Last week I was supposed to speak at Townley Grammar's Character Education Conference - the first of 5 Character Education conferences I am keynoting at or running workshops at this year. I had to pull out of the conference because, well, you know that flu that everyone had over winter and I thought I had somehow dodged it, it got me. Barely able to lift my head off my pillow, I had to cancel my talk, and I was gutted! I had been so looking forward to this conference, not only because of an opportunity to speak about my experience of character, but to also hear other passionate experts talk about their perspective and how they are embedding character into their school communities. Townley Grammar is one of the schools at the leading edge of embedding and developing character in their school community. Fabian de Fabiani is Townley Grammar's Director of Character and Wellbeing, and was the driving force behind the conference, his passion to bring character education into schools is palpable and exciting. It is conferences like this one that is opening up the discussion on character and the application of character interventions - discussions that are needed as the importance of catching and teaching life skills and wellbeing in schools in growing.
As I missed out on attending this amazing conference, I wanted to take the time to write a little bit about what I had intended to speak about; I had been asked to speak about my story and how character fits into the wider picture. This got me thinking about how we use story to inspire, develop, and grow, and how we can use our own stories to develop character within and wider into the community. So, here we go....
As I have delved deeper into the theory and concept of character and virtues I have started to see something really important about my life, and other peoples lives as well. Our lives are made up of stories; our histories are there, rich in different experiences, and most importantly, rich in expression of character and virtue. As I mine my own life, to illustrate what certain character traits can look like, I have realised that there is power in this mining, power to strengthen my own sense of character, and if my own stories strengthen my own sense of character and purpose, will your stories strengthen yours?
There is definitely something in this idea or application of character - in Ryan Niemiec's book, Character Strengths Interventions, he talks about a character strengths activity you can do where you draw upon previous experiences of character expression, and you make it known, not only to yourself, but others, through story (see end of blog post for instructions for activity). In doing this you are raising awareness of your own character strengths to the wider world, revealing the moments where you have been kind, brave, or humble, and owning those moments as a deep part of your personal history. This shifts a focus away from negative, critical thought, and you start to see the positive aspects of your personality and experiences, you start to see the wider impact and importance of your life rippling out into the community around you. You start to shift your language, from one of deficit and defeat, to one of growth and gain.
Story: I was painfully shy as a child, I hated being the centre of attention (outside of my family that is - inside the family I could shout and talk and perform for days!) and was socially awkward, so much so that, even when I put myself forward for school vice captain (which I somehow got), I would only go on the camp for school leaders if my best friend could come along. I know some of you are scratching your heads - she was shy, but pursued leadership goals, I'm a conundrum even unto myself. This strange dichotomy of wanting to hide from others, and yet pursue goals that thrust me into the public eye, is something I have struggled with on many levels, and one of these levels was in sport. As an eleven year old I loved swimming and racing (in my backyard pool) and I desperately wanted to compete at the school swimming carnival (or swimming gala as you Brits like to call it), but the thought of making a fool out of myself held me back. It took my mum saying she would be there at the swimming carnival, and that she would walk beside the pool with me and pull me out if anything went wrong, to make me feel brave enough to leap in that water. The race was the 50m Breaststroke, and there was only me and another girl in the race. I was convinced I would lose, and when the teacher announced that they would race the boys 50m Breaststroke at the same time, I flipped and refused to line up. It took my mum and a teacher to convince me that racing the boys was a non sequitur to actually pulling out of the competition. So I got in the water, heart racing, face flushed from embarrassment, and got set. The gun went. All I remember is the end of the pool seemed to far away, and every time my head bobbed out of the water I could hear my mum yelling at me to "Go Go Go." I had no idea where anyone else was, and as the end wall approached, I argued with myself over stopping or continuing. I kept on going, finished the race, and promptly found out that I had come first in the girls, and if I had been racing the boys, out of 6 boys I would've come 3rd. The smile on my face said it all, the blue winners ribbon clutched tight in my hand, and the pride I felt in my chest was bursting through my skin. Brave, resilient, a little gritty, a lot of courage, a lot of self belief, was expressed and developed in that moment; if I could do that, gulp down my fears and spread my wings a little in the school swimming carnival, what could I do in the future, on a wider, world stage? Suddenly a feeling of potential flooded my senses.
Fear develops in a child's scope of life experience at a young age. As soon as we are born we have biases and stereotype conditioning thrust upon us, developing a mindset that is aimed to protect us and keep us safe, but ultimately ties us to a world of disbelief in our own potential. We need to change this, on many levels, and as a school community we can shift this thinking in the children that we work with by changing the stories that we tell ourselves and each other. As a child and teen I believed in what my life would not be like, and it took a lot of mindset shift and support from parents and teachers who did believe in me to recognise and value the potential that my life did inherently hold. In plying my life for nuggets of this potential, I have started to see that as a child I was living and developing character strengths that would ripple into my adult years, and see me through some of the toughest and heartbreaking moments of life (relationship breakdown, home-sickness, and gut-wrenching grief - things we all of us experience and have to process and grow from). Those moments where we can recognise we have been brave, resilient, and courageous, shows us that we are capable of these moments, and in knowing we are capable, we can draw on them and use them when deciding a course of action and interaction. The story above shows that if we can reframe how a child approaches a moment in life that they believe may be difficult, embarrassing, and to hard to try, we can shift their focus from one of fear, to one where they are the hero in their own story, where they can consciously tap into their character strengths to give them the physical and mental strengths to pick themselves up and have a go.
In reframing your stories you can start to see your moments of character, when and how you applied those actions of character-ful acts, and start to think of how you can apply these into the future. The "Develop Strengths-Spotting" activity can help you and your pupils/students start to mine their own life stories for examples of when they have shown and taken action with a character strength, this will start to change their language around who they are as people, how they view themselves and others, and also develop a self belief in their abilities to be character-ful people that will benefit, not only themselves, but the wider community.
Step 1: Think of a time in your life when you have shown a particular character strength. This could be from anytime in your life, any situation/context, i.e., home, school, work, hobbies.
Step 2: Develop/write this time out as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Step 3: Review the story and note the character strengths that you have used in that moment.
Step 4: Share this story with a peer, friend, or family member.
Step 5: Ask this person to provide feedback, what character strengths did they pick up on.
Step 6: Now listen to a character strengths story from them and offer them feedback.
Research shows that when you share positive stories with others you increase the feelings of positive emotions, and you also increase levels of happiness and life satisfaction - all of which increase our ability to be resilient in the face of tough times.
(image from Pixabay)
Uncertainty and risk taking.... two things that can us into a cluster**** of anxiety and stress. Yet we, as adults, expect children that we work with to be able to extend themselves beyond their comfort zones on a regular basis. If a child has anxiety about a particular situation/event/activity we encourage them to try, try, and try again, because we know that the more they do the activity the easier it will get. This is actually a good thing! When I was a child I was painfully shy, but the older I got the more I was actively encouraged to step into leadership roles. My teachers (and parents) recognised that I had leadership skills, but not the experience or confidence to undertake the role. With experience comes the confidence, and that led me to feeling comfortable enough to become school captain, give speeches in front of the community, swim at 2 Paralympic Games, and during that time even give an Australia Day speech with the then current Prime Minister sitting two seats down from me. I now speak for a living!
BUT, why is it that when we hit adulthood we suddenly think that we don't have to "push our boundaries" anymore? Why do we.... stop growing? Learning should be a lifelong pursuit, whatever that learning looks like, and this growth can make life more fulfilling and more purposeful. And if we expect children that we work with the be pushed out of their comfort zones, shouldn't we should children that we are willing to be pushed out of ours?
I am not saying this to simply provoke, or create argument, but having run workshops where some teachers have struggled with some of the activities, or had conversation with teachers who feel that they shouldn't have to be pushed out of their comfort zone, it is a topic that I have thought about hard and often.
I ran a Twitter poll on this very topic and the results were interesting, and regarding my previous experiences (see above paragraph) pleasantly surprising. This was my question: "If we ask children to step outside of their comfort zone (at least just a little), is it fair to ask teachers to do the same? I believe, as adults, it is good to stretch ourselves." The results were as follows: Yes 94%, No 0%, Sometimes 6%. Can I get a loud HELL YES!!!
But what is the scientific thought out there on pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and how can we do this?
In a study done on Outbound participants from two countries, it was discovered that pushing ourselves emotionally, creatively, and socially, places us in a peak learning experience. There were a number of elements to this study that proved quite interesting:
Flow - When in flow we become so engrossed by what we are doing that we loose track of time, space, etc. I am sure that you have been there, I know I have, many times, as an athlete, artist, academic, and speaker. To really hit flow, Csikszentmihayli (the expert on flow - read his book, it's great!), the experience has to be challenging, but not too challenging (this makes the activity engrossing), be intrinsically rewarding, and not provoke any boredom or worry. There has to be a certain level of stress to the activity, otherwise we struggle to maintain that engagement and urgency that drives us forward
Perceived Risk - Researchers have suggested that by minimising extreme risk, but perceiving elements of risk in the activity improves our sense of self, develops personal growth, and is an opportunity for self actualisation. Basically, if we take note of potential risks in the challenging experience, we can be more confident in our approach to the challenge.
Reflection - This study was primarily about the physical pushing of boundaries, but what was recognised that it wasn't the physical exertion that pushed boundaries, but the reflection afterwards, that provided the biggest opportunity for growth. Reflection in this study was done through journaling and debriefs. Where reflection can become challenging is through the character trait of honesty, are you being honest with yourself and can you take the honesty of leaders/trainers.
Ultimately what this study (as well as other research) states is that when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones we achieve a certain level of anxiety, and that that anxiety is good.
So my challenge to you is this - wherever you are at, whatever you find challenging, this summer holidays do take an opportunity to push yourself beyond your self-imposed limits.... and let me know what happens in the comments or on twitter.
Sometimes my yoga mat seems like a soft cushion of blissful cloud, and other times, like today, it felt as hard as cement. Every downward facing dog and table top pose made my wrists feel aflame and all I wanted to do was fall flat on my face, shut my eyes, and pretend to be asleep. But push on I did, because what else could I do; to give in was to relent to defeat, and if there was one thing yoga would never see me do was give in. Bringing my right leg forward I tried to gracefully extend into Warrior 1, but my hips complained, and my slightly sweaty left foot, gripping the mat like a vice, still insisted on slipping further backwards.
"Keep balance, keep balance, keep balance," this mantra played over and over as I felt my centre of gravity fight against my leg muscles. The snow falling outside the window briefly distracted me, so pretty, all this pure white snowflakes - what was I up too? What was I meant to be doing now? The yoga video on youtube had seemingly skipped ahead a few poses. I gracelessly fell out of Warrior 1 and quickly lowered to downward dog again. Why was I so distracted today, why did the mat feel like cement - immovable, rough, and kind of scary.
I tried to remember what a lot of yoga teachers have said - "what happens in life was reflected on the mat." So what has been immovable cement in my life? Think, think, Elizabeth. I don't know, so I lower to plank, then down onto my belly, the softness of my belly spread like a slime ball - the mat was unrelenting. Cobra pose, flip up back into downward dog, look forward and step into forward fold. The relief slipped along my spine like a waterfall. Each spinal disc seemed to knock the other forward, stretching the ligaments and muscles; blood running to my head, nourishing the brain, perhaps loosening the tightness of body and mind.
Sometimes I don't want to get on the mat, sometimes I don't like the mat, but whenever I get to certain poses, the need for the mat becomes apparent. Perhaps the mat isn't cement, and perhaps there is no immovable object/emotion/action in life that is stopping me moving forward, perhaps it is all about how we perceive what is happening to us and how we are responding. I don't know, to be honest, all I know is that by the end of my yoga session the mat was no longer the most hated object in my life, but had seemingly become that fluffy cloud of softness and support. Who knows.
Late last year I had a lot of traveling to do with work - I love my job, going into schools to inspire pupils and teaching staff character education and positive psychology interventions, but I have a secret. For awhile there every single time I got into my car I had horrific visions of me crashing on the motorway. The visions was so awful that my heart rate would increase, I would get sweaty palms, my mouth would go dry, and I felt like crying. This tide of extreme anxiousness would roll over me and all of my excitement for traveling, for working, for teaching character and wellbeing would wash away. With this intense anxiety and fear, I would force myself in the car, and I would drive to the other side of the country, and I would arrive absolutely fine.
This couldn't go on though.
Here I was, going into schools and telling pupils and staff how they could bolster their own mental health, build their resilience, and cultivate character strengths, and yet I was a quivering wreck hours before hand - this wouldn't and couldn't work. I had access to hundreds of interventions and their subsequent research, I had to delve deep into my bag of tricks, I had to self reflect and understand why I was having these anxious thoughts.... again.
Because yes, this wasn't the first time I have been overcome by the tide of anxiety and taken to the depths of panic. Six years ago I was undertaking a PhD in Fine Art. Everything seemed fine, at first, but then that little voice started telling me "you can't do this," "you will fail your viva voce", "your supervisor is leading you astray" (there was actually some truth in that!). I let these thoughts in and I let them settle. And then the physical manifestation of this doubt, fear, and anxiety happened. To get to my university I had to get a train, I have never been afraid of trains before, but in a gradual build up I started to feel sick whenever I got on that train. Then I would feel sick and start to get the shakes. Then I would feel sick, start to get the shakes, and then feel like I was going to faint. Finally, after a few months of this, I was due to head to uni to set up for an exhibition. My housemate found me, in tears, rocking on the couch. I felt paralysed. My bag was too heavy to carry (not really), the door was too far away for me to get too (2 metres away), I couldn't talk on the phone for a taxi (talking on the phone is a whole other social anxiety story for later), and there was no way that I was getting on that train to get to uni. After much coaxing, my lovely, understanding housemate, got me out of the house, onto the train, and into uni (yes, she came with me all the way to uni). And when we got home later that day she said "you are going to the doctors over this, this isn't normal." And she was right.
2 years on anti-depressants for anxiety.
There had to be another way - and I found drug-free ways to handle my anxiety. Meditation and yoga have helped me immensely and though I try to keep them both up, sometimes they slide, and I feel that tide ebbing in again... closer.... and closer.... and closer.
I consider myself a high functioning anxious person.
What is a high functioning anxious person?
1. A perfectionist: everything in your life has to be "perfect" for everything to be okay.
2. Busy Bee: you are constantly busy, or feel like you should be.
3. You have a Tick!: Or rather some bad habits that help you manage your feelings (I bite my cuticles when I am anxious, if you want to check out my current state of mind look at my finger nails).
4. You hide it well: A lot of the time people don't realise you are having a hard time unless you tell them. And tapping back into being a perfectionist, you never let others know when you're having a hard time.
5. You can't say no: You worry so much about letting others down (and as part of this you worry about what other people think of you), so you never say no to anything, even when it is detrimental to you. (This is a HUGE thing for me, and it takes a lot of self discipline to say no to people, a lot of practice, and a lot of stopping the overthink).
I have started up my yoga practice again and it is helping. But today I want to share with you a slightly different, slightly odd-ball way of approaching anxiety - especially when it comes to anxiety about travel (let's come full circle to my story above).
Engaging with character education and positive education had me thinking, last year, when I was feeling that tide of anxiety roll into me whenever I had to drive, was there a character strength that I could tap into to help me change my mindset. I needed a new narrative that didn't involve horrific crashes on the motorway, and I found a solution that worked for me.
Curiosity is a character trait recognised by pretty much all people that work in character education and positive psychology. The VIA Character Strengths explanation of curiosity is - interest in exploring new ideas, activities and experiences, and having a strong desire to increase personal knowledge.
I decided to change my response to my emotional riptide.
I decided, through the fog of anxiety, that I would look at the travel through the lens of curiosity.
Whenever a feeling of fear would arise and the visions of a horrific accident would play like a move in my mind, I would flick that switch, and like an imagination u-turn, I would change myself into an explorer of what was ahead. Don't be afraid, why worry about an accident that hadn't happened, or in all likelihood wouldn't happen, instead think of the exciting things that may happen on this journey. Imagine the people you may meet, the sights you may see, the things you might hear, smell, touch. Think of the opportunities that may come your way if you approach this journey with an open-mind and eyes wide open to all that is around you. No need to get pulled into the tide of anxiety and curl up into a tiny ball of quivering emotions. Be bright, be open, be curious.
I now remind myself on every journey I take, to look up and about, take it all in, be open to the experience, to not worry about something that hasn't happened, and have fun.
That doesn't mean I still don't feel anxious, but that tide is not a King Tide anymore, it is a small, gentle, lapping tide, that only tugs at my toes and slightly wets my ankles.
1 in 5 of us will experience potentially crippling anxiety in our lifetime. So if 5 people read this blog, one of you will suffer, but know that you do not suffer alone, and that with courage and bravery (two more character strengths), and a little imagination, try bringing some curiosity into those anxious moments, it may or may not work for you, but it is worth a try.
I remember, distinctly, the moment that I decided that I would never swim breaststroke again. I had just been disqualified from my first ever big competition race as a swimmer and I was devastated. It had been entirely my fault, swimming the wrong stroke in a race (other than a freestyle race, where you are actually allowed to swim any stroke), and the humiliation was all pervading. For a few minutes I had wanted to quit swimming, I had wanted to give up on my dream and hide, but that had quickly passed once I reminded myself of how badly I wanted to achieve my goal to swim at the Paralympics. So I wasn't giving up on my swimming dreams, but what was so aptly revealed to me in that moment was this, if I wanted to be the best swimmer I could ever be I had to focus on my strengths and where I was already excelling, and let go of weaknesses that, if I gave too much attention too, would inevitably hold me back. So breaststroke got the boot, and over the next weeks, months, and years, I started to fly. My first international medal came in 100m Backstroke (and whilst this race remained in my repertoire, and I maintained respectable world rankings, it became more of a warm-up race), but at Paralympics and World Championships, my best results and medals came from frontcrawl and butterfly.
I want to clarify that I am not saying we should give up anything where we have a weakness - if we gave up at any appearance of a weakness we would do nothing at all. Weakness is inevitable in all areas of our life. This is fact.
What I am talking about is making a sound judgement about what weakness is worth letting go of and what weakness is worth working on. With breaststroke there was no way the entire sum of weaknesses I had within performing that stroke were ever going to strengthen... this was my opinion and my coach's opinion. So it was not worth my or my coach's time working on this stroke that was seemingly impossible for me to perform effectively. Backstroke, frontcrawl, and butterfly, however, were a different story. I was fast and strong with these strokes, and weaknesses that I had within them (regarding style, technique, and speed) I could work on effectively and quickly, bringing about drastic improvements in my times and rankings. I had these strengths that I could make stronger by addressing the weaknesses within them. This was true resilience and persistence in the face of achieving a goal.
In Dr Lea Waters book "Strengths Switch" she talks about the process by which a child's grey matter grows and recedes as they go through the cycle of experiencing the world and then focusing more and more on where our strengths and interest lie. The part of this process that I am interested in is in the adolescent years, when a teen's brain is actually shrinking as the brain discards the grey matter that it doesn't need, and keeps the grey stuff that is being used regularly. This receding, pruning, shrinking of the brain starts at age 12, and it is at this crucial moment that we have an opportunity to help our teens build the brain of their dreams!
"A type of survival-of-the-fittest endgame takes place where neural networks battle it out to secure their place in the remodelled adult brain." (Strengths Switch, p 102)
I read this and it instantly made me think.... as our neurons battle it out for supremacy, is it actually a neuron Olympics/Paralympics going on in our brains? Do all teens actually have a chance to create a "medal winning" brain?
As we grow into adulthood it seems that we have an opportunity to cultivate and build neural networks that can actually help us achieve our potential as adults, to be the best person that we can be. And in understanding that we can make choices regarding what neural networks we make stronger, does that not empower us to have more control over our lives and how we respond to the ups and downs of life?
Think of the fours strokes that I started off swimming in as an athlete: breaststroke, backstroke, frontcrawl, and butterfly. Imagine each of these strokes is a neural network/pathway, and at the age of 13 I had an opportunity to decide, do I strengthen the ones that are already quite strong, and prune away the weaker pathways? Or do I persist in trying to strengthen a weakness that actually won't help me be the best swimmer that I can be? I had an opportunity to prune my neural networks to give myself the best chance to be the best person that I could be, and even though my strengths (frontcrawl, backstroke, and butterfly) were not without their weaknesses, constant working on them strengthened those strengths and enabled me to walk away with medals.
When teens have an understanding of how their brain works and how they have a crucial window within which to strengthen certain networks and pathway, this can empower and build confidence in their choices for life. Let them learn and know that when they engage in certain behaviours, emotions, and skills that are not helpful to their futures these become patterns that can and will hold them back, that can make them less resilient and less likely to cope with life's stresses. Let them learn and know that when they engage with behaviours, emotions, and skills that are healthy, uplifting, and positive, they are creating pathways that will help them thrive and flourish in the present and the future, and that by building their strengths, through choice and knowledge, they can be resilient to the ups and downs in life, and ultimately create a "medal winning" brain.
They can win the neuron Olympics/Paralympics. Your role in this is to support, encourage, and role model these behaviours, be their "coach" and provide them with the opportunities to practice, practice, practice. Be their cheer squad, be their strengths supporter, be their lighter of the path, and watch them flourish.