By: Ruth Pearce
Have you ever noticed that thriving seems like a force of nature? When things are tough, nature finds a way to overcome adversity and flourish. Flowers grow in the cracks of sidewalks, foxes find a way to adjust to living in the city. In an article from 2015, the Guardian reported that there is a wealth of wildlife near Chernobyl, despite continuing high levels of radiation and original projections that the area would be devoid of life for generations to come.
I see the same drive to thrive every day, in my family, my friends and my clients. I even see that drive to thrive in my dogs.
My first dog Harry was the runt of the litter. He was afraid of everything and failed every puppy test. The entire litter had already been sold and the seller told me I should wait for the next litter. Instead, I took him home and he learned to thrive. He overcame his fear of people, noises, sudden movement and other dogs, and became the most sociable happy-go-lucky dog. He even helped a little girl get over her fear of dogs and thrive, too!
Sally was a rescue. She had lived cooped up in an apartment, was underfed and scared of everything. She gained confidence and learned to thrive. We were warned she would always eat everything in sight and we would have to monitor her eating, and constantly watch her weight. She learned to manage her own appetite, only eating what she needed. She became an explorer and adventurer. She was feisty, funny and confident.
Our dog Milo has a checkered history. He was living alone in a basement. Before that, he had been in a shelter. He was shy and we even believed he could not wag his tail. When he was sleeping, he would pant with nervousness and jump up at the slightest sound. But he learned to thrive. Six months after he moved in, he wagged his tail for the first time. He is now a regular visitor at our local inn where he greets the visitors. He loves people and is full of energy and enthusiasm.
On paper, none of these dogs would be expected to thrive. They were broken, damaged, less than perfect. Yet they all learned to be the best that they could be! They have never told me about their early experiences, or any traumas they experienced. They just learned a new way of being.
What does this have to do with human thriving and anxiety? Well for a start, all my dogs were anxious when we got them.
Finding out “the trigger” for their anxiety was not an option. Getting to the root of their issues was not a necessity. Yet in therapy that is what we do time and again. They had to build confidence in us and themselves, they had to learn how to feel safe. All three of them became sociable, loving, energetic dogs. They learned to thrive.
Building Mental Health
When we learn to walk, we practice. We work first at standing up, then at taking tentative steps, then at being more adventurous and walking across the room. Our parents hopefully cheer when we succeed and encourage us to get up and try again when we fall – as we inevitably do. We practice until walking steadily and evenly, and even running and jumping becomes natural and ordinary.
What training is there for mental health? Often, we model ourselves on people who did not get any mental health training.
Here are two conversations I heard recently that while well intentioned, are probably not training children to have social confidence, self-esteem and an ability to cope:
Child (about 2 years old, sitting on his father’s knee, looking at my dog Milo): “I don’t like the dog, daddy.” Father: “Why not? Is he scary? Are you afraid? You don’t have to go near him.” Child: “I just don’t like him.” Father: “It’s OK, I used to be afraid of dogs when I was a child too.”
Child – running and jumping on the lawn at a concert, full of energy and enthusiasm. Mother – obviously exasperated with his exuberance: “Sit down and keep still. You are totally crazy! People will think you are insane. Look at everyone else just sitting quietly. You have to learn to be like them or people will not like you.”
As children, we have all experienced that type of feedback. As parents, we have all inadvertently given it.
Mental Health Training
So, how can we learn to thrive? We need to be aware of what beliefs we have and self-talk we use that gets in the way of us being the best we can be. Often, we need help from others to learn new ways of thinking.
For me, the secret was an applied positive psychology coaching course that offers the training that few of us get in childhood. It helped me relearn my thinking, and like other things in nature, find my drive to thrive.
The creator of the program was a therapist. As he watched clients go through treatment, he started to recognize that whatever route clients took, a successful outcome always looked the same. A change in beliefs, an increase in self-confidence and self-esteem, and changes in the way of thinking and the way of processing experiences.
We can build strong self-esteem and self-confidence, we can learn to believe in our ability to handle what life throws at us – not always with grace, but always with hope. We, too, can thrive! This does not just benefit us, it benefits those around us in both our personal and professional lives.
How can you build your self-esteem and self-confidence? What can you do to help you be your best self? And what can you do to help others? How are you helping others to be their best selves?
Ruth Pearce is an experienced program manager, positive psychology practitioner and owner of A Lever Long Enough, where she helps project managers develop the skills needed to fully engage their teams. She is also the first THRIVE Programmeconsultant in the US - a program developed in the UK that helps people with anxiety to THRIVE. She is writing a book - The Project Management Effect: From Organizing to Engaging, and regularly presents on engagement at conferences including for PMI and the WBI Embodied Positive Psychology Summit.
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