So I got a call from your management about a week ago asking me if I could come and talk to you about "Wellness". And....as you know....because that topic keeps LOTS of magazines in business.....it's a fairly broad topic. So I explored with them a little bit about what specifically they were looking for: Who is it for? How many people will there be? What positions do they hold in the company? What do you want them to walk away with? Well, the answer was....all types of people, working in all levels of jobs in the organization and we want you to be upbeat. So I had to tease and say....."So let me get this straight.....You want me to talk to an organization that has suffered a major trauma and is still dealing with the stress about that for an 'hour' in a room with poor acoustics about large topic of 'trauma' and the broad topic of 'wellness' and have them walk away feeling motivated and inspired and not preached at. "Ok" I said, "I'll do it!!"
So let me begin by just telling you just a little bit about trauma and its impact on the individual and an organization and then hopefully by the end of my talk we'll get to the motivation and inspired part. Before I do that, though, let me just say that I believe that we are all just somewhere on the continuum of health and dysfunction. Over the past 5 years I have read two books that illustrate that point very well. I read The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and Nelson Mandela's autobiography. The Glass Castle is about a girl who grew up as a street person. Her parents and her family were squatters in abandoned homes and railway buildings and her father was an alcoholic. So clearly there were issues of dysfunction there. Yet at one point in the book, the Dad takes his daughter, on her birthday, out into the night. He asks her to look up into the sky and "pick a star.....any star". He tells her, "That is my gift for you. Whenever you look up at that star, I want you to think about how much I love you." Now I think that's a really loving and healthy thing to do when you have no money....don't you?
The other book I read was Nelson Mandela's autobiography. Now, there is no question that he is a spiritual leader for our time. To be able to fight for the rights of the black people, endure imprisonment, help to end apartheid, come out with compassion and love for his oppressors, and be able to rule the land and work alongside them is a spiritual feat that few of us would ever be able to traverse. However, the thought I remember having is that I could see him and his family coming in for family therapy because he chose the cause. There would have been other black men that he knew that would have refused to push back against apartheid the way he did, knowing that they would end up in jail and that they would not be there to participate in the raising of their children. It is possible that Nelson Mandela's children have anger and abandonment issues as a result of his choices. So I think we're all just somewhere on the contiuum of health and dysfunction and we're all just doing the best we can with what we've got. I think we're all healthy in some ways and not in others. None of us is "fully cooked" or has it all completely figured out.
So back to trauma and its impact on us. If I was in a car accident as a child and no one talked to me about it because everyone was focused on being glad I just survived, then one of two things could happen. (1) I don't make meaning of it. It was just something that happened, I say "Phew" and life carries on it's merry way or (2) I make meaning out of the event and it affects my sense of self and my world view. If the meaning I made was positive then I might cope in more positive ways as a result and develop self confidence or begin making healthier choices than I had before. If I form negative beliefs about myself as a result of the event, then similarly, I will develop unhelpful coping mechanisms to protect myself from that negative judgement. If you chose door number 2 then you wear those negative beliefs like a pair of lenses and you look for incidents in your life to validate your theory. If I believed that the car accident was my fault and I'm an idiot because I'd been fighting with my sister at the time of the accident then I take those beliefs with me throughout my life and into all my relationships. It literally works the same way as a movie projector. The film is in the projector and when the light goes through it then the image ends up on the blank screen. Whenever there is a blank screen and people are saying nothing or someone IS treating me poorly, then I reinforce that belief. So, to give an example of this, I had the privilege of going with the Waterloo Regional Police Critical Incident team down to New York after 9/11 and for a week we helped to debrief police officers that had participated in the Twin Towers incident. Some people, as you can imagine, had decided that it wasn't safe to do their jobs anymore. They had become scared and isolated and had to work through negative beliefs they had and start to focus again on what they had control of and to find joy and meaning in their world again. Others, decided as a result of what they'd experienced that they loved their spouse and kids and realised that they wanted to work on learning to communicate with their spouses better and enjoy the time they have with their children more because they had become aware of how fragile life is and how quickly it could end.
So our thoughts play a big part in how we experience our lives. We are our healthiest selves when our left brain and our right brain are working together. The left brain is generally known as the part of the brain that is adept at tasks that involve logic, language and analytical thinking. The right brain is the part of the brain that is known to be adept at tasks such as creativity, intuition and emotions. So when we grow up we increasingly use our left brains but our vulnerability, our feelings, our passion for life and our sense of connection comes from our right brain.
So, when I come to work at an organization after I have formed those negative mistaken beliefs in childhood, I will - often just internally - replay those old negative beliefs and cope in the old and ineffective ways that I did as a child. These are not choices that we make consciously. I think for all of us, when you are part of the picture, you can't see the frame. I wrote a card to my stepson who just graduated from highschool and is 19 and an adult now. And I said how proud I am of him and how amazing I think he is, etc. And then I said, "Here's what I've learned as an adult: You think you know and then you get to be 10 years older and you realize how much you didn't know .....until you get to be 10 years older ...etc." I also encouraged him to be careful about how he thinks about people because , by nature, we all look for information to confirm our beliefs about people. No matter what, I think people are doing the best they can with what they've got and I think we all make mistakes and we all deserve to be forgiven and to forgive ourselves and learn from our mistakes and make it different.
So, we've looked at how trauma can form belief systems in our minds and then cause us to behave in less than helpful ways but I also want to put that into the external context of our culture right now. We live in a 'hurry up', 'be perfect', critical, entitled society that focuses on success being about making money and having things. We live in a culture where reality TV shows like Canadian Idol thrive and we sit on our couches and saying "ahhhh....bit pitchy and off key" to some 17 year old that's trying their best in front of millions of people!!! This is a culture where if we don't shoot to super-stardom immediately then it's not worth the effort. I think when we are viewing that kind of criticism and high expectation all the time, the result is that most people live with some level of fear of being shamed and being perceived of as 'not okay'. We are also becoming 'not nice' as a cultural norm. We live in a world where cyberbullying is commonplace and gossiping about other people is so commonplace that I really don't think we know when we are doing it anymore. At Christmas time I thanked the teller at the grocery store and wished her a "Happy Holiday". She looked visibly shocked and told me that people don't do that and that the grumpiness gets worse, not better, at that time of year, which shocked me. I have a friend who works at the police department. She's worked there for 35 years and she told me that it was just a month ago that someone asked her, for the first time since she'd worked for the department, how she was doing!!! To me these are simple, commonplace things that are so easy to do that make a difference in people's lives.
I think this lack of kindness can be particularly true for heavily laden, stressed, predominantly 'left-brained' organizations. So for organizations such as the fire department, hospitals, police, prison systems, Family and Children's Services etc., the focus can become about rules and regulations and doing things perfectly because when safety is involved we have to be more careful and detailed. However, we need to hear the message that our humanity matters more than our behaviour or our performance. When I do couple counselling, I will tell folks that in order to have a healthy relationship we need to have 4 positive messages and appreciations to every one constructive criticism or complaint. 4 - 1. I think that goes for relationship we have within ourselves as well as the relationships we have with each other, whether it be at home and in our workplace.
So how do we affirm ourselves positively? Well, we do that when we pay attention to what matters to us. One of the things that matters the most to people is the kinds of messages they get. I don't know anyone who wants to be told, "You don't deserve...", "It's all your fault", "You're a failure", "You don't matter" or "You're not loveable". This is where culturally we don't tend to separate out who the person is from their behaviour. That 17-year-old singer on Canadian Idol ultimately is okay AND he may have missed some notes in his singing. If his internal messages to himself were, "I'm a loser and a failure and I'll never be good at anything," then he would have to learn to affirm himself and think "I'm okay. I'm courageous for trying. I did my best and I miss a few notes." He needs to take responsibility for his self-esteem back from Simon Cowell and separate who he is from Simon Cowell's behaviour and his own mistakes and behaviour. This is called positive self-talk. For people who find journalling helpful, I will often recommend that they end their journalling with positive messages that counteract any negative self-talk that was coming out during the course of their writing.
Other things that matter might be information, or relationships or aesthetics. To get you started in figuring this out I'm going to ask you to take our your pens and brainstorm with me for a couple of minutes . So first of all I want you to think about your sense of sight. Are you someone who likes nature? Animals? Fine art? The colour purple? Just jot down as many things you can think of that you appreciate looking at. Maybe it's watching your kids play hockey or sitting on your front porch, watching a thunderstorm. Now brainstorm about what you like kinesthetically. Are you someone who likes to take a walk in nature? Do you crave a hammock? Are you all about the spa and getting a massage? Write as quickly as you can and get as detailed as you want. Maybe you love the texture of nice clothes on your skin or the feel of good skin creams. Maybe it is the peace and calm in your body as you meditate or do Tai Chi. And how about taste? Do you like savory? Sweet? Crunch? Spice? Candy? Chocolate? Moving along, how about smells? Do you like perfumes? The smell of fresh air? Lemon? And what about music and sound? ...are you a symphony goer? ...someone who enjoys Stuart McLean and his folksy Canadiana stories on the radio? ...listening to your kids giggle and tell stories? ...the rhythmic pitter patter of water falling off the end of the canoe paddle as you are canoeing on a lake? ...a crackling fire? I want you to take all those ideas you've just brainstormed and now I want you to close your eyes and imagine for yourself a safe place. It can be indoors or outdoors. For those of you that don't visualize well, don't worry. You might just get a 'sense' of a way of being that is about breathing deeply and feeling calm. If you are visualizing, then I want you to heighten the colours. Pay attention to the textures. Listen for any sounds you might hear. Notice the temperature on your skin. And take some time to really let yourself experience the safety of being in this place that you've created. Take a few more breaths and then gently open your eyes.
How was that? Did you feel safe? On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being "yes you felt very safe," how many of you were able to create a place that was a 7 or higher? Okay. Good. Now, think for a minute. How often do you feel that safe when you are in your workplace? And yet you are here now. So safety is partially an experience that we create internally and it's not just a thing we are powerless around externally. Now, I know I'm going to get all kinds of flack about that when I have just talked about our cultural context. Yes, context matters. AND, I wouldn't give it all the power. If I was working with that 17 year old singer from Canadian Idol in counselling, I would work with him on the negative judgements that he thought Simon Cowell would give him and how he could stay separate from that and not give him that much power. That he's OK no matter what Simon Cowell thinks of him. So it's a both/and. Context matters AND you can't give it all the power to define who you are. Anyone who has been a parent of a teenager can vouch for what I'm talking about.
How we define ourselves is at the root of so many of our situations in life. Ultimately at a spiritual level, we are all okay. It becomes complicated when you are dealing with difficult behaviours or systems that are shut down or oppressive. So within that we need to think about what we have control of and what is realistic in terms of change and how we impact any system that we are in. So, for example, Obama won his first campaign to be President based on the message, "Yes we can!!!" That message inspired millions of people to vote for him and have hope that things could and would be different. Once in power though, the context of the situation became that Congress chose not to agree with his ideas and the reality was that he did not have as much influence in government to sway opinions as he thought because the system had not decided it wanted to work together towards and common outcome. This 'stuckness' can occur from the bottom up or the top down. So when we are put in a difficult situation, we always need to focus on the part we have control of and not what we don't. If the President gets triggered by the resistance of Congress to hear his ideas and that reminds him of when he was not heard as a child and he chooses to have a temper tantrum to try and 'make people do it his way', then he probably will continue to not be heard or he will end up with employees who are compliant but not happy. His job is to affirm himself and remind himself that he deserves to be listened to and that this is not personal what is happening. Then he needs to strategize about how he is going to get heard. It is very possible that President Clinton was triggered by the powerlessness he felt when he was President and that didn't have as much influence and power as he thought he would when he became President. And it's possible that that caused him to cope by "not having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky". My guess is that he is much happier now because his job has changed and he really is making a difference in Africa with the work his foundation is doing. He probably has more power and control now than when he was President. So the reason why I'm giving you these examples is that I want you to understand how trauma works internally in an individual and then I want you to understand how to perceive it systemically. If trauma is the proverbial 'Elephant in the room' then every individual impacted by it will have a different experience of that same thing. One person, in effect will describe the trauma and say, "Well, it's long and wrinkly and curls up at the front and is kind of moist at the end". Another person might say, "Yeah, it's wrinkly but it's fat and strong all the way down". Another might say, "It's wrinkly but there's fuzzy hair at the end".
When I was working with a blended family that had split up and some of the kids had lived at one house and some lived at another and then the teens had gotten into drugs etc etc. I gave them each a turn to name what their experience had been and what they thought people had been thinking negatively about them and what they needed to hear in order to heal. Each family member was shocked to hear the experience of the other members of the family. To hear the pain and the negative judgements that the other person had internalized and that the behaviours they had witnessed were as a result of coping from the original trauma and those judgements and not done purposely to intend harm. In that family they decided that there would be a rule of "No complaints without solutions" and they were able to move away from the finger pointing at each other and move towards 'doable' solutions that they all agreed would help them with their goal of being happier.
Lance Sectretan wrote a book called Reclaiming Higher Ground and it was about how organizations got people to feel better about their jobs and have more 'buy in' re: the outcomes because of how they were treated. He talks about finding out about what makes people tick and seeing if some of that motivation can be built into the workplace. And he wasn't talking about raises because studies show that, after a certain level of income, people don't actually get happier when they have more money. He is talking about the little things like someone being able to drop their kid off at daycare and pick up a coffee and start work at 9:00 instead of 8:30. Or someone being able to have an extra half hour at lunch and stay later at the end of the day so they can run and shower at lunch. People complimenting each other. People having input into what would make the organization function better so they feel a sense of pride and buy in. Supervisors having a bowl of candy on their desks that they invite people to share in. Asking how someone's child is doing when you know that their child has been in the hospital. The context of what you do as an organization is not going to change but how kind and humane you can be towards each other can. And that matters for all of you.
I often teach clients a reality check game when they have told me that they are going to be in a situation that is difficult for them. So it goes like this. Think of a situation that you find difficult to deal with. Something that is a 6 or7 out of 10 on a scale of distress. I don't want you getting too churned up during this! So now, I want you to write down your predictions about what will happen when you go into that context. If it's Christmas maybe your mother-in-law will complain that you guys don't decorate the tree properly. Maybe a brother-in-law always gets drunk and flirts with your wife. Brainstorm as many things as you can about what annoying things may happen. Now come up with a point system. Give yourself 5 points for everything that happens that you predicted correctly and at the end of the event have a list of rewards that you get to choose from. When my stepson was going through some teenage rebellion stuff I would give myself 2 points every time he was negative and oppositional and once I reached 10 points I would buy clothes from my favourite store......and let me tell you....I got some nice blouses out of that stage of our lives together!!! So when you are powerless around things externally, it doesn't mean that you don't have the power to stay separate from it internally. Every time you have predicted correctly, instead of feeling hooked, you can think "Yeah...it's on my list" and feel a sense of satisfaction and humour. And you can play this game with a partner too. If the external situation is something stressful for both you and your spouse, you can make separate lists and at the end of the night whoever has more points gets a footrub or doesn't have to put the kids to bed or whatever!!! Be creative! The point is to not let the external event have so much power that it throws your day off. And this is a difficult skill for some people because, coming back to context, we are trained in this culture to focus on the drama and not the solution or the part that we have control of!
So let's do a review. We've talked a little bit about how trauma can impact us internally in terms of our sense of self and how we perceive the world. We've talked about cultural context and how to affirm yourself internally with what matters. We've talked about how to create internally safety and how to not give too much power over to external situations. We've talked a bit about how we can be triggered by the systems we're in and how systems need to work together in order to become healthier. And we've talked about 'reality checks' and how to stay internally separate from externally triggering situations and people.
So now I want to do a review about the common things we know about how to deal with stress.
- Eat well. Studies are coming out about how nutrition plays a huge part in how well the brain functions and heals itself after trauma or during stress. Stay away from junk food and alcohol if you can.
- Get lots of sleep but not too much. No matter how old we get, we all turn into grumpy children when we haven't had enough sleep or we fall out of having good sleep routines.
- Work hard. Play hard. Both of these things make you feel better about yourself and help you to think positively about yourself.
- Think positively about yourself and others. Don't gossip....not just because it's mean....but also because you drain your own energy.
Okay, another quick exercise. Turn to the person next to you. One of you put out your arm. The other person push down on the top of their hand and I want the first person to resist the pressure. Now if you have your arm out, I want you to think a negative thought. It could be a negative thought about yourself or something you're angry about or you might think about someone you don't like. I want your partner to push down on your hand and try to keep the same consistency re: the pressure and you resist against it. Now I want you to think of a positive thought. Again, have your partner push down on your arm while you resist it. Change and let the other person try it. Did you notice a difference? When you had the negative thought you weren't as strong were you? So we literally drain our own energy when we get stuck in negative thinking without moving through to solutions. Another thing I hear a lot of is that there is no time for self-care. So now I'm going to get you to brainstorm with the partner that you just paired up with and come up with quick and easy ways that you can take the self-care ideas you came up with earlier and break them down into small time frames and bring them into the workplace. So for example, if you said you like the colour purple....maybe you start using purple pens. If you like nature, maybe you take a walk at lunch. If you enjoy symphony music maybe you listen to your iPod when you are doing your paperwork.
All in all, the most important thing for your relationship with yourself and with your family and in the workplace is that you've gotta have hope and you've got to be focused primarily on things you have control of and not the things you don't in order to be really happy!!!! When I get together for peer supervision with other colleagues of mine, we all have different styles and use different therapeutic techniques but the one things we all agree on regarding whether people heal is whether they believe that there is hope for them to make the situation different. I think you can make it different if you decide to make it different. Jack Layton said "You can wait forever for perfect conditions or you can make the best of what you've got now." BE THE CHANGE!! Make your life count. Focus on what you have control of and do tangable things to make yourself matter every day.
Thank you very much.