"Bucket list for mentally healthy leaders" - my learnings from Mental Health Month 2020

About the Author: Sara-Estelle is a core part of the Generation Impact team: part-consultant, part project manager, and now: blogger! She is currently studying Psychology at LMU Munich. Her educational path led her to the United World College Red Cross Nordic, a place that she remembers as a place of great challenges, self-development, and joy. Reflecting upon that time, she believes it has shaped her trust that a more compassionate every-day-life is possible and peace on a global scale starts on the smallest scale. She trusts that Nonviolent Communication enables individuals, families, and societies to live the life they dream of. In the future she sees herself supporting leaders on their path to leading in a mindful, supportive, and kind way - having power with people, instead of power over people. Right now she is based in southern Germany, enjoying the beautiful nature and music she makes with her family.

"Imagine an external factor changing so much of what we take for granted, that the “normal life” becomes something we cherish."

February 28th, 2020, 12:00 am, I finish my last exam for this term. The sun shines as I walk out the door of that beautiful old building, my university. As I take the underground and sit down it strikes me: Finally, my spring-break is there! Many people are around me, some coughing, some laughing, some well distracted by their phones. As always, I read the news-ticker. Now I’m reading: +++Breaking news: 5 cases of the new virus “Corona” are recorded in Munich now. In case of any Symptoms please contact your doctor via phone and clarify further steps.+++

I am a person who likes knowing what’s going to happen, where I am going to be, who I am going to spend time with, and what I’m going to do. In short: I like being “in control of my life” and that includes at least knowing the circumstances determining it. In the past weeks, I had to reframe that wish. I couldn’t be in control. At least not in the way I was used to being. When we have to let go of control, humans become nervous, anxious, uncomfortable. I really had to adapt and use some new strategies to create the life I wish to have. 

In the middle of that process, my friend Julia called me and asked me if I would like to write the final blog post for mental health month. I felt honored, but could not say yes immediately. The weird thing was: I didn’t know why. In the past weeks, I had given advice to many of my friends and that felt normal and even like the best possible way of supporting others in this difficult time. I got feedback from friends and family, telling me that they were grateful and relieved to have talked to me. I had been learning a lot of skills and theoretical background in the field of clinical psychology, so I may have access to more knowledge than some other people may. So why was I having such a weird feeling now that I got the opportunity to share my thoughts with an even broader audience? 

I decided to let my pen and pencil rest for some hour and went for a walk outside. On the shore of the lake, I noticed why “simply saying yes” had been so difficult for me. I remembered past situations where I gave advice and tried to find out what made me feel comfortable then and what was different now. Normally I ask the person before giving them advice, if they want to have advice, and only if they say yes, I will share my thoughts. This time I can’t really ask you, sadly. Therefore, I want you to read the following as pieces of advice if that is what you came here for. If not, you are free to read them as my personal experience or not to read them at all! 

Today, May 31st  I’m finalizing this article. It’s been 12 weeks now since I remember life “being normal”. The only word worthy of the past three months is: extraordinary. It has this beautiful ambiguous connotation, this mixture of good and bad feelings. And that is exactly what I have been experiencing during my “Corona-time”: The extraordinary. Somewhere in my heart, I believe that for many of you this description would suit, too. I want my advice to be personal, so I looked at what I had done during those 12 weeks that was “so extraordinary” that I would like to share with you today.

I noticed that I had done many things, as usual, the slight difference being: I did them much more consciously, focused, determined, full-heartedly. Even though it still feels very personal, I now arrive at a point where I more or less feel comfortable sharing it with you. I hope to inspire you with these reflections and maybe you even get the feeling of wanting to try some of these strategies out as well.

Here are my top three mentally healthy discoveries from this past month:

1. I disclosed my feelings, needs, and wishes

For me, that feels natural. I like being transparent with people I care for and feel safe with. The extraordinary thing in the past months was, that this time, I also dared to be vulnerable with people I had only known for some minutes.

For instance, I was in a call with many youths and an accident happened with the screen-sharing and a persons’ Skype-chat was visible for all. There they discussed the content of the webinar and were very critical. I was the one leading the webinar. Now I could have chosen to take it as a personal attack and leave the situation angrily. I could have chosen to make them feel guilty or I could have used that situation to put pressure on them later.

However, I chose to deal with it in a very new way: with sincerity and genuine empathy. "I am able to read what you are writing and I suppose other participants can as well. I can imagine that you are feeling shame or guilt right now, but I need you to know that I am actually relieved. You gave me the opportunity to know about some feelings and perspectives I could not have discovered otherwise. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to adapt my plan to this situation and learn from it." What followed was the silence of surprise and a very deep and fruitful discussion about the situation we had just shared.

Why did I react that way and not differently? I can’t really say, but I am very glad I did! For those of you who are familiar with Nonviolent Communication, you may have seen its influence on my response. For those, who aren’t, I hope to write an article or two about that passion of mine here on this blog, because I am convinced it is a crucial leadership skill – so stay tuned!

The extraordinary here is to not only disclose happy and nice feelings but also disclose your feelings when you fear them: when there are moments you feel self-conscious, sad or hopeless. By choosing to open up you give someone the possibility to get closer to you by strengthening the bond you have or establishing a special, emotional bond from the very beginning on. I love the impact that showing my feelings and talking about my needs and wishes had, even in more formal situations like the webinar.

2. I reflected upon my learning journey

 ...only this time it wasn’t related to the kind of learning you might suspect. While reflecting upon a TED-Talk I had to watch for University, I noticed that there is a way of learning I had completely disregarded before: learning by exposure. Let me give you a definition: Learning by exposure is the process that happens while being near or part of a situation that holds aspects that are yet to be discovered by you and skills that are yet to be extracted and used by you. (an example would be “learning new eating-manners in a country you have not been in before and know nothing about” or “learning your mother tongue as a baby”)

The interesting thing about learning by exposure is that we normally don’t notice our learning-progress while we’re in it, we only notice when we're done. (Maybe now you will, as you know about it ;) I’m not saying that I didn’t learn like that before – I only never consciously reflected upon the fact that I did and what that means for my life right now.

I took the time and really thought about the implications of “Corona in the context of learning by exposure”. Many thoughts came to my mind. One of them is that right now we are forced to change our social behaviors drastically. Before Corona, only a few situations required such a careful eye on the distance between individuals, for instance. Now we are forced to learn how to “properly cope with a pandemic” - by exposure.

The extraordinary experience for me was to see these new and sometimes uncomfortable situations as learning opportunities. The result was that I managed to welcome unforeseen challenges with greater ease and trust. That is a helpful skill to develop, not only for leaders, I think.

3. I was thinking, acting, and reflecting 

… only this time I asked myself if my thought or action is making life more wonderful for me or another person.

You know, I tend to be pretty harsh on myself. In the past months, there were numerous situations in which I could judge, compare, and criticize myself. That’s not something I am very proud of, as I know that it doesn't always help my mental health. At some point, there was this recurring doubt in my head: “Why am I worrying if other people for sure have much more to worry about than me?! Am I allowed to?”

One morning I chose to try out a strategy I learned in a course for clinical psychology: Debating thoughts. You can debate your thought empirically for example by asking if the “data” supports these thoughts, for example, “Nobody loves my Instagram-posts.” We could now check how many positive responses the person receives and then debate if the observations we make, support this fear. Another method is to question the logic: Does it make sense? My favorite one is asking “Does this cognition (fancy word for a product of the mind) support my happiness and joy?” In my case, the answer to this question would clearly have been “no”.

Then the wonderful thing is: one can choose to leave this thought float away. Simply knowing that it’s there is enough, but there is no more need to spend time with it. In my case, this set free much energy for different, more productive thoughts.

Some final thoughts

There are moments when we stop and forget about the masks, the surreal setting, and the physical distance. Then we can allow ourselves to be present at the moment, learn by exposure, simply be there and seize that we can. That’s when I actually manage to feel the same closeness and love that I remember from before Corona. The extraordinary has not (yet) become the new normal for me, and I hope it never does. But I hope, we will learn to adapt to it well enough, so we can cherish this situation as what it can also be: a learning opportunity for leaders.

Wanna join me in the club of brave, live-long-leadership-learners?

I have to say, writing this really took a lot of courage for me to write. I am still learning how to find the right amount of self-disclosure and openness and am still practicing how to find a comfortable path between detail and conciseness. I still get chills when I think about the fact that these thoughts of mine are now out there, to be read by anyone really. But if you want to learn, you need to be brave, I think. (You see why this passage has the heading it does ;-)

Funny anecdote: I’m planning another, bigger project with Generation Impact, and in one of the many phone calls I told Julia about my insecurity of “going out there”. She reminded me of this thing I had told her about (learning by exposure) … So here I am exposing myself to this new situation of writing a blogpost on psychological content. I am curious about what I will learn on the journey and looking forward to moments of reflection and interaction with you, dear readers! Please feel free to comment here and on our social media channels - that way we can interact best. If you want to, you can also send us an e-mail :)

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