In North America April is National Volunteer month – a time to acknowledge and celebrate the work that volunteers do for their communities and to encourage volunteerism. Both myself and my husband volunteer and through that work, and the people we meet, we are constantly reminded about the importance of perspective. Often, this reminder is a kick up the backside. It’s much more than a friendly nudge to stop worrying about the small stuff that we can’t control or to stop being self-critical and taking ourselves too seriously when we don’t live up to (our) expectations.
My husband volunteers for an organisation that provides year-around, recreational programs for people of all ages with physical, sensory or cognitive disabilities. He is a Ski Instructor in their adaptive sports programme, helping clients achieve their sport, therapeutic or lifelong goals. It’s inspiring to see someone wearing a vest that says ‘Blind Skier’ skiing black diamond runs (steep terrain for experts) or watch someone make their first independent turns in their sit-ski. It’s humbling to watch them navigate day-to-day tasks that we take for granted, which they do with grit and determination and usually a smile.
The common thread that connects the people we feel privileged to meet through the adaptative sports programme is their mindset. They have decided that life is what you make it. They don’t spend all their time in pity parties, they are too busy participating in life, achieving their goals, making life work, as best they can, adapting and changing what doesn’t work to find what does.
We know from neuroscience that ‘Behavioural Activation Therapy’ (being a participant and not a spectator) alters the activity in the circuits in our brain that are responsible for regulating emotion, motivation and habit. Our brains love it when we participate in fun, meaningful activities, smash our goals, exercise and connect with others. We feel happy, energised and like we are more in control of our life. When we are idle or isolated, we are more likely to dwell on the negative parts of ourselves or our lives and get stuck in a downward spiral that can lead to, or exacerbate, anxiety and bad moods.
My role as a volunteer with the Make-A-Wish Foundation occasionally floors me and last weekend it took me a little longer than usual to pick myself up and get some perspective. I was asked to meet a family whose 2.5-year-old son had relapsed again from Acute Myeloid Leukemia and was now receiving palliative care. My job was to find out what this child’s wish would be, so we could make that dream a reality and create some lifetime memories for his family. I was greeted with smiles and gratitude; our time together was playful and hopeful. I left feeling overwhelmed by the courage and love in this young family and stunned by the circumstances they were facing. Often when we feel sad, we tend to focus on what is true and it’s not always helpful. It is true that this child has terminal cancer and his family won’t see him grow up. It’s not helpful to focus on that or imagine all the things that they won’t get to experience as a family. What none of us can control are the circumstances we face in life, or the thoughts that pop into our minds. Thoughts are just thoughts; “whispers from our limbic system” as Alex Korb says in The Upward Spiral Workbook. So, while it’s important to listen to our thoughts it’s the interpretation of those thoughts that will determine how we feel. The key is to decide which thoughts are helpful and choose not to give the unhelpful thoughts any more attention than they deserve. After some time (too much, if I’m honest) dwelling on the unfairness and loss for this family, I realised I needed to reframe the way I was thinking about this situation before my limbic ‘brain’ got carried away and hurled me down the black hole of despair.
Often, I can reframe my thoughts quickly by switching my attention to something positive or finding perspective through gratitude and being thankful for the good things and people in my life. When I notice my thoughts are spiralling downwards or circling, like a dog chasing its tail, I find it helps to first write them down – old school, with a pen and paper. I trust myself to keep tipping out whatever is in my head until I come to a stop. I don’t censor or evaluate, I just scribble. Sometimes, that is enough. Other times, I will review the list and find the thought (usually an untrue assumption or belief) that is most in my way and reframe that to something that is true and gives me a perspective that is more helpful.
We learn through The Winning Edge Programme that 80% of success can be attributed to the appropriate positive attitude or mindset. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean we have to be positive, or feel happy, all the time. Negative emotion and experience are part of the human experience and we will have negative thoughts and feelings. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with us. It simply means we are human and alive, experiencing life as it is.
By Hazel Morley
About the Author: Hazel has worked as a Trainer, Facilitator and Coach for over 25 years, a number of which were spent as an Associate for Mancroft International. She believes in an inside-out approach to personal development and change and thrives on helping others who are ready to exercise their response-ability for being the best version of themselves. Her mantra is ‘always do what you think you might regret not doing’.
Hazel transformed her lifestyle in 2009, when she relocated to beautiful British Columbia, Canada. She gives credit to the Winning Edge principles for the nudge to move to the mountains. Since living in Canada, Hazel has expanded her portfolio of enabling others to achieve their career goals to include ways to create optimal health and live with vitality. She is fascinated by the power of the mind-body-lifestyle connection and the body’s innate ability to protect and heal us from disease.