I am delighted to share this guest post by the wonderful Justin Featherstone MC. Justin is a mainstay of our LBCambridge and LBCambridge2 programmes. He is a brilliant communicator and someone whose insights, experiences and humanity profoundly impacts everyone who hears him. It is a privilege to know him and I feel blessed to work with him. Please read and share his work, and please connect with him too. Take care. Paul
On one afternoon, the week before last, I found myself lying on the sofa, feeling lost, rudderless and unable to concentrate on finding possible solutions for the problems I was facing in the current environment. Virtually all my work was gone until at least September and most would not return this year, if at all. For the first time in my life I was worried about how I would pay my bills in the months to come. I was also confused as to why the specific circumstances of the current crisis were affecting me as much as they were. After all, I had been a Company Commander on extremely challenging combat operations and had survived two near-fatal accidents in the mountains.
As I reflected further, it became clear how different my previous experiences had been. The Army and climbing were passions that I had actively sought and I had prepared for them physically and mentally, whereas the possibility of a global pandemic had never been something I had ever given even a passing thought to. Perhaps more significantly, I have always been able to take the risk of physical harm in my stride but the threat to my dignity, posed by thoughts of struggling to meet my financial commitments, was deeply unsettling.
I was facing what Brené Brown would term an FFT (2020), or F****ing First Time; moreover, this was an FFT for pretty much everybody else around me. FFTs are environments when we face new challenges that create feelings of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Brown’s approach to dealing with such situations is to name your feelings, acknowledge the reality and accept that you will not be able to meet the same standards you set yourself in more familiar circumstances. As I began this process of acceptance I also looked back on those pillars of mental resilience, commitment, challenge and control (Mahdi, 1987), and how I had employed them when commanding on combat operations. Identifying those areas of control, allowing myself the courage to be vulnerable and focusing on relationships, put me well and truly back in to fray.
In times of precarity and volatility, personal values stand out as one of the few areas of certainty we can hold. They are a great place of sanctuary when we feel anxious or threatened and decision making can be made easier by explicitly referencing them; something I have always done and continue to do right now. Feelings of powerlessness also have a negative impact on wellbeing. One of the British Army’s ten Principles of War is Offensive Action and I have been thinking a lot about it recently. This principle is about maintaining a forward-going mindset, always identifying areas where you can have an impact, however small, as positive action sustains morale through difficult times.
During the current crisis, I have been focusing on these distinct things – purpose, relationships and planning to win, taking each day at a time. This structure is not dissimilar to how I supported my own mental wellbeing when commanding on combat operations and I thought I would share it with you, in case it might help in any way:
- I keep to a daily routine for getting up, going to bed, meals and exercise
- I ensure I have one small success before breakfast (sometimes as simple as making my bed or emptying the dishwasher)
- I call at least one person per day to offer support
- I call at least one person per day to ask for support
- I volunteer to do something, whether formal or just a random act of kindness
- I do one ‘selfish’ thing, i.e. one thing specifically for me
- I acknowledge and share my success with at least one person towards the end of the day or by the end of breakfast on the following morning
Very importantly, this is not a tick list, with each element performed perfunctorily. I ensure that I am fully present when I talk to people because the benefit lies in the connection felt at the time. I journal each day, as a means of reflecting of how I am feeling and the place my plan had in these feelings, or to quote from a Marilyn Munroe poem, I “think in ink”. I structure my working day around these social interactions, reflective practices and quick wins, not the other way around, because I find this ensures I have the capacity and clarity of mind to tackle work and its challenges creatively and effectively.
I live alone but for those of you sharing a home, look to create daily private space and negotiate how that will happen with those you live with. Social media is always a double-edged sword and it is currently awash with people posting their daily achievements; ignore them. Most of us are concentrating on just trying to get through this relatively intact and the fact that you haven’t signed up for online Mandarin or piano lessons or baked any sourdough yet is irrelevant. Be realistic and be kind to yourself.
We are still social primates at heart and I have always found strength in the relationships I hold, however deep or fleeting. Therefore, these simple things have enabled me to not just get through each day but to do so with purpose, relative confidence and clarity of thought. That has meant I have been more productive than I could imagine in terms of work, even finding new possibilities with what I do. It has meant normalising discomfort and finding the courage to be vulnerable, which gives me a constant source of strength, something I feel huge gratitude in being able to draw from in times such as these.
Brown, C.B. (2020). Unlocking us podcast, 20th March 2020. Brenebrown.com https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-ffts/
Maddi, S. R. (1987). Hardiness training at Illinois Bell Telephone. In J. P. Opatz (Ed.), Health promotion evaluation, pp. 101-1115. Stevens Point, WI: National Wellness Institute.