Recognize that you can learn to bend, flex, and recover. It is possible to learn the dance others seem to know. If you don’t know the steps, you can’t even practice. When you do, practice. Practice a lot. I win gold medals for persistence, even if only in my own race.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Power.
Elizabeth Power, MEd (and not the British Romance Novelist with the same name!) is an international authority on trauma-informed care, resilience, and self-care. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, she is the founder of The Trauma Informed Academy and the author of Healer: Reducing Crises. She’s an avid gardener, educator, and consultant whose work is helping people reduce the time, trauma, and costs of healing.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I grew up in the “edge of Appalachia” — the last county on the area’s east side. My growing up was made difficult by ordinary things. These were ordinary in the world of men returning from the way — events like relocation, death, rare diseases, congenital disabilities, and more. However, I also learned to think critically, read broadly, and respond to change quickly. These were gifts.
In my teens, I left. I’d had enough. I ended up at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for my last two years of high school. From there, I went on to take seven years to earn a four-year degree. I was still having knee surgeries (this was in the dark ages) almost every year. After burning every bridge I had in North Carolina, I came west to Tennessee. I began my career in custom shoe repair at a shop that did a lot of work in the music industry and Nashville’s glitterati. The rest was just pinballing from spot to spot until I found my “calling” in adult learning and instructional design. My specialty is helping people become trauma-responsive. I’m an adjunct instructor in psychiatry at Georgetown and the founder of one of the country’s fastest-growing online academies helping people become trauma-informed and trauma-responsive.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Wow. There are so many! In my years as a shoe repairer, I worked on the shoes of the stars — Oprah Winfrey when she was in Nashville, Minnie Pearl, Alabama, and more. I was repairing the handle on Minnie Pearl’s pearlized blue makeup case — the rivet had popped. She watched and said to me that while I was a “fine shoe repairer,” she hoped I’d go on to do more, but to “always remember where you came from.”
I learned that I wasn’t as invisible as I wanted to be. Minnie Pearl saw me despite my efforts to hide. I saw that people in high places could still see the rest of us and be kind. She exuded humility and compassion. Her compliment was a spark of hope that I tucked inside and carried even today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The combination of “Lived Experience” with a robust commitment to competency-based adult learning.
As a person with an extensive history of trauma, I know the work of healing from the inside out. As a degreed adult learning specialist whose designs using evidence from research in learning, I know we need learning grounded in what we know about people learn. And, I know that a lot of the troubles each of us have are over things we did or didn’t learn.
Combining these allows me to focus on learning people might miss and deliver it in a helpful way that works.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Alma Clayton-Petersen. She jumps right out. Alma was a Dean at Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education. I’d worked with her on a tool called “Diversity Opportunity Training,” which was a laser-disc-based training that took students through different scenarios where diversity and inclusion mattered. I slunk into her office to talk about graduate school and told her I didn’t think my publishing list was long enough to count. I was convinced I was too stupid to get into graduate school!
She pushed her big, bright red glasses down on her nose. She looked out over them at me and said (as I remember), “Girlfriend, don’t nobody come to graduate school with a publications list.” I was stunned. I thought you couldn’t get in if you didn’t have one! I realized the lie I’d been telling myself about how dumb I was? They couldn’t hold up. It was the first time it occurred to me that I might be able to go to graduate school. I felt so dumb! I was very addicted to being a failure back then.
I’ve worked on eroding that self-contempt ever since. It truly is an “inside job.”
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I believe resilience is a trait that we develop. It helps us focus on or promote our positive assets while reducing the risks our negative assets bring. This activity increases our ability to take in and respond to everyday discomforts and distress with less risk of trauma.
Traits of resilient people align with the traits of Emotional Intelligence, like self-awareness and self-regulation. They include traits like
- adopting and learning to sustain optimism;
- reframing, or making multiple meanings of events;
- getting and staying curious;
- being able to dial-up or down the intensity of emotions;
- turning outward to include “we” as well as “me,” and
- sufficient belief in self-as-worthy to protect and care for the self. You know, loving yourself the way you tell other people to love themselves.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Jean Baker-Miller, MD, is always one of my top-of-mind examples. She was a Jewish doctor, a psychiatrist, and a polio survivor. Her work reframed psychological thinking from problems with how we separate to challenges in how we change connection. She walked her talk as an early feminist, and despite all the constraints against her being who she was, she prevailed. She prevailed by refocusing and building a bigger table. She was always making meaning, connecting, and focusing on contributions to the betterment of the world. I considered myself very lucky to have known her.
I chose her because she lived around the impediment of polio and its impact on her life. She still did what she wanted to do, constantly and forever adapting to how her body worked. She focused on bringing us together instead of driving us apart. She made a huge contribution to our world. The work she started continues.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I’ve heard that more than once. When the orthopedic surgeon who removed my last kneecap (two different docs) told me to forget ever driving a straight drive, kneeling, picking up packages? And when he went on to say to me to expect that my knees would pitch me forward to fall flat on my face? I smiled.
I was so mad I hiked on crutches that year. I learned to drive a VW Bug in a straight leg plaster cast from thigh to ankle. After I got out of the cast, I did fall when my knees buckled. I developed ways to avoid that. I kneel, climb stairs, pick up boxes — and work to keep my body in shape to support that. To people who don’t know that journey, I look as if I have never had knee problems. Impossible only takes longer.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I think the story I’ve told is rooted in a lot of trauma, especially in early childhood. I knew I’d developed PTSD (I think I was diagnosed as soon as it hit the books) by 1980.
What I didn’t know was that I’d also developed what is now called Dissociative Identity Disorder. I felt like my world had crumbled within about five minutes of hearing that I had “multiple personalities.” One minute you’re a successful instructional designer, and the next, what are you? Who are you? What happens to people like me? What do I do now? Does it mean I’m crazy? Or what?
I chose a nontraditional path to healing. I refused to believe what people said about me. I knew my proliferation started with the ordinary early losses that made me vulnerable to other kinds of trauma. I knew they represented points at which I couldn’t learn because I was overwhelmed.
It was the hardest work I’d ever done. I had so much to learn! I was like a big piece of Swiss cheese, with all kinds of holes. I created some new ideas about dissociation that people still talk about now. Unraveling and reweaving still seems the best example.
And, I was determined that my story would be my narrative and not someone else’s. I refused to “accept the defining gaze of the Other.” I was self-determining. I grew more than I can imagine. I became more successful as a result of the creativity, compassion, and adaptability I fostered. (It was challenging, and it seemed better than the alternative.)
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I think growing up with physical disabilities helped me develop resilience. My mother told me I could do anything I wanted to, even if I had to do it differently. So I was steeped in adapting, reframing, and finding alternative ways to get things done. Dissociation helped me avoid experiencing overwhelming things, or at least the bodily sensations and emotions that came with them. Learning how other people experienced the world was powerful. In those years, I realized that the real power I had was in the choices I could make.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Step #1. Recognize that you can learn to bend, flex, and recover. It is possible to learn the dance others seem to know. If you don’t know the steps, you can’t even practice. When you do, practice. Practice a lot. I win gold medals for persistence, even if only in my own race.
Step #2. Recognize that self-care is things you do to care for yourself, like massage and mani-pedicures. Do you want to amplify them to bolster your resilience? You’ll need Step #3. I cannot tell you how many times I had lunch with friends and it was just lunch with friends. But when I learned what’s next? They became a lot more.
Step #3. Use a pattern to help you add meaning to your actions, especially those that are for self-care. I think of it as building a trampoline I can bounce off of — my favorite four posts that hold up the trampoline are connection, contribution, competency, character.
Ask — of each action you take — What connection am I strengthening? To whom or what? What contribution does this action make to the world? Do I have the skills or competence to do this? Does it align with my character? It doesn’t take long when you practice it, and your actions become a lot clearer. That mani-pedi I need? Maybe I have a favorite salon with a person. There’s connection and contribution. And I’ll take a friend with me, which strengthens connections. I know the salon’s address and the person I want — that’s competence. It’s like me, within my character, to do this.
Step #4. List times in your life when you have been bent over by life and stood back up. Describe what you learned in each one. What gifts did it bring you? Growing up with a physical disability helped me learn how to adapt and be creative. It helped me develop ways of thinking that are helpful in terms of accommodations, new ideas, and blending different ideas. Being diagnosed with DID helped me explore the realms of human consciousness and what it meant to be “me.”
Step #5. Install the good regularly. Personal neuroplasticity is critical in growth and healing, and you can use it to your advantage. Before you go to sleep, think about something good that has happened. Feel the feeling it brings, and turn that feeling up for twenty seconds. Rinse, lather, and repeat — three different moments of good from each day, 20 seconds each. That’s only a minute. Keep it up. I worked on a version of this, recognizing a moment where I looked in the mirror and thought I was beautiful. I worked that one for six months, and when I went home, my family didn’t recognize me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to implement a program that combines learning, practice, and loyalty rewards for demonstrated skills that helps people become trauma-responsive. It would serve at least one million people. Every little bit we absorb about creating hopeful and healing environments is an investment in reducing the pain in the future. It’s a legacy to leave the future that reduces overwhelming experiences and the cost of recovering from them.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to visit with Michelle Obama.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!