Posted by: symmetrywellness | November 29, 2012

Bringing Good From Tragedy by Marsha Drees, MSSA, LISW-S, LICDC, CEAP

In my work as a social worker I help people and organizations deal with the aftermath of tragedies in their lives.  I am always amazed at the resiliency of the human spirit.  I am especially drawn to people who deal with these tragedies by throwing their energy into a good cause.  Examples I have observed in my own life include: My supervisor working with a Senator to get legislation passed to require seatbelts on charter buses after losing his eldest son in a tragic bus accident; my sister in-law starting a support group and resource room at a hospital for parents who have lost a baby to a stillbirth, as she did in 1999;   a gal in the news today, Wanda Butts, who lost her son in a drowning accident six years ago and started the Josh Project, a nonprofit that helps children learn how to swim. In her words, per CNN: “The joy on the faces of those children — when they see that they can learn, once they get it — they are so happy with themselves. And it’s like all of them are my children. It’s like I didn’t lose my son.”  Wanda is a Top 10 CNN “Hero of the Year”.  To see all the nominations, visit:

What all of these people seemed to have grabbed onto is the fact that to move forward they needed to get into motion and do something purposeful.  For two of them it seems to have been motivated by the fact they wanted to help prevent similar tragedies from happening again; for the other it was to extend support for the journey.  Whatever the motivation, they did remarkable things and we are all better for it. 

Hopefully we won’t all encounter tragedy in our lives, but if we do, we have some great examples of how to cope through it!


There was a segment on Good Morning America today, 9/12/12, about a new parenting concept called “Free Range Parenting.”  It sparked my curiosity.  Apparently a New York mom, Lenore Skenazy, grew concerned about the lack of unstructured playtime for children and has launched an after school program for kids to gather unsupervised for play in Central Park.  So far she has no takers, but when she does she plans to be nearby at a coffee shop should help be needed. 

As a mom of two young sons I see pros and cons to this parenting concept. In terms of the cons, I don’t feel safe leaving my children unsupervised anywhere, given worries about someone trying to harm them.  I talk to them about stranger danger, but they still like to hug everyone they encounter.  In regard to the pros, I am a firm believer in the power of unstructured play to allow for a child’s imagination and creativity to be expressed.  Play is an essential part of a child’s daily life.  While play dates and structured activities serve a purpose, I think we need to remember as parents that unstructured play does as well, hence Skenazy’s point.

I was personally moved when I read “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” by Katrina Kenison, as she wrote about learning the importance of staying home and just allowing time to be in the moment, to play, rest, and enjoy life more.  She found this was very healthy for her family.  I have since found myself looking for ways to slow down our pace as a family and to allow my boys time for unstructured play.   Although we did a lot of activities outside our home this summer, we did have some great days at home.  We camped out in the backyard, they played Lego’s, ran through the sprinkler and caught fireflies, and ate popsicles in our tree.  Over time I began to see them playing more and more with each other, and looking less for mommy to entertain them.  I am hopeful we can continue this.  In fact this fall we have purposefully not signed up for any of our usual soccer teams or music lessons, so our oldest son can adjust to being in kindergarten and come home to play.  I have felt a little pull to do otherwise, but we have stayed true to this choice and as a result we are all adapting to the pace and the creative energies are flowing.  

So, where do you stand?  Are you a “free ranger?”

Not long ago I read the book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose” by Tony Hsieh.  I was struck how many of the ideas in the book applied to Harbor in our delivery of direct services to our clients, to our organization as a whole, as well as our own personal happiness.

The book tells the story of the inception and rise of, which is the largest online shoe store.   In just ten years, the company was formed and grew to $1 billion in gross merchandise sales annually.  After debuting as the highest-ranking newcomer to Fortune magazine’s annual “Best Companies to Work For” list in 2009, Zappos was acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion.

So how does a company achieve such rapid, phenomenal success?  They do it by delivering happiness!  Can you imagine a corporation having a vision of delivering happiness??  Crazy?  Crazy like a fox! 

Tony Hshieh (pronounced Shay), CEO of Zappos, studied the subject of happiness.  In his book he outlines a framework for happiness.  It includes four items:  Perceived Control; Perceived Progress; Connectedness; and Vision/Meaning (being part of something bigger than you).  This sounds a lot like what I talk about in therapy with my clients.  I talk about gaining control over oneself, making progress towards the client’s life goals, being connected to other people and having a purpose greater than oneself as essential elements to happiness.  However, he applied these ideas to running a corporation. 

The book is filled with stories of extraordinary acts of customer service in order to bring happiness to their clients.  Zappos does not put any limit on the length of time, or how many calls, their customer services reps must handle, because Tony Hshieh wants their reps to stay on the line, until the customer is happy.  One example given in the book, occurred late one night.  Tony Hshieh and his friends had been out partying until 2:00 in the morning.  They returned to their hotel hungry for pizza and were disappointed to find out that the hotel kitchen was closed.  He called Zappos customer service line, (not identifying himself), and explained his problem.  The rep briefly put him on hold.  When the rep returned he was given the phone numbers of three pizza stores that would deliver to his hotel.  Now remember, Zappos is an online shoe store, not a pizza store!  Tony Hshieh was thrilled with his rep’s response to his dilemma.  It was just the kind of customer service he wanted from his reps.

A friend of mine is a Delivering Happiness ambassador.  She was recently invited to Zappos inLas Vegas.  One of the simpler things that my friend found impressive at Zappos was the Employee Wish List.  Zappos has an employee online wish list.  Any employee can post any work-related or non-work-related wish for all Zappos’ employees to see.  Any employee can grant the wish, or assist in granting it.  The wishes were things like tickets to a concert, a week-end trip, a new printer for their office, or a used car for a college age child. 

Zappos is a company that everyone can learn from and as a living example of how delivering happiness can create profits, passion, and purpose.

Finding the balance first requires that we look at our cultural conditioning.  We are socialized in this western culture to measure our worth by achieving and doing.  Women, by how well we nurture others in addition to that!  This takes a lot of energy!  Since we are expected to constantly give our energy away we need to make sure we’re also bringing energy back in…so we can re-fuel.  Otherwise we run the risk of shutting down.

So, the balancing act needs to start with YOU!  I often use the metaphor of a pyramid when I train on this topic.  Imagine a pyramid divided in three sections vertically.  The very bottom section (the foundation) represents the individual.  The middle section represents relationship (with significant other).  The top of the pyramid represents family (eg. the kids, extended family, in-laws).  This is in order of importance!  Some might believe that the top of the pyramid (the kids) should be the first priority.  However, remember that old Cole Porter song? “If Mama (or Daddy) ain’t happy, then nobody’s happy.”  If the “couple” relationship isn’t strong, then the kids suffer from the tension in the home and the lack of emotional availability of their parents’ who are too preoccupied with their own emotional pain.

Here’s how to go about strengthening YOU:  Make sure you cover all the bases!  Take care of your “physical” self by exercising, eating healthy, resting, relaxing, and playing.

Nurture your “mental” self by tuning into your thinking style.  Our minds possess a powerful energy that enables us to heal ourselves.  Studies show that positive thoughts actually change the body’s chemistry.  Albert Ellis, who is a noted psychologist, developed a theory called RET.  What he said is that it’s not the event we experience that results in feeling mad, sad, or glad; it’s our belief about the event that creates the feeling.  This is why two people can experience the same event and feel differently as a result.  So, change your thought or belief and your feeling will change accordingly.  Making a daily list of things to be grateful for can be useful for keeping your beliefs and thoughts positive.

You also have an “emotional” self.  Nurture this by acknowledging your emotions so that you can learn from them in regards to what needs to change.  Then learn to express them in healthy ways (eg. talking to someone you trust, journaling, drawing, singing, laughing, etc.)

Last, but not least, you have a “spiritual” self.  You can take care of this part of you by being in nature, praying, attending a church or synagogue.  You can also nurture your spirit by volunteering.  Studies show that folks are happy when they feel they are contributing to something greater than themselves.

The bottom line is that having a balanced life isn’t about finding enough time, or juggling time effectively.  It’s about finding joy in all that you do!  If you really “tweak” your perspective a bit, you might be surprised to discover that what seems mundane or negative isn’t all that bad.

Mind and body are one system.  Ever hear that before?  Is that a little hard to buy into?  Studies increasingly show that our physiology affects emotions and vice versa.  An example is that chronic anger and chronic stress have been linked to heart disease and strokes.  There also seems to be an indirect link to diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Furthermore, emotions drive behavior.  You can’t think without feeling and you can’t feel without thinking.  An example of how things progress:  Your supervisor tells you there’s a job that has to get done today and no one wants to do it…so she assigns it to you.
Here’s, in order, what can happen:
• (THINK)  “This job isn’t my responsibility.”
• (FEEL)   Angry, Frustrated
• (ACT)  Do the job quickly to get it over with; it’s not your best work; and, you don’t talk to your boss for the rest of the week.

That’s one scenario.  But, it can also lead to a more positive outcome.  How?  By consciously choosing a different way of thinking about the situation.  But, in order to have the wherewithal to do that, it may be imperative to first work with your emotions.  Especially if they’re intense!

Here’s how:

• First, understand that emotions are our friends, not our foes.  They serve a purpose!  They signal us that something needs our attention…now.  The more tuned in we are to our emotions, the more information we have for making right choices.  If we suppress emotions (through food, drink, drugs, etc.) we miss out on this valuable information and are more likely to repeat mistakes.
• Don’t allow yourself to become too fatigued.  Being tired can make you grouchier than usual and less able to manage strong emotions.  Take a time out when necessary.
• Avoid allowing your negative emotions to build over time.  We experience emotions as energy!  Energy can become combustible if too intense.  So, practice letting the “energy” out (by talking to someone, exercising, journaling, creating something, etc.).
• Stop taking things personally.  Often times, another’s actions have nothing to do with you…it’s about them.  Practice empathy.  Be the bigger person.
• Avoid over-committing.  When we have too many things on our plates, the plates crack!
• Slow down.  Be present to this moment.  When we’re rushed…or too focused on time, we become an easy target for over-reaction, as well as stress.

In conclusion, taking the time to nurture your emotional health will save you time in the long run.  The time it takes to clean up after yourself following an emotional outburst.  The time it takes to repair the damage that can occur in relationships.  The time it takes to recover from a physical health problem.

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