If there was ever a year that the world was weary, it is was 2020. So what do we do with a weary soul? ACC Pastor, RUTH LIMKIN spoke to DR ROBI SONDEREGGER for the She Stands For Justice conference and shares part of this interview to give pastors and leaders some helpful frameworks.
Ruth Limkin: It can be soul wearying sometimes to be in difficult situations and caring for people in pain. I thought it would be great to hear from you in terms of building resilience and learning how to thrive and flourish while we continue to advocate for justice. For those of us who work with people who are in pain and in trauma, what are some really important things to remember to make sure we process that well?
Dr Robi Sonderegger: It’s a good question because all too often, we are lured into working with others who are in pain because we ourselves might be wrestling with some kind of pain. Of course, one of the easiest ways to not have to face what we’re going through is to place our attention on somebody else. Actually, that can be really therapeutic and beneficial, that I’m no longer always nursing, cursing, and rehearsing what’s going on for me, but rather I can reverse it or disperse it by focusing on helping somebody else. There is great treasure to be found in making a valuable contribution to the life of somebody else, because hey, let’s just face it, value is the same as worth, and self-worth is the pathway to self-confidence.
So, by helping others, I actually help myself in the same process or the same breath. But it should be noted that we don’t all want to just be wounded healers. We’ve got to also maintain our own mental and emotional wellbeing or be strong because otherwise, our helping capacity will be limited. Look, it might be a great motivation to get us into the helping game, but we’ve actually got to be the change that we want to see. So, we need to be able to, actually, like the old saying goes, ‘Practice what we preach’. So, if we’re going to tell somebody else to dust themselves off and reconcile their past in order to get on with their future, then we would do well to do the same.
If we’re going to tell somebody else to dust themselves off and reconcile their past in order to get on with their future, then we would do well to do the same.
Ruth: So, that is an excellent idea, but how do we translate that into practice day-to-day? It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon so how do we stay strong for the marathon?
Dr Robi: It’s not just a good question; it’s the hard question because it actually involves personal discipline, but therein lie the fruit of the Spirit to have that sense of personal control, to be able to recognise, “I need to make sure that my own foundations are stable so that I can build upon this rock”. so to speak. The foundations for mental health, we kind of all know what they are. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you. It’s making sure that you get good sleep, eat right and exercise right, and have good, healthy thinking. So, making sure that we’re not just hygienic with our hands but also have mental hygiene! Socialise really well, and go out in the sunshine and get some good rays. Understand your purpose in life. All of these things.
Ruth: That’s a great practical list.
Dr Robi: It says in Proverbs 18:32 (to paraphrase it) “Hey, a person who can discipline themselves is actually better than a warrior who can conquer a city.” We say it’s both a positive and a negative because, “Hey, if we can learn how to discipline ourselves in these areas, we can become stronger than a warrior.” But also potentially discouraging because it’s as though the scripture is saying, “Yeah. Easier for you to conquer a city than it is for you to conquer yourself.” And so it takes great discipline to keep on going, doing what we know that we need to do.
Ruth: Indeed. Are there some areas that you think people, particularly who perhaps have a real mercy or compassion gift, tend to neglect more than others?
Dr Robi: Look, there’s a certain stereotype around the helping of people that we have. Of course, when you look at the stats in our profession, in the helping profession, psychology and psychiatry especially, has one of the highest burnout rates. And not just burnout, but also suicide rates. In terms of that, we take on the problems of the world on our shoulders. But we forget that’s what Jesus did. He already did that. We don’t need to do that. We can help people, but when somebody comes into the office, I want to be 110% there for them. But when they walk out of that office, all of their problems go out with them. Don’t leave your baggage with me because otherwise, at the end of the day, I’ll be overwhelmed and buried in baggage.
We actually call it ‘minding the gap’. So, think of it like this. You’re at home, and you go to work in the morning, but there’s a big chasm, like a cliff, and you have to jump over the chasm in order to go to work. But if you pick up people’s baggage at work, when you come home, you’ll jump over the chasm to go back home. But because you’re so weighed down, you won’t make the gap, and so you’ll fall down. So you have to let go of all of the baggage that you’re dealing with at work in order to come home because otherwise, it’s not fair. Otherwise, you’ll bring the baggage into your home and into your spouse, and it’ll spill over on to your kids, and you’ll dream about it all night long. And then it’s affecting your own mental health, and you’re no good to anybody. So, mind the gap.
Ruth: That’s very good. So, how do we leave that baggage behind?
Dr Robi: Well, there are a few different things that we can do practically in that space. The first is… people have rituals, but the idea is compartmentalise. So, when I am at work, I am at work, and I’m fully focused at work. But if I happen to recognise that at home, I’ve brought something with me, I have to recognise, “Look, these questions that my mind is pondering, “But what if this happens? And what if that…” There is a time and a place to answer these questions, but that time is not all the time, and it’s not home time. So, let me compartmentalise it and choose a specific time where I’ll be able to process it. Maybe it’s on my way to work, or maybe I’m debriefing on my way home from work. To have those disciplines around debrief or about processing, getting these thoughts solved so that when I walk into the door of my home, I’ve dealt with that stuff. I’ve put it to bed, and I can be present for my family.
Ruth: That’s fantastic because sometimes we talk about compartmentalising almost as a negative thing. We want to be integrated beings, and we want to be the same wherever we are. But in fact, that could be a sabotaging idea if we don’t 15
realize how to be fully present in the context that we’re in. I remember, a few weeks ago, I made the mistake of checking my work email not long before I went to bed, and there was one email in there. And I knew if I didn’t process it right there in the moment, I would not sleep well that night. So I wrote the email – I didn’t send it, but just wrote it. So it was out of my head. What are some practical tips you have for people?
Dr Robi: I think a mindset is really important. And what we don’t understand as carers all too often is that people’s problems are not our problems. And it sounds harsh, and it sounds cold. It sounds almost unloving to say, “Actually, your problem is your problem.” But actually, it’s a really healthy thing to embrace so that when I’m helping somebody, I’m helping them with their problem, but I’m not owning the solution. It’s not my responsibility to solve their issue. No, that’s their responsibility. My responsibility is to help them resolve their particular issue.
Ruth:That’s good. And I think that distinguishing whose responsibility it is actually a really helpful idea.
Dr Robi: Oftentimes, people come into the psychology clinic, and they say, ‘You’re my last hope. I’ve tried this one, and that doctor and this one, and people have recommended here.’
What pressure! I don’t want to accept that pressure for a second to bear and say, ‘Actually, I’m not your last hope. I’m not even your best hope. In fact, don’t place your hope in me. There’s one who is a much better one to place your hope in’. But here’s the deal –I can be your satellite navigation system.”
Ruth: Oh, very good description.
Dr Robi: “And say in 300 meters turn left”, but you have to do the driving. So let’s make sure that we have the understanding right from the get-go.”
Ruth: That’s very good. So we’ve talked a little bit about maintaining wellbeing. And one of the concepts that we hear a lot about these days is resilience – emotional resilience and mental resilience. So, could you tell us what actually is resilience?
Dr Robi: I’m glad you asked that question because often there’s misunderstanding or confusion about especially, emotional resilience. We think it means to be emotionally strong or stoic, or I can weather the storm or grit my teeth and get through it. But in actual fact, it would be better describe emotional resiliency as emotional flexibility.
So, “When the storm comes,” as the saying goes, “that which does not bend will break.” So we have to not just be strong. No, we have to be flexible so that we bend with the wind. And when the storm is over, resiliency is being able to return to our original position. So think of it like this, if you’re happily traveling along in your life and then some adverse incident traumatic event, unfortunate, unforeseen loss, whatever it might be. COVID, whether it be sickness or loss of finances of business, it knocks you back into minus. Well, the role and the goal of any psychologist or social worker or mental health worker or psychiatrist or medical doctor is to help that individual make a recovery, to be rehabilitated, to return to their original starting position of zero. That’s basically what it means to be resilient.
Ruth: Well, zero is good, and it’s better than negative 10, but it’s not very inspiring in some ways. How could we get to 10 or a hundred? Or how could we get into the positive territory? What’s beyond resilience?
Dr Robi: What if we could go beyond zero into plus? The good news is, is there’s a whole brand new body of research now called post-traumatic growth. Recognizing that, that age, old statement, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” actually has some merit. But it’s not true for everyone, only true for a select small group of people that possess certain characteristics and qualities. Even storms can make us stronger. When the rain falls if the rain falls during a thunderstorm or a lightning storm, it actually helps plants grow better because the lightning activates the neutrons in the raindrops. And when it falls to the ground and fuses with the dead, it turns into fertilizer. So actually, we’re better off by being watered in a storm. It actually fosters greater growth, and we’ve got access to that as well.
Ruth: So is it that everybody can grow sort of through trauma or is this something that just a few people will be able to, and the rest of us have to throw our hands up in despair?
Dr Robi: Professor Martin Seligman did a series of studies together with his colleagues that identified people who do grow through trauma, possess certain characteristics and qualities. So what we then did with our research in Iraq and various different places around the world, working with people who have survived great atrocities and especially as it relates to war. We were asking the question – can somebody learn these characteristics or adopt them and also experience the same benefits? And the answer is yes.
Ruth: What are these characteristics, Dr Robi?
Dr Robi: Well, there are probably about 15 different characteristics. And on a factor analysis, five load most strongly. So the top five characteristics lo and behold, number one is a belief in a God who actually cares.
Dr Robi: Not just believing in God and not just participating in some kind of religious activity or going to church, reading the Bible, or praying, although all those are great. The differentiating factor is believing in a God who actually cares. So when I’m going through great difficulty, so long as I hold on to that belief, if my heart is breaking well, God’s heart must be breaking also because he cares for me, which gives me the second characteristic, which is hope.
Hope is not just wishful thinking, just like faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, and if I believe in a God who actually cares, hey, that gives me something to hold on to, which allows me to engage the next characteristic, which is gratitude. Being thankful, not just in the good times, but in all times. And that too is a discipline.
A daily discipline of counting our blessings one by one, despite whatever might be going on, there is still something to be thankful for. Research shows that people who are more grateful actually attract more good things into their life to be grateful for, which gives us the capacity for the next characteristic to take the spotlight off ourselves and do what we said at the very beginning of this interview to put the spotlight on somebody else to ask, how can I serve? What can I do to be kind? So kindness is the next characteristic.
Asking what resources, gifts, abilities, opportunities do I have that I could make an effective or valuable contribution to the life of somebody else? And then the final characteristic is called courage because if I’ve been hurt, betrayed, abandoned, abused it takes great courage to forgive. That’s the only way that I can get on with my future, those five characteristics. And you’ll not just make a recovery, but you have the capacity to grow through your tragedy and end up better off in the end than when you were before the tragedy took place.
Ruth: That is so encouraging. And I think so inspiring because it reminds us that no matter what we waiting through, no matter what situation we’ve been through, we can get not just back to zero, but beyond that. Often we resile from pressure, but pressure and heat turns coal into diamonds. There can be something amazing that comes out of difficulty. And as we lean into that, I think we can start to write a better story, not just for ourselves, but those around about us.
Research shows that people who are more grateful actually attract more good things into their life to be grateful for.
Ruth Limkin is a credentialed pastor with the ACC, and is the founding CEO of The Banyans Health & Wellness, a multimodel residential health retreat.
Dr Robi Sonderegger is an internationally recognised Clinical Psychologist, known for taking psychology from the frontline to the home front™. Dr Robi has worked with corporations, governments, churches, universities/schools and humanitarian agencies