“Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.” Helen Keller
The following story is a true story that illustrates the power negative thinking as well as the power of focusing on the strengths of those you lead. This story is about a nineteen year old African American female who was terribly distraught when she first called me for help. During the first few minutes of our conversation she was crying uncontrollably. When she was finally able to talk she told me that she was considering taking her own life. She said that her mother had kicked her out of her house, that she felt helpless and hopeless and confident that she would never amount to much. I knew that she was most likely ready to reiterate all the reasons she was worthless. As you can imagine, I was quite concerned for this young woman.
Several questions ran through my mind. What led her to this point in life? Were things really as bad as she was seeing them at this very moment? Did she have any strength or resources she could draw from that would pull her out of this?
I chose to reflect on the one positive thing I heard from her rather than on the difficulty between her and her mother. I affirmed her relationship with her aunt whom she said had taken her in, telling her I was glad she had at least some temporary shelter. She agreed by indicating that they she and her aunt had a great relationship and that her aunt had told her she could stay as long as necessary to get back on her feet. Next, I checked to see if she had any resources or whether she would need some kind of special assistance. When I asked about a job she said she had a good job and enjoyed her work. This led me to conclude that she had probably completed high school, and since she was only nineteen, I asked about that experience. She said she had made very good grades in order to compete as an athlete in track & field and that she still keeps up with her fitness by running three miles every day. In fact, she had just come in from her morning run before making the call to me. I commended her again and suggested that she is unique compared to most people who never get off the sofa.
I then asked her about friends or associates from whom she could receive encouragement and support. Since she had recently graduated from high school I expected to hear about friends from there. To my surprise, however, she said that most of her friends were from work rather than her high school. She said that most of her friends from school had become pregnant before finishing high school, were on some type of welfare or aid programs, or were involved in drugs. With that, I asked how it was that she ended up making such different choices. She turned the conversation back to her accomplishments at school. She said that the competition of track & field motivated her to stay focused academically because good grades were required to compete. I asked how well she did in her track experience. She said she had won several competitions and had even received a full scholarship to a nearby college. I again commended her with amazement at her success and asked if she planned to attend college. She said she was not sure, but, now that it was on her mind, she would consider checking into it further.
Nearing the end of the call I told her that I was quite amazed at her accomplishments. I further apologized for not spending much time talking about the situation with her mother. She said that she actually felt much better after the call than she had in weeks. I could tell that her mood had changed significantly from the beginning of the conversation. When I asked about that, she said that no one had ever told her all the things that I had told her.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. I stopped her immediately and reminded that I had told her nothing, but that it was she who had told of all her accomplishments, and of all the positive things in her life. She thought about my comment for a minute and then excitedly agreed. She also recognized that she had fallen victim to selective memory that focused on the most negative things in her life. She realized that she could actually change that to a more positive focus. She said that she really wanted to keep these positive things in the forefront of her thinking. She immediately listed those things on a piece of paper and taped it to her bathroom mirror so she could read them every day before she left her house. She said she wanted to be reminded that she is worthwhile, loved by friends and family, unique, talented and capable, and facing a future with lots of opportunity.
I asked again about her mother. She said that she still did not have a good answer for that, but that she was certain that she would be okay, even if things did not get better between them. I suggested she call me again to discover some ways she could try to work things out. I also asked about suicidal thoughts, and she said she was certainly not going to harm herself and was more hopeful about her life and her future now than ever before.
Several weeks passed and she had not called back so I called her to follow up on our conversation. She said that she was doing great. She said she still lived with her aunt, and that her relationship with her mother was slowly improving. She said she still sees the list every morning and is reminded that even when a few things are not going well, there are a lot of other good things about her life that she can focus on and draw strength from.
Everyone has enough problems and challenges in their lives. Exceptional leaders don’t ignore those things, but they begin by focusing on the strenghts of others. Without that foundation, few people will have the energy to focus on managing the deficits and continue their growth.