3 Positive Psychology Tools to Sustain the Inner Being of the Social Activist

Caroline: Welcome, everybody. Today we’re discussing three positive psychology tools to sustain the inner being of the social activists with Uneeda Brewer. Uneeda Brewer, a life coach and organization development consultant, is our speaker today. She works with individuals who are navigating career and personal transitions, as well as organizations that want to improve inclusion, team functioning, and belonging. She is a social worker and psycho-dramatist. Her practice combines positive psychology, psychodrama and strength-based coaching with a personal interest to healing from trauma. Her firsthand experiences with racial discrimination and injustice have fueled her passion to be a social activist for racial justice and women’s equality. She uses spiritual practices to help clients align all aspects of their lives, including their spiritual wisdom. She volunteers with the Women’s Resource Center in her town, and mentors youth in Take Stock in Children, a program sponsored by the local school board. Uneeda, who I admire greatly, is my colleague, friend, and friend, welcomes me to the call.


Uneeda: Oh, thank you so much. 


Caroline: You are someone that I consider has great resilience. I believe that, no matter what, we all need to remember the basics. There are still moments of despair. Your talk today will address that and show how you can use these tools to remind yourself about the magic and beauty of being. I think the mind has a funny way of, when we’re in one of those sensations, making it feel like this is going to go on forever.


Uneeda: I know, and there is actually a tip about that, because we do get overwhelmed, and when we get overwhelmed, sometimes our mind locks and it’s just like this is gonna be my life from now on. There are ways to get out of that mindset and move forward. Our own resilience.


The name of the presentation is now known. I define social activist to be anyone who is involved in any way and works toward equality and justice. So I don’t have a set image of what that would look like. Social activism is any action you take to make the world a better place.


I’d like to get you to put yourself in this picture. So I’d like you to think about what’s your best hope for our time together today. Why did you come and what are you’re hoping for today? My hope is that we all take one step further along to what we’re hoping together today. I hope to offer some moments of encouragement. And I hope you’ll join me in making that happen. I want to offer a specific definition for self-care so that we’re focusing in the same direction, it’s a practice. And it’s about us taking an active role in protecting our own well-being and happiness, particularly during times of stress. And that’s where I’m aiming, is providing ideas that you can put into practice that keep you active in protecting your own well-being and your own happiness.

You might be curious as to what sparked me to self-care. It all began with the insurrection on January 6. I was beside myself, I just I couldn’t believe that this was [happening]The Capitol grounds of America, and 2021. The news, if you didn’t grow up in the South, may not resonate for you the way it did for me. It is a symbol for terror. It was used to enforce Jim Crow laws and discrimination. This was January 6. Then I felt despair. I know that there are some people for whom the Confederate flag is in quotes about “heritage,” but I want you to know, for me, it represents something completely different. You may also hear from others who grew up in South. I was born in 1964 before legal segregation was banned. This means that we continue to have a system of prejudice, bigotry, injustice and discrimination. It is open rebellion against the United States government to me. It was, in a nutshell, treason. 

This is 50 years since we graduated high school in 1963. We were 15 when we were selected to integrate the all-white senior high school in our community. We endured many hardships and difficulties, as well as some suffering. I was able to see that young man. [in the image of the insurrection]Carrying a Confederate flag in the citadel to democracy made me squirm. We made all these sacrifices to make things better, laws were passed about public accommodations … what is going on? And as I started to talk to other people about my experience, I found out I wasn’t alone. So many other activists were saying to me, I’m really burnt out. I’m standing at the precipice and I think it won’t take much to push me in. And I don’t think I can get out. I’m exhausted. My energy is low. I am despairing, that what I’ve worked for my whole life will actually happen. I’m disillusioned, I’m despondent, I’m distressed, and I said, that’s like me, and I’m at a fork in the road, that despondent, despairing energy is pulling me toward disengagement, toward giving up. But I don’t want to be there. I know there must exist tools that can help me recharge, reenergize, renew. I began the Certificate program in Positive Psychology with a vengeance. What tools are available? I don’t want to be on the path of disengagement. But I found myself moving towards that direction. And so I wanted to make a choice for myself, that allowed me to reengage, not to deny what I was feeling, but to say, alright, this is what I’m feeling, what can I do, so that I can choose a different way.

I’d like to pause now and ask you to think about where have you been emotionally this past year? You can say longer than a year, because we’ve been in COVID times for almost two years now. We’ve been in political disarray for a long time. And so I’m wondering, where are you? You can see that a scale of one to 10 indicates more disillusionment and a number of 10. I am fully capable of reengaging myself, and I can get back up if I fall. I’m good. Five is somewhere in the middle, that sometimes I’m down sometimes I’m up. Mostly I’m pointed toward reengagement, or I’m being pulled toward just disengagement. And I’m just wondering, where are you? We had thought this might be a good time for you to go into a breakout group and speak with someone about where do you see yourself right now with all that’s going on? Are you toward disengagement? Are you somewhere in between? Are you toward engagement? 


Caroline: All right. Susan says five. Joanne says I straddle the line. Elaine says seven. Kathy is at seven. Raisa is at four. Megha, I choose eight, because of the wonderful work I get to do with the people I am learning from.


Uneeda: So I guess we won’t have to go into a breakout group because you’re willing to share right here online. Thank you very much. For anyone below a five, I want you to be there. And as we go through the presentation, I’m hoping you’ll find a tool where you can say, oh, yeah, I can take a step. It doesn’t have to be a big step. It can be a small step towards reengagement. If you’re wondering where I am now, I was at, I think a four in January. And I’m now at a seven. I’m not at a 10, I’m still moving toward reengagement, I still need to do practices, because there’s a lot going on. And there’s a lot to take our energy away. 


We all have triggers. There are things that go wrong for everyone. I want to honor every one of them. So I’d like you to start thinking now, wherever you are on the scale, what might be something that would help me enhance my self-care, so I can reengage? What is one thing you can do to improve your self-care and maintain your self-care? Because my goal is to get you to see this picture. And as we’re going through, you’re not a passive listener, you are engaged and searching along with me.

Mindfulness is the first tool I want to share. You may have heard of mindful meditation. Well, they’re actually two different practices. Dr. Ellen Langer was mentioned when I was in CiWPP. And we saw a video that she talked about mindfulness and how we don’t have to actually meditate to be mindful. She is often referred to as the mother and father of mindfulness. Now, here’s the definition that she offers, that is so easy. “Actively notice new things.” Because when we notice new, when we look for new, our attention is in the present, we are into our curiosity, we are in the here and now. You can also increase that awareness by breathing. And I bet if I were to ask you, if you would stop in this moment and look around the room that you’re in, and notice something new. You may have been in this room 100 times … what’s new, that you didn’t see when you walked in today? You find your full mind in the act of searching for the unknown. Dr. Langer has conducted extensive experiments and research on this topic. We could talk for an hour about her research. But I want you to have more tools and I want to highlight some of the things she said.


She suggests that we spend almost all of our time without thinking. I was like, wait, is that what? I meditate. I am able to be mindful. Yes. But on the ordinary day, am I bringing my attention to what’s going on in the here and now? When we are mindless, we’re focusing on the there and then, we’re in the past, we’re not aware of the context. Someone said that seeing a different perspective was something they valued. When we are mind-less, we’re trapped in a single perspective. We’re on automatic pilot. And the other thing that Dr. Langer says is when we’re not there, we don’t know we’re not there. We’re just mindless. And if this has ever happened to you, this is an example: I’ve been driving on the highway and past the exit that I was supposed to turn off up because I wasn’t there. And it’s like, oh my goodness. I’ve driven by facility or salon for a month and never saw it and someone said, Oh, do you know someone so works in that shop and all of a sudden I’m like, oh my goodness, I’ve been driving mindlessly. I’ve been on automatic pilot. And when we’re on automatic pilot, we’re not able to be in our lives. When we are mindful, our attention is on the present moment. We’re engaged in what we’re doing. We feel enlivened. It is a great way to improve your health. We’re sensitive to the context. So we don’t just barrel down the road and miss all the signs that are there to help us because we’re not paying attention. We are actually aware and paying attention to what’s going on. When we are mindful, we’re really able to tap into our creativity and competence. This improves our psychological health as well as our well-being.

It is fascinating to read the research of Dr. Langer. One of the interesting things that I thought about was that mindfulness can reduce burnout and reduce our attention to prejudice and pain. I had to stop and think for a moment: Mindfulness can help with prejudice? How does that work? And then when you think about it, if you are looking at me, and I am looking at you as belonging to a category, you’re not really seeing me. When you’re bringing all the bias to a situation and don’t allow my mindfulness, my attention, my curiosity to be piqued, I can stay stuck in these places that aren’t healthy. I want to tell you this one thing‚ you see weight loss being improved through mindfulness. Are you just waiting for something? How did that happen? Are you curious? Yes. Okay. So I’ll tell you.


They conducted a study on chambermaids, who are the people who clean the rooms of a hotel. They asked them if they get exercise during their workdays. They replied, “No, not really.” And if you think about it, and this is what Dr. Langer says, they’re exercising all day long. They believe exercise is what they do after work and in the gym. So they divided the two groups into two. One group told them that what you do every day is exactly like exercise. So when you’re making up a bed, it is as if you’re on a rowing machine, just for an example. So they showed them different ways to view what they were doing as exercise. After eight weeks, the people had lost weight and their BMI had fallen. They were actually in better physical health than those in the same situation. The other group who were not told they were doing exercise were the same. Amazing.

Meditation can be a way to relax your body, quieten your mind, and awaken your spirit through a practice. There are many different ways to meditate. Meditation, as you probably know, involves some breathing and paying attention. You may have experienced meditation through movement if you have been to any type of yoga or movement class. You can meditate standing or sitting, and you can also meditate with mantras. I have been using the meditation technique of Emily Fletcher, who has also been on the Positive Psychology Hour. It has allowed me to re-nourish and re-energize my inner self. Whenever I wake up in the morning and say, Oh, wait, what kind of day is it gonna be, I can go back and say it’s gonna be a great day. Because I’m going to settle, I’m going to move into a place of quiet and nurture. Meditation has many benefits that are similar to mindfulness. These are supported by extensive research and studies. It is amazing what we can do when we are fully present to ourselves. 

Here’s tip number two: Develop and maintain an optimistic outlook. These dogs are my favorites [in the picture]My dog is the one at the bottom left. And he is always with me wherever I’m doing a presentation. The best thing about this photo is the way they look so excited. There is something good coming. It is coming. The idea here  is that we want to notice and savor our positive emotions. If we are mindful, it is possible to be aware that I am feeling excited in this moment. I feel happy at the moment. In this moment, I am feeling confused—whatever it is. If we can see the positives, both are resources. And savoring is really about not just letting them slip by, it’s being aware that I am experiencing a moment of joy. And that is what I want. That is what I want to keep. Because it builds our ability so that, when there is a bump in the road we have some resources to pull on to get us back.

If you haven’t had a chance to take the VIA character survey, I’m going to give you a link to that. Because we can use our strengths to benefit ourselves. Caroline and me spoke before you joined the call. She said Creativity is one her top strengths. Curiosity is one my top strengths. And when I ask myself when I’m in a difficult moment, how has my curiosity helped me move through this. How can I bring out my best self in this situation? What strengths can I draw upon to get myself out of this rut? As humans, we tend to look for what’s going wrong, because that helps contribute to our survival. And when we focus on the negative then we are not able to see what’s good. It is possible to take a step back and change our perspective. A difficulty is temporary and won’t last forever. Even the upheaval on January 6 didn’t last for ever. Even any of the other difficulties that you’re working to correct. They have seen shifts. It’s specific. It’s a thing that happened or something that happened. It’s not pervasive. And it’s external. It’s, I made a mistake, not I am a mistake or I am wrong. I took an action that brought about a result that I wasn’t happy with. I can choose to take another action. We have the right to choose how we deal with the situation at any time. I don’t exclude systemic difficulties. We all know that systems exist that prevent us from living our best lives. However, we can change these systems by making the right choices and connecting with others.

All right, I’ll keep going through to “cultivate hope.” You know, before positive psychology, I thought hope was just kind of ephemeral. It’s like yeah, hope something good happened. Hope is actually a verb. According to positive psychology research and particularly Dr. Dan Tomasulo’s work, in order to activate hope, we need to have things that are uncertain or difficult. Hope is the only positive emotion that requires that. So when we’re feeling oh, my God, I don’t know what to do, we start searching and in that search, we are cultivating hope. And when we believe that it’s possible, that hope is possible. Hope is possible, because our mental state can direct us toward what we’re seeking. I love this quote from Maya Angelou: “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space.” If we look around at the world today, we see how fear is being used to divide us or is being used to create despair. If we want to choose a different path, let’s find ways to move from what is difficult and uncertain and not sure toward what can be, what we can work on together to cocreate. People with high hopes focus on the future. They’re moving toward something. They have the energy and motivation for change. I am motivated and have energy right now because I want to make change happen. And so I’m investing my Perseverance and my Zest. These are the strengths I have that I can use for this. I hope that people can also find a way to achieve what they want. So they’re learning and exploring and saying, How can I get there? How can I make an impact in this area? They’re good at generating new ways. They’re creative. And they’re resilient.

Let me take a moment to read this definition of resilience. It is a positive outcome that comes after adversity. So it’s saying something happened, and I can still move towards something good. I can make a positive step. Most of us are more resilient than we realize, we’re more resilient most of the time. I encourage people to set micro goals. This means that we break down the goals into smaller pieces, so that when we accomplish a small part, we feel energized to move on to the next piece. And we get energized to move forward to create the next piece, so that we’re continuing to grow and we’re continuing to feel competent, because we are accomplishing something. I hope people cherish their relationships. We’re all in it together. We’re all connected. People who cultivate their Hope work to build and maintain connections and strengthen relationships. If you have not had a chance to take the VIA character survey, here’s where you can find it: www.viacharacter.org. It’s free, and it will give you a listing of the 24 character strengths that through research have been identified as applying to all people in all cultures. As of now, the survey has been completed by more than 12 million people. So there’s a lot of good data to support it. It is something I use myself and it is something I share with my coaching clients.


Okay, here’s another. So one of the ways that we also can be mindful and activate our hope, is “notice without judgment.” That is to see what’s going on, without evaluating it. This is my favorite for myself: I have been in the habit of saying, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I can’t find my keys. You can see the judgment in that. Now, I’m saying, I noticed that my habit of misplacing keys is something I should change. And all of a sudden, I’m on a mission to find a way to make it possible, not to forget my keys, and not misplace my keys. That’s a small thing. It’s something we do all the time. We can be more hopeful if we stop judging and notice the good, the beautiful. What are the benefits? What are the lessons we can learn? Yes, there are negatives, it’s not saying don’t notice the negatives, it’s saying, don’t linger on the negatives, have a more balanced view, that it is a beautiful day. I’m grateful to be alive and breathing. There is so much more to do. Wow, aren’t I lucky, I have work to do. It could be worse. Challenge beliefs that don’t serve us. So that we can adapt, look for what’s good. Look for resilience, passive positivity, goals that can be achieved, and then keep going. This is the gratitude practice. And you probably already know this, the three things I’m grateful for—you can do it either in the morning, or in the evening. Dr. Tomasulo has in his book, he talks about starting the day looking back, saying what are three things I’m grateful for from yesterday. I sometimes do it in the morning, what are three things I’m grateful for as I awaken … you can do it any time. It has been proven to be a great way to nurture and sustain yourself. 


There’s a lot going on in life in general. And positive psychology isn’t saying to us, there won’t be ups and downs, but it’s saying is we can find ways to engage to promote our own well-being that we stand in the midst of the difficulty, centered and peaceful and moving forward, a teeny step toward activity.


Every breath we take is a miracle. It is a miracle that we are here. What I’m saying is that we can continue doing that. And we don’t do it alone. We do it together and make connections with others. We know that we can get through ups and downs because we have the tools. 


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