Rewiring for resilience

Leaders on leadership

Melanie Jamieson

27 April 2020

I come from a long line of women who embodied the belief that “a woman’s work is never done”.

My mother taught at the primary school my younger brother and I attended. We’d walk to and from school together every day, as she listened to our playground stories. In the afternoons, she made buttered fruit toast and lent her creative hand to our art projects. In the evenings – after reading countless stories and singing us to sleep – she’d tidy the house and mark homework ‘til well past midnight.

She woke early – typically 6am – to prepare breakfast and have a moment of peace with a strong cup of black tea, before we tumbled out of bed noisily to start the day.

My stepfather worked long days running small businesses over the years – a butcher, a grocery store, an ice cream parlour. In the evenings, he’d turn on the TV, put his feet up on the table and study the daily horse racing pages. Saturday mornings were spent at the TAB – Australia’s ubiquitous betting shop. In the afternoon, he’d place bet after bet on the telephone, circling his wins and losses with a blue biro that often tore through the newspaper page.

My brother and I would join mum for the weekly grocery shop on Saturday morning (we knew a treat would come our way if we behaved well). The afternoon was dedicated to cleaning the house, mowing the lawn and gardening. We made the occasional attempt to be useful, while mum did all the heavy work.

At the end of the day, mum’s feet and shoulders ached. We took turns massaging her tired limbs. When her migraines came and she took to a dark bedroom for several days, we stroked her forehead and brought glasses of water until her pain passed.

On Sundays, with no way to feed my stepfather’s gambling addiction, he brought his pent-up frustration to our family outing – a picnic by the river, a drive in the countryside, a day at the beach. Though we tiptoed around him, the day would inevitably end with an explosive argument, harsh words and repeated threats that were (almost) never followed through.

We were thankful to escape his anger as Monday rolled around.

Over the years, I rarely heard my mum complain or say ‘no’. She didn’t sit for long (her quiet cup of tea happened before I woke), she didn’t ask for help, and she never took a day – or an hour – for herself.

My brother and I would say we had the best mum in the world – and our friends agreed. She was fun and generous, upbeat and energetic. Her philosophical side came into force during our teenage years, when our friends gathered by candlelight to listen to her cool records – Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd.

Once my brother and I had safely left home and started new lives studying and working, my mum finally left our stepfather. She’d waited 13 years for that day.

*****

Right through my childhood, mum exemplified qualities that I believed lay at the heart of resilience. Positivity and relentless strength in the face of hardship. She pushed through challenges like she pushed through cleaning the house, with a tireless commitment to making the best of life.

And then her body broke.

In her early fifties, after several years of ill-health, mum learned she had Fibromyalgia. It’s a chronic condition – often misdiagnosed and misunderstood – that causes debilitating pain all over the body. After years of never sitting down, mum’s body went on protest. She was forced to reshape her life to manage her battle with pain.

While COVID-19 poses a significant health risk for mum, lockdown in Australia has brought only small changes to her daily life. She’s already migrated much of her social life online, where she can connect globally (when her pain levels aren’t too high). She misses her trips to the local grocery store, but is grateful to receive prioritised online service. She continues to take her small dog out for a short walk once a day. When she makes her regular trip to the doctor’s surgery, she waits outside in her parked car until a receptionist greets her (at a distance) and ushers her through the empty clinic to her appointment.

We speak on Zoom most days, and she’s in (mostly) good spirits. She controls how much news she reads a day. (She posted a plea on Facebook for her friends to stop sending her fake news…she can read the news herself, thank you very much!). And she manages her (limited) daily energy levels with frequent rest.

Looking back over the last decade, I can see that mum moved her life into the slow lane to deal with her pain, while I moved to the fast lane – like most working parents with young children. I talked and walked fast (so she told me). I thought of a million things to do in every moment, and had endless list apps to keep me on track. Our conversations often reflected these mismatched tempos. She worried that I too might run myself out of the fast lane one day.

The year 2020 began with a big push for me – for my family, as well as our work at LQ.

At LQ, we talked about the Decisive Decade, when humanity must halve greenhouse gas emissions and shift towards regenerative ways of life. Our team shared a sense of urgency, and I was driven by the small – but significant – role we could play in meeting this goal.

At home, my husband had his long-planned ankle reconstruction, which took him off his feet for 2 months. Our balanced partnership – where we juggle wonderfully demanding boys (aged 5 and 2) with equally demanding jobs – was temporarily imbalanced. I faced what felt like mountainous terrain ahead.

I responded as I always do. I pushed onwards and upwards. I strived to keep everyone happy and healthy at home. We entertained friends, ate delicious meals, delivered our usual full-on family days. As work opportunities demanded more hours than the working day, I found windows of time at the crack of dawn, late evenings and weekends, while the boys slept or played.

Each night, I collapsed into bed with inexplicable pains shooting through my legs, arms and back. I slept on a heat pad and woke, to a 6 am alarm, to do it all again.

When I looked at the terrain ahead, not once did I stop to say: how can I simplify? What can I say ‘no’ to, so that I (we) can survive this period….and even thrive? It didn’t occur to me to ask for help at work (colleagues seemed busy), or to ask our friends for support.

Then one early March morning, I woke with internal pains so intense I couldn’t move. It took half an hour of shaking and sobbing before I could even roll onto my side. Eventually I managed to get myself into a sitting position. The next six mornings started the same way. After a virtual doctor’s appointment, some antibiotics and a week spent lying on a heat pack, the pain finally passed.

Weak and shaky, I returned to work and family life. I desperately wanted a break, a change. I fantasised about a move to the country, a year off travelling in a camper van while home-schooling. Anything to bring our life under control. As I watched Boris Johnson announce the UK lockdown on 23 March, I didn’t expect it to bring me the space I was craving.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

It turns out lockdown has given me the kind of space I’ve never experienced before. My time is still full as we juggle work and family life (accompanied by constant distressing news alerts). Yet the uncertainty ahead means I’m spending less time planning for the future, and more time reflecting on the choices I make in each moment. On how I want to live my life.

I can see now that my habit of pushing through with relentless positivity and persistence has served me well, but it also has an edge. It leaves me burnt out, brittle and (truthfully) a little bitter. Each time, I pick myself up again, and put my good practices back into place: exercise, mindfulness, time in nature, joyful activities. And each time I face a new mountain, I return to my old habits of running ever faster to keep up.

I’m struck by the irony of this. Through my work at LQ, I’ve learned how to manage personal energy to support high performance and cultivate resilience. This has helped me build up these restorative daily practices.

Yet when I’m overwhelmed, I react unconsciously by going into overdrive. I put my foot on the accelerator. Life becomes one long to-do list, and I don’t stop (or say no) until I’m done.

But there’s a better – more resilient – way to respond.

Over the years, I’ve learned that resilience doesn’t mean toughing it out, avoiding difficult feelings, getting over things quickly or thinking only positive thoughts.

According to Dr Al Siebert, Founder and Director of The Resiliency Center, resilience is:

“The ability to cope well with high levels of ongoing disruptive change; sustain good health and energy when under constant pressure; bounce back easily from setbacks; overcome adversities; change to a new way of working and living when an old way is no longer possible; and do all this without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways.”

While it may seem glib to look for silver linings during a global pandemic, the truth is that in this Great Pause, I’m rediscovering the gift of resilience and reconnecting with my inner sources of energy.

I now realise I have an out-dated way of viewing my energy. I see it as linear and finite – a fossil fuel that is destined to run out by the end of the day. Yet I know science tells us it’s renewable – and we witness continuous regeneration in the natural world around us.

Energy is the foundation of everything we do in our lives. All four sources – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – are interconnected, and none are sufficient on their own.

Athletes teach us the importance of energy renewal. They push hard and pause to recover – on the tennis court between sets, at the pit stop on the racetrack. It’s this rhythmic pulse between effort and recovery that builds resilience – across every dimension of energy.

There are countless ways to recover and renew our energy – and many are emerging spontaneously during lockdown.

Physical exercise: parks and footpaths where people – families and dogs in tow – make the most of their daily hour of exercise; a sales boom in bikes and exercise equipment; cities closing streets to cars and opening space for social distancing. Regular exercise boosts our physical energy, enhances mood and aids mental focus.

Connecting with nature: In springtime London, under blue skies, birdsong and wildlife have been more noticeable since lockdown began. The Brits (known for their weather obsession) are drawing on this small blessing to keep spirits high. Time in nature enhances our spiritual energy, aids emotional regulation, and enables better performance through heightened mental function.

Appreciation: Cheering frontline workers and holding their bravery in our hearts and minds. Sincere appreciation helps us shift out of stressful emotions, and has a profound positive effect on our overall health and energy levels.

Enjoyable activities shared with others: A resurgence of board games and jigsaws for those cooped up at home; self-forming virtual communities to connect around shared passions – from cookery and knitting to virtual choirs and yoga. Being in a community offers a sense of belonging that fuels spiritual energy and resilience.

Connecting to purpose and values: A ‘caremongering’ movement to support people stuck at home, financially precarious or otherwise in distress; a million volunteers for Britain’s NHS; banking, telecoms and pharma employees taking swift action to support society. People everywhere realising they feel more purposeful than ever before. Paradoxically, we generate spiritual energy for ourselves by contributing and serving others.

My personal lockdown lesson is this: when I feel overloaded, doing more is not the answer.

According to a 19th century proverb: “Man works from sun to sun, But woman’s work is never done.” My mum, my grandmother and many of my female ancestors frequently worked themselves to the point of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. I am the first woman in generations to have a balanced, supportive marriage that values equality. I’m one of the lucky few with the power to choose when my work is done. I just need to use it.

This is the gift offered by the Great Pause.

Melanie is a Partner at Leaders’ Quest. She works with global clients on journeys of transformation, supporting leaders to create purposeful, innovative cultures that drive sustainable growth.

Leaders’ Quest helps leaders and companies align purpose with profit – to deliver a world where everybody can thrive within the means of the planet. To learn how we can help you, please get in touch, or click here for an overview of our offerings.