I would like to share a real and recent story to demonstrate the long term benefits one of my clients got from investing in themselves. Her name is Ingrid and she has generously agreed to me sharing her story in the hope it may help others.
I first met Ingrid in 2012 when she came to me describing feeling very lost with life. Ingrid found her job difficult, people unhelpful and was feeling depressed. Added to this she had two young children and was feeling somewhat trapped by the burden of responsibility this brought. Ingrid’s situation is certainly not an uncommon one.
One of the homework tasks I invited Ingrid to undertake was completing a VIA Character Strengths* survey. The results of this scientifically proven survey gave us a list of Ingrid’s 24 strengths of character, listed in order of her preference for using them. Understanding your Character Strengths gives you an opportunity to operate out of your top strengths more often. When one engages in their top strengths it is energising, making any task seem easier, and increases wellbeing and life satisfaction.
The other benefit in knowing the order of preference you use your character strengths, is that it helps you also become aware of lower order strengths too. In Ingrid’s case, the strengths of ‘Hope’ and ‘Gratitude’ were in her bottom 20. This doesn’t make them weaknesses, they are all strengths, but it does indicate she would have to be very intentional to use these strengths because they are so low in her preferences.
The abundance of research# on Character Strengths has shown people who experience higher life satisfaction have the following strengths up high:
- Zest (energy)
Knowing Ingird was feeling lost and depressed, I decided one way forward would be to intentionally build her strengths of hope (the antithesis of depression) and gratitude (Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, confirms gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression).
Ingrid diligently practiced the interventions I gave to her to build ‘hope’ and ‘gratitude’. In a fairly short space of time she reported feeling much happier and in control. In fact, she enjoyed doing the gratitude intervention so much, she has continued, in a less formal way but become very intentional about being thankful for all the good things in her life.
Fast forward three years, Ingird calls me out of blue to share some devastating news – she has been diagnosed with a tumour in her brain that is growing rapidly. The good news is it’s not malignant, yet still life threatening if not removed. The brain surgery involves an 8 – 10 hour operation which will leave her permanently deaf in her right ear. She will also experience paralysis to the right side of her face and tongue. This should regain feeling in the coming months but no guarantee. Further to this, she will need to re-learn to walk because the removal of her inner right ear disrupts her balance. By any measure this is a very serious and complicated operation.
Ingrid called me not simply to share the bad news but to proactively put steps in place to enhance her recovery phase. She asked me to be there post-surgery to assist her to move forward in the best way emotionally possible. What a privilege. I feel honoured to be asked and I didn’t hesitate to assure her I will do all I can to support her.
A couple of things really struck me in my pre-operation phone conversations with Ingrid. She was incredibly calm and matter-of-fact about facing the operation. She decided to focus on one thing only – to survive the operation. Anything beyond surviving was considered a bonus. What else I noticed was how surrounded with loving and caring people she was. Not being from Australia, her sister and mother had flown in to be at her side, to care for the children and support her husband. Her work colleagues, friends and associates were bending over backwards to show their love, care and support. On top of all of this, despite Ingrid’s insistence her focus was just on surviving the operation, she spoke with real hope. Deep down she believed in her surgeon, and trusted her own determination, her love and her bravery.
As if her pre-operation outlook wasn’t already mind-blowing for how optimistic she was, nothing could have prepared me for the text message I received exactly 9 days after the surgery. The text said she was home, going really well and wondering when we could have our first catch-up. Nine days after major brain surgery! I visited her two days later and the amazement continues. I had prepared myself for Ingrid to have had her head shaved, face swollen, unable to walk unaided. What I actually saw was a beautiful, vibrant women greet me at the door – most of her hair, looking as radiant as ever and walking only a little more slowly than normal……11 days after major brain surgery.
How was it that Ingird had already bounced back so well? I reflected on this and also on many other clients I had seen flourish through their adversity.
I notice there are three things people have in common who bounce back after adversity:
- They have an optimistic and hopeful mindset. They truly believe things will be alright. They create their destiny through positive thoughts and actions.
- They are deeply grateful for all the good things in their life. They proactively hunt for the good every day. Small gifts from nature are gratefully taken-in – the lovely sunset, new budding flower or dramatic thunderstorm. As are their friendships, none taken for granted, all valued and cherished.
- They surround themselves with wonderful people. People who care and love them. This love they receive is simply the love they constantly radiate out, coming back to them in spadesful – but they don’t see it like that. They just feel honoured to receive such love and care; it lifts them.
Ingrid didn’t get herself to that place by accident. She had invested in bettering herself for the year’s prior by building her strengths of hope and gratitude. They had become a part of who she now is and how she thinks. This gave her a fresh, new, resilient and optimistic mindset. Little did she know this operation lay ahead of her but she says herself she doesn’t know how she could have faced it if she was still feeling how she was when I first saw her in 2012.
Ingrid goes so far as to say she is grateful for the tumour which has further deepened her gratitude for life. She describes feeling no fear any more for anything life brings to her. She’s faced this with enormous bravery (also one of her top Character Strengths!) and self-compassion. It has been my absolute honour to have witnessed the dedication to her personal growth and see the benefits all these years later.
Every single day I feel incredibly privileged to have people share their lives with me. Often sharing very intimate and sometimes challenging conversations. Ingrid’s story is one example of the long-term benefits you can have by putting in the self-development time and effort. She has reaped the rewards 10 fold during this very challenging time and has come out even happier from the experience.
So how can you develop your hope, gratitude and friendships? That will be covered off in next month’s blog.
* The fantastic free Character Strengths survey can be found at www.viame.org