I spend a lot of time at conferences talking about my transition from delinquent to doctor. More specifically, the steps involved in moving from a background of criminal offending, homicide, and prison, to a successful life of contribution and purpose. Yet I don't look forward to telling this story, in fact the opposite is true. Approximately an hour before I get up and speak I always wonder what the hell I'm doing there and why I'm not spending my time doing something less stressful?! The reason talking about my past causes me stress is that focuses on a dark period of my life, requires me to revisit actions I am not proud of, and experiences that caused me real trauma.
It also makes me anxious to stand in front of 10s, 100s, and sometimes 1000s of people and know that a percentage of the audience are not going to get past my actions as an 18-year-old. That I am going to be judged by some on the basis of my behaviour then, rather than who I am now. This concern over being judged isn't just a feeling or worry I have either, but something I know from experience. I remember waiting at the back of a venue to be introduced after a lunch break for a conference attended by about 800 delegates. As I waited a group of stragglers came in looking for a table to sit at. There were about six of them and as they unknowingly walked past me one of the women turned to one of the guys and said "where shall we sit?", the guy responded "Not too close, he's a killer!!!". I remember feeling myself deflate in shame and embarrassment and my heart sink in anticipation of approaching the stage.
So why do I do it? If it makes me feel anxious and uncomfortable, if it brings into the light a part of my life that it would be easier to leave in the shadows, why on earth do it do it?! I do it because it's doing what matters. The reason I think that telling my story to illustrate the process of transformational change and growth is important, is because it taps into such a meaningful part of the human journey for me. My story illustrates our capacity to turn adversity to our advantage, reach and maintain our potential, live lives defined by a sense of well-being and purpose, and be the authors of our own destiny. And if I can positively influence one person's life through telling my story then I will be making exactly the kind of contribution that I will measure my life by.
The research suggests that the greatest life satisfaction and wellbeing come from pursuing a life of purpose, a life in which you are doing what matters. Yet as my experience suggests, doing what is important isn't always the same as doing what's easy or what makes you feel good at the time. Living your purpose instead sometimes involves choosing courage over comfort and accepting and making space for distressing emotions. On this basis our goal should not be to avoid or banish those feelings that are unpleasant to experience, but instead accept these emotions without letting them overwhelm us or stop us from doing what matters, from doing what's right. One of the first and most important steps to creating such space is to begin to notice and label what emotions we encounter in such situations. We name them to tame them as labelling our emotions forces us to step back from the feelings we are experiencing so we can observe them. When you next find yourself feeling emotional distress while considering doing something that is important or meaningful, ask yourself "what am I feeling right now?", accept and take note of this emotion without judgement, make space for it, and then proceed to do what matters.
Three take away messages:
- Do what matters. The happiest and healthiest lives are those with purpose. If you don't yet have a clear sense of your purpose, ask yourself what you'd most want inscribed on your tombstone, or start developing your strengths and identifying your values to see what will emerge.
- Doing what's important for you doesn't always mean doing what's easy or enjoyable. Accept and make space for any distressing emotions encountered rather than aiming to avoid or banish them. Our brains are wired for us to experience unpleasant emotions, don't imagine you can or should try and avoid these.
- Name them to tame them. Stepping back to observe and label your emotional experience helps you create the space necessary to avoid becoming overwhelmed by your emotions.