’s a frozen feeling that goes up my body, but if I can breathe into it, then it begins to soften. I can feel the softening going into my chest and jaw.
What brings the response out is doing something that’s not familiar; doing something that I’m afraid I might not be able to follow through on to the quality that I imagine.
A success you weren’t expecting?
It feels like a geyser. It’s a sensation of something going up through my sternum. It feels exciting and expanding. I feel like a child. I feel joy.
It starts in the lower part of my throat and then moves into my chest. It’s really heavy. My heart feels like it’s contracting.
When you say that I feel a spreading happening internally. I feel this expansion that actually goes down my diaphragm. It feels really cool.
What does the child in you believe about the world?
The child in me is my source of possibility, thinking, and hope. Despite… I have been through so much in my life. I have also seen a great deal of darkness and trauma – from my work as a therapist. You would think that I’d be really jaded but, although I’m definitely skeptical about some things, there’s a part of me that bubbles with hope and possibility.
This is the part of me that I won’t, and can’t, let go of.
How do you dream?
When my world was smaller… I could only see what I was capable of seeing/believing. I’m a big fan of visions and visioning.
I used to study vocabulary when I was kid (I was a bit weird). Whenever I came across a word that I didn’t know, I’d write it down, and then figure out what it meant. Something strange happened through this process. I’d learn a new word, and suddenly it would be everywhere! As my vocabulary expanded, my vision of the world expanded too.
… But I don’t believe that things will come to us until we’re ready to see them.
Sometimes the best way for us to see it, is to see it in someone else. I recommend looking to the people that you admire, and the people who genuinely love what they do. “That’s so cool” we might say after seeing someone’s post on Facebook. What we don’t realize is that the finger actually goes back to us. The fact that we were able to see their coolness, means that this is actually resonating with a part of who we are – on a harmonic level. But maybe it’s a part of us that we haven’t been able to nurture, nourish, or manifest with yet.
There’s a shark experiment that they did about 25 or 30 years ago.
They had a large group of baby sharks and raised half of them in an underwater tank with horizontal bars, and the other half in a tank with vertical bars. After a period of time, they swapped the sharks into the others’ tank. What happened? They started crashing into the bars. They couldn’t see them. The world they knew was different than this one. They couldn’t see anything other than their previous expectations.
Why is this important?
Let’s say that someone is raised to believe that they are worthless, and then years later enter into a relationship with someone who sees their beauty. They won’t be able to receive this. Why? Because it’s not a part of their world as they’ve come to know it.
That’s one of the creative challenges of therapy: helping people to change their vision so that they can finally see what’s possible, and what’s actually happening. Blindness to the realities before us takes many forms.
What are the qualities that you think make a ‘great’ artist?
One of my favourite artists, since I saw her sing in the mid 80s, is k.d Lang. One of the things I love about her is her ability to “be” the instrument of her music. She would go from singing a sweet love song, to belting something so intensely passionate – coming from deep inside of her. In one performance I saw, she was literally throwing her body on the floor of the stage. She was that impassioned by the music. She was the music. Her sound came from her pipes, but it also came from her body. She was fearless.
For a similar reason, I’ve always loved Barbara Streisand. I love her for her willingness to speak her truth and to do things her own way. People say that she wasn’t the easiest to work with because she was so particular, but I’ve always loved that she didn’t compromise. Her music was also impeccable. It spoke directly to my heart.
Are you happy? And what does happiness mean to you?
I am happy. I have a great deal of happiness in me, but I also have everything else.
I recently received a message from someone that said “in that last video you shared, your eyes looked sad.” I looked at the video, and didn’t see the sadness they were talking about, but that’s okay. There’s a lot to be sad about.
I’m not going to go around like Minnie Mouse being happy all the time. I don’t want people to think that this is life, because I think it’s a misrepresentation of what life is. For me, the depth of happiness is, primarily, being able to serve… even during the worst of times.
The ability to love makes me very happy.
Going deeper now: I think one of the reasons I feel happy is because of the way I view and metabolize what I see around me. I said before that I did all the photography for ‘YUM’. These photos are my wordless experience of life, and they give people a window into my inner world.
They’re probably the most personal sharing in the whole book. There’s magic in the wordless.
If you were to write a letter to a younger self, what’s the hook that you would start the letter with to ensure that you read to the end?
I have such a hard time with hooks!
The only words that are coming to me right now, and I’m not saying that they’re the right ones or the perfect ones, are simply the words: You are exactly the person you’re meant to be.
Implied in that is an acceptance of my uniqueness and my quirkiness. It’s the kind of message that I also try to give to my children, and my therapy clients as well.
How do you deal with doubt, and where do you go for support?
As I’ve stepped into this new world, doubt has come frequently to my doorstep.
Cookbooks aren’t doing great right now. Their sales are soft. As I was working on the book, people would say things like “Oh, you’re putting all this effort in, and nothing is going to come of it.” I do have some friends who believed in me, but no matter what people say, it doesn’t matter if I don’t believe in what I’m doing. With this project, the only way that I’ve truly been successfully dealing with doubt, has been to go inside of myself, and go back to a place of knowing.
I also look for data. I got an all star review from Publisher’s Weekly. That helped. When I get that sort of data, I think “Okay, there’s information here.” But some of the greatest support for my doubt has come from strangers; from people I don’t even know who’s lives have been touched by YUM, giving them hope and successfully guiding them through their own transformation. Their emails and messages have been a life blood for me. Strangers don’t have to say nice things, and when they do it feels like a step above.
This book is the missing piece that will help countless people who have not been helped by the types of resources out there. It is practical and simple—but most of all, it fosters compassion about the challenges associated with changing habits and also honours the realities of the human psyche and experience.
Interestingly, while YUM was not designed to be a weight-loss book, you would not believe how many have reported huge changes in their bodies. Just this past week I learned that one reader has lost almost 40 lbs since using the recipes from the book. I share this with caution, since I really don’t want this to be the reason anyone reads the book. Others have reported shifts in their emotional world and with their relationship with food and their bodies. Still others appreciate finally having ideas of food that they can feed their children or other loved ones with special needs. Again, this book is about possibilities, acknowledging that we all have unique physical, emotional and philosophical needs and preferences.
Do you believe in fate or destiny?
I’m not sure. I think I do. I believe that we all have a calling, but I also believe that we have choice.
I don’t know that we can micromanage and ensure a specific and destined outcome, but we can make choices that will redirect our lives.
If you choose to walk against the wind, it will always feel hard. But if you want to, you can go where the wind is showing you to go. I think we’re pushed in certain directions, but societal beliefs sometimes make us go in directions that are not necessarily consistent with the path that is truly in our hearts.
Linda Gottfredson wrote a research paper about “the theory of circumscription and compromise.” This paper was associated with career paths. She looked at how we learn about who we are, and the world of possibility. If you’re in a minority group, the world of possibility becomes smaller and smaller, and so our idea of who we are becomes smaller and smaller. These beliefs can influence our destiny if we don’t challenge them.
I think that part of my role as a therapist is to help people to challenge these beliefs. Do you believe that you can’t do something? Why?? When you challenge something, you give yourself more breathing space, and create an opportunity for change.
Who are you and what is your identity?
One thing that many people don’t know is that I’m part cat.
Really? That’s why we get along.
I feel like I function in a very multi-dimensional universe that is non-linear. I experience the world and experiences in a spherical manner. But there is also this energetic component to who I am that is very difficult to define in a traditional and linear format.
It’s hard to describe what our inner experience looks/feels like in a way that someone else might understand.
What BOOKS have had the biggest impact on your life?
From a young age, I read a lot of books about the Holocaust. One of those books was The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. It was a book about a Polish girl (a true story) who survived the concentration camp. As an adult she writes about what happened.
I’ve also read a number of books about the black experience. Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin was one.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl was another profoundly impactful book for me, also about the experience of being a Holocaust survivor.
These were defining books for me. What intrigued me about them was not the tragedies and the hardships, but the power of the human spirit to move forward and to survive whatever life has to offer.
I also love Tara Brach. I feel that she and I are soul sisters. I just feel so deeply engaged with her when she speaks and when she writes.
Some of my other favourite books are:
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. The journey through life and trying to figure out who one is, and the experiencing of the journey and trusting that we meet who we’re meant to meet every step of the way offers such beautiful lessons.
Is there anything else that you’d like to say in closing?
Gosh! I said more things then I ever dreamt I would say. Thank you for your presence and your sprit. Creativity is such a nebulous concept, but I think it’s important that it gets nurtured in our society.
For me, creativity is an expression of our uniqueness; of our human soul. The term psychology comes from a Greek origin, and means ‘study of the soul.’ Sometimes we lose that creative piece because of our desire to be like everyone else. But the whole planet will benefit from our gifts. I think the more that we can share our uniqueness, the more we can better address some of the problems that we’re facing as a species.
About Theresa Nicassio
Dr. Theresa Nicassio (“The Inclusive Chef”), Registered Psychologist, author, and gourmet raw food chef, is an integrative mind-body wellness expert who has been educating and empowering clients, students and the public since 1987. In addition to other international awards and accolades, including a Silver Medal for the Nautilus Better Books for a Better World Competition, a Bronze IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) and a starred Publishers Weekly Review, her bestselling book, YUM: plant-based recipes for a gluten-free diet was a Next Generation Indie Awards Gold Medal Winner, as well as receiving the honour of winning the 2015 GOURMAND World Cookbook Award as the Best Diet Book in Canada for the public. The book has also been short-listed for the 2016 GOURMAND Best In The World Award in the same category. Dr. Nicassio contributes to public awareness through public speaking, her blog yumfoodforliving.com, social media, magazine articles, TV, radio and other media outlets.
Dr. Theresa Nicassio will be travelling to Yantai China for Gourmand International’s Best in the World Awards event in May.
The 368-page allergy-friendly resource book, YUM: plant-based recipes for a gluten-free diet, has a scope that extends far beyond the typical cookbook in any genre. YUM is an unprecedented comprehensive resource that is invaluable for anyone with special dietary needs (e.g. due to food sensitivities, autoimmune challenges, heart disease, cancer or diabetes), that is also relevant for anyone desiring to live a healthier, happier or more conscious life.
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