The road back to positive emotions and inner strength for those of us who have passed through challenges and adversities is not a predictable one. Just as we think we have the next stations on our footpath figured out, the route changes. We lose our map. We break a leg. There’s a downpour, a landslide. The map goes out of date. We have to buy new shoes, or stop for a break.
We may bump into multiple and confusing signs that say, “this way, not that way”, or we may run out of signs altogether. Every now and then, we’ll encounter roadblocks that need to be worked through. We might walk into someone else’s territory and have to escape their firing range. We may be taken hostage by other people and their plans. Or we might run out of fuel and be forced off the road.
There, in the dark depths of our own minds, we may crumble. The strength and positivity that we have so far gained can be flattened in an instant by a force greater than our own. Standing amidst the debris of a life we were trying to rebuild, there can be every reason to doubt whether we were really cut out for this kind of journey in the first place. Would it be easier to stay where we are?
The journey I am describing is one that people recovering from periods of acute or chronic stress, or navigating post-traumatic growth, can face. There may be a euphoric moment when we understand the adversity or stressor we once endured is over. In that positive place, we dare to believe that another life – a better life – is possible. We might even sit down and chart this life out, significant goals and all, and feel incredibly hopeful that this new experience of life will work out.
But then, as we embark on the actual process of change, we will learn (perhaps the hard way) that the fuel we need to carry us beyond this place is one that cannot be bought. Rather, it is one that must be made. Other people may support us in various ways, if we are lucky, but at the end of each day it will be us, alone with our thoughts, reflecting on the beliefs and behaviours that keep getting in the way. We will need to dig ourselves out of our own negative ditches if we are to find our way.
This inner landscape with all it’s highs and lows is one I know well. I’ve spent the past decade finding my way through various phases of personal development and post-traumatic growth, and reducing unnecessary stressors. Unlearning patterns of deeply engrained beliefs and behaviours associated with the triggers, and choosing ones that served me better, formed the bulk of my inner work. Allowing the stress and trauma to change me for the better was the other part.
Personality matters when it comes to belief and behavioural change. And personality is an aspect of ourselves that can be so deeply engrained. For myself, a stubborn perseverance, watery heart, and desire for achievement seem to have been imprinted on a young age. These traits served me well in life and work throughout my teens, twenties, and early thirties. And then, when I hit 37, they didn’t.
For a long time, life was a solo journey to be conquered. If I wanted to get anywhere, I had to put in the hard work. The grades, the jobs, the other achievements I sought. I worked hard and persevered, and forged my own path in life. Where others turned right, I turned left. While others gave up, I powered through. I wasn’t interested in following the pack and that mindset took me far but it also took me far alone. People couldn’t be relied on, was the overriding belief, so I must rely on myself.
When multiple stresses and traumas hit, during a particularly challenging phase, I did what I had always done. I rolled my sleeves up and got to work. I turned recovery into a challenge of achievement. I used its negative remnants as fodder for personal growth. I continued to move forwards on the outside but inside of me, something had gotten stuck. A wheel had stopped turning and it was then that the watery dam burst and I realised something profound. That stress and recovery are always happening side by side, and that I needed a better way to manage the two.
Over the past few years, I’ve written extensively on the process of recovery from acute and chronic stress, and post-traumatic growth. After blogging for a couple of years, I wrote my first book, Wild Zen, which outlines an archetypal journey beyond violence, conflict, stress, trauma, and adversity. A toolkit followed, Wild Zen Journeys, and 3 years later, Cherry Blossom Dojo, a book on inner strength, was released. These books share my own stories as well as those of others.
Multiple training courses and professional development as an executive coach unfolded parallel to these training courses. By the time the watery dam burst, I had spent 14 years of being present to people in situations of distress and despair. I had also been fortunate to receive plenty of therapeutic support, which alleviated much of the stress and supported emotional growth and maturity along the way. Not to mention spiritual support that frequently came way.
I share this backdrop to explain that my approach to fostering positive emotions and inner strength is not one that comes with an expectation that either of these feats are easy to achieve. Rather, I see them both as muscles that need to be worked out each day. To generate positive emotions and cultivate inner strength, we need to understand what they are and how they are formed. Then explore ways to create and sustain them, that are personal and progressive to us.
My watery dam burst while studying Positive Psychology. Perhaps it was the subject or maybe I was ripe for it, but when my tutor asked me if I was flourishing (imagine a seed turning into a flower and rising up to meet the sun), I fell silent then quietly fell apart. I saw the truth of what I had become and what the first half of my life had been about. I had cultivated a brittle strength that proved I could survive, but had I developed a deeper well of strength that could be a source of positive inner fuel?
It was an ego-shattering moment. Suddenly, the pride of having survived multiple encounters with life dissipated and its place were a barrage of questions. What is flourishing for me? In which environment would I best flourish? What if that environment is not where I currently am? I then saw what a survival-based path does to some of us. It forces us to be resourceful and make do with what we have, and those are noble traits, but operating in survival mode and being one step ahead of the game for too long can eventually wear us out.
There are physiological ways of explaining this. Hormonal haywire, poor energy levels, even worse sleep. Physical tension holding patterns in a chronically nervous body. I had developed recovery systems for these, drawing on my training in yoga and martial arts. I had also explored links between nutrition, hydration, and inflammation. Self-care was my ultimate “go-to” for stress recovery but it was only when the watery dam burst that I realised that this was no longer enough. I realised that in order to move forwards, I would have to let it all fall apart, and watch from the sidelines as it did.
Authenticity is one of the first casualties of war and conflict. To feel and sometimes even remain safe, we learn to do and say what is expected in order to minimise any external threats. This is a well researched area of child development psychology. Many children learn to be what others want, instead of strengthening who they already are. It is only later on in life, perhaps at the mid-way point or as a result of adversity that we realise just how much of ourselves is lying dormant.
The world is constructed in a way that often rewards us for being someone else. Take work, for example. We adopt or are adopted by job titles and organisational cultures. People who do not take on roles in places that are aligned with their true selves will grumble but eventually tow the line. Some will pay lip service while others will buy into the role they are playing in order to make it easier to bear. It’s much easier to tout our professional record than dare to say it isn’t really what we want.
A crisis, an awakening, whatever it is that shakes our boat can be an unexpected gift for figuring this out. These processes, brought on by stress or trauma, can also turn out to the be the roads that lead us home. Home, back to our selves, back to our authentic selves. To make this journey back, we will need to shift out of a negative mindset, which may have “protected” us so far, and find ways to cultivate the inner strength we need to generate the positive emotions to carry us home.
If you are on a stress recovery path, or navigating post-traumatic growth, you may well relate to the idea of reconstructing home. Acute and chronic stress can throw us off centre and make it harder to recalibrate in the direction of home. You may find yourself searching for answers far and wide, all driven by a desire to feel better or more like yourself again. Some answers will fuel you for a while and then, you will realise there are other pieces to this puzzle.
The whole picture of recovery isn’t revealed to us all at once. While some people can have a short journey through this terrain, others may find it takes years. Our identities and personalities are shaken by whatever we have experienced or endured. We will have to reconstruct ourselves in the process of finding home and because that it difficult work, it is all too easy to find ourselves turning to quick-fixes and falling for shot-term promises of escape.
Wisdom is an integral part of this path. It arrives through the process of becoming and being authentic, and gradually leaving the past with all its negative experiences and coping strategies behind. Wisdom teaches us that pain is inevitable in life. People will die, including us, and we will get sick and hurt. And yet there will be joy and contentment too, if we consciously seek these states out. For rarely will they appear in any lasting way unless we choose them to also be part of our path.
Introducing the Inner Strength Program
After a decade of exploring, researching, studying, and writing about the process of navigating stress and post-traumatic growth, I’m finally bringing the best (and worst) of what I have learned into an educational coaching program. The program, Inner Strength, is designed for people in the middle to latter stages of post-traumatic growth and those who are challenged by everyday stress.
This 12-week program is designed to help participants rewire their brain and body to enter positive states on a more regular basis using my Inner Athletics Movement and Training Systems. Together with 1:1 coaching, there will be educational material drawn from the fields of Positive Psychology, Fitness, Yoga, and the Martial Arts, as well as self-led exercises for personal growth in between the coaching sessions. It will be rich and empowering journey for those who are ready to take it on.
As a program leader, I’m transparent about my own journey to positive emotions and inner strength. I write openly and share my experience as a mentor where appropriate. But this program isn’t about me or where I’ve been. It is all about the participant and where they are and are going. It’s about offering the insights and tools I have acquired and trained in, and making them available to others. If you would like to learn more, please visit the program page here.
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