Acknowledge — Acknowledge when things are tough. There is something really helpful about acknowledging when we’re having a hard time. Saying out loud, “this is tough”, “I’m having a hard time”, “this is challenging” is a way to bring self-compassion to the moment. When we give ourselves a little bit of compassion during difficult times we take off some of the pressure.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlene Gethons.
Charlene is a mindfulness meditation teacher, psychotherapist, entrepreneur, coach, and brain injury survivor. After sustaining a traumatic brain injury in 2013 when she was hit by a bus, her life was changed in an instant. During the long and protracted recovery, Charlene first started practicing mindfulness which ultimately led her to start her own business, The Mindfulness Journey, where she provides teaching/coaching to others on how to use the practices of mindfulness to transform their lives. These days Charlene teaches a combination of mindfulness practices and therapeutic strategies to help support people with brain injuries and teaches entrepreneurs with chronic illnesses how to create sustainable practices that support their lifestyles.
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?
My story is one with a series of ups and downs that has led me to this point in my life. In 2013, I was heading home from the movies and the next thing I knew it was 2 weeks later and I was in the neurosurgery ward of my hospital. I later learned that on my way home that night, as I was moving through the crosswalk I was hit by a bus, fracturing my skull and sustaining a traumatic brain injury that required surgery to remove a piece of my skull to reduce the pressure on my brain. This was only the beginning of my journey.
Twice since my accident, they have had to remove this same piece of my skull due to complications and infections the most recent being in August of 2021. In addition, because of the numerous surgeries I’ve had in the same area, my most recent surgery, in May of 2022, was to start a six-month-long process to stretch and expand the skin over the area so that they can put in my new prosthesis. My final surgery in this area to insert my new prosthesis is expected for the fall/winter of 2022.
It’s been a journey! Facing numerous surgeries and complications and all of the medical procedures that I’ve undergone while adjusting to my “new normal” of living with a traumatic brain injury has been challenging and a test of my strength and resiliency. And yet, despite all of this, I know how lucky I’ve been to continue to be able to bounce back again and again when it’s felt like the rug has been pulled out from under me.
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?
The most interesting story from my career would have to be that in August 2021 I ended up needing emergency neurosurgery to remove a piece of my skull, over the right side of my brain, and that my new prosthesis is not expected to go in until around November 2022. That moment of “now what?” required me to take some time to figure out my next steps in my business because I also needed to prioritize my healing and recovery journey.
I ended up taking a month off, quite suddenly, which can be quite challenging for a lot of entrepreneurs. I think the biggest challenge, so to speak, can be giving yourself the time off to heal. I’m very fortunate in that the way my business is set up I’m able to take breaks and time off — but this was something that I had to do for myself after experiencing burnout in my first year of business.
It’s been an interesting challenge fitting work around surgeries, CT scans, MRIs, and doctor’s appointments while balancing taking the time to rest and recover from the surgeries and at the same time prioritizing my mental health. It’s this in particular that inspired me to focus more on working with other entrepreneurs with chronic illnesses because I am so familiar with the unique challenges that we face.
This experience has shown me the importance of starting out with creating a foundation of sustainable business practices to help you cope and adjust when life presents you with challenges — which it will. It might not be 8 surgeries in 10 years but as we’ve learned over the last few years in particular, life can be tough and sometimes we have to pivot quickly. Now, since I’ve been dealing with these challenges for so many years, I already had strategies in place to help me navigate my way through. It made such a big difference when I ended up in the emergency room last year needing major surgery. I knew after that experience that it was time to make this a part of my business by sharing these exact same strategies with my students & clients.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
That I was hit by a bus in 2013. On the 5-year anniversary of the accident, I threw a launch party for my business, The Mindfulness Journey, and then the next day I was hit by a car. I’m very open about my experience and the reality of running a business with a brain injury while awaiting and recovering from multiple surgeries. Sharing my story and how I continue to show up day after day has been helpful for my students and clients. They’ve shared with me that watching me model, in real-time, how to use the mindfulness practices and strategies that I teach, has been so helpful for them. That it is this skill in particular that has motivated them and encouraged them on their own healing journeys and is what keeps them coming back to work with me.
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?
I first started learning mindfulness after the bone was removed for the second time as a way to help me navigate the challenges that I was facing and to help me with my anxiety and depression. My teacher at the time, Jaisa, and I connected in a very real way as we both had been in very significant accidents and had sustained serious injuries. Jaisa started practicing mindfulness, in particular, the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and it helped her on her recovery journey. Getting to learn alongside her was incredibly helpful for me. She inspired me to also train to become an MBSR teacher which I did in 2016. After completing the program and starting my business she reached out to me to work alongside her teaching mindfulness in the brain injury community. Not only did Jaisa help me on my recovery journey but she was instrumental in getting my foot in the door of teaching mindfulness. Through her encouragement and belief in my skills, I have been able to continue in this field and help more and more people.
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?
Resilience, to me, is the ability to keep picking yourself back up when life knocks you down again and again. In my work, I talk a lot about the importance of acceptance, that you never have to like the cards that you’re dealt but that you do have to play them. It’s in the continuing to play our cards that we develop our sense of resilience. I believe that the characteristics of resilient people is that they’ve learned how to shift their mindset and their thoughts to help them to open up to the moment and to lean into the challenges that are placed in their way. For me, learning mindfulness has helped me to continue to be resilient even when it has felt like the ground has given way beneath my feet. To know that this too shall pass and that I will get through it moment by moment is what keeps me going.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is shown when you face a challenging and difficult circumstance for the first time. Resilience is when you repeatedly experience the same challenging situation. For example, the first time you’re heading to surgery and you’re able to be brave and somewhat calm while also being afraid then that’s being courageous. The seventh time? That’s when you’re tapping into your sense of resiliency. Resilience isn’t only for those who are undergoing surgery though, it’s used every single time you continue to show up when life gets tough. Whether that’s preparing for a big conference, having a sick family member or facing the constant stressors of daily life. All of these require us to be resilient in different ways.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
My friends and family members, when they hear what I’ve been through over the last 10 years, tell me how brave and strong I am. So if you were to ask them they would say me, which feels weird to say, but, I would say, my mom. The fact is, while I’ve been able to stay strong over incredibly difficult and challenging situations, I’ve only been able to do so because I’ve had my mom walk beside me and show me how. I’ve only had to focus on myself and my recovery and healing journey from my accidents and surgeries but she’s had to support me while also looking after my dad during his cancer battle as well as my siblings. She shows up for all of us day after day and seeing how strong and tough she’s been to support me, even while in the midst of grief from losing my dad 2 years ago, has been my biggest inspiration.
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?
After my accident, a few people told me I should take it easy, but for some reason, I thought it was the perfect time to go back and get my Masters and start my own business, haha. While no one told me that it was impossible for me to do, very few people would have expected me to go back to grad school — especially since at the time I was in between neurosurgeries! I had to fit my study sessions around MRIs, CT scans, Doctor appointments, and my neurosurgery for my prosthesis. I remember that I asked for an extension on my final paper that was due around the time of my surgery and that I only took a week off, half of which I was in the hospital. At the time it all worked out well for me but now that I’m once again awaiting the same surgery I realize that I should have taken more time off and just focused on resting and healing. Getting my Masters was something that I had always thought about doing but was too afraid to do. While pursuing it after sustaining a brain injury wasn’t part of my plan I’m so glad that I didn’t let what happened to me stop me from taking action and achieving my dreams.
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?
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve had a number of setbacks over the years, and while it might not be my greatest setback, having my surgery scar open back up and heading back down the multiple neurosurgery road once again has been a big challenge for me.
By the time this interview is published, I will have had my third surgery since 2020, my seventh since my accident in 2013, and will be awaiting my final surgery to get my new prosthesis. All after thinking that this stage of my life was finished that I was able to move on from this journey. Turns out that life had something else planned for me. It took courage to go through all of this the first time. It’s my resiliency muscle that I’m using to help me move through everything this time.
My daily mindfulness meditation practice, the support of my loved ones and my work helping others is what helps me to keep my head above water when times get tough. Teaching my students how they too can become more resilient and continue to show up when life gets challenging helps me to bounce back. When one of my students shares with me how watching me model the use of these skills in real-time has inspired them it’s just what I need to fill my cup back up.
The first time I went down this road I kept a lot of things to myself other than with my social worker or to my mom. This time, I’ve been using it as teachable moments inside my business because the truth is, I’m not the only one going through a challenging time and we could all use the benefit of mindfulness skills to help us to keep going.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
My mindfulness meditation practice has helped me to cultivate resilience throughout my life. I meditate everyday and it is my practice that helps me to be in this moment and to open up to what I am thinking and feeling in the moment. This practice has helped me to learn how to sit alongside my anxiety and depression when it shows up. When I’m having a rough day because this process is taking a long time, it’s my meditation practice that helps me to navigate my way through. Mindfulness taught me to bring everything back to this moment because this moment is the only one that we can do something about. When I found out that the prosthesis was infected and needed to come out, I initially focused on the big picture and what that meant but in that moment it was overwhelming. It’s not just one surgery that I needed it was at least 2 and turned out to be 3. In one way I was physically sitting in the emergency room but mentally my thoughts were in the future with all the “what ifs”. So I meditated and brought myself back to this moment. So now instead of thinking about all the things that were ahead of me I could instead choose to focus on the one next thing that was here. As I tell my students, moment by moment, we can get through anything that’s in our path.
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.
- Acknowledge — Acknowledge when things are tough. There is something really helpful about acknowledging when we’re having a hard time. Saying out loud, “this is tough”, “I’m having a hard time”, “this is challenging” is a way to bring self-compassion to the moment. When we give ourselves a little bit of compassion during difficult times we take off some of the pressure.
- Allow & welcome what’s here — Once we acknowledge what’s here, we can start to work with it. If I’m feeling stressed and anxious, it’s helpful to let myself feel stressed and anxious instead of fighting against it. As they say, what you resist, persists. Pushing things down because we don’t want to deal with them doesn’t get rid of them, it just keeps them around and they will show up at some point.
- Distract — What happens when we can’t do anything about the situation or the emotions that are showing up? We turn to purposeful distraction. This means finding an activity that takes all your focus to help you shift out of the emotional state that you’re in. When I get really down, I bake. It’s a short term activity that takes my focus and it involves all of my senses at the same time. I’m mindful and in the moment while I’m baking. Plus at the end I have something yummy that I can enjoy. Other ways of engaging in purposeful distraction could be putting your energy into completing a task on your to-do list. Is your closet a mess that’s bothering you? Maybe this is the time to spend a couple of hours putting it back in shape.
- Support — As a therapist who’s also in therapy I’m a big believer in seeking out therapy if you can but at the same time I understand that it’s not accessible for everyone. If therapy isn’t an option find someone that you can turn to. A good friend or family member that you can be honest and vulnerable with. You don’t need to share more than you are comfortable with but it can be helpful to have people in your corner that you can turn to. When I’m having a bad day, I know I can reach out to my support network to chat or to distract me from what I’m going through. My one friend and I send each other funny memes when we’re having a bad day. It’s something small, but it helps.
- Meditate — As a meditation teacher I of course had to add this in, haha, but in all seriousness meditating helps you to strengthen your resiliency muscle. Every time you meditate and you notice getting distracted and you come back to the practice? That skill set right there is the same one that you use to help you out when anxiety sends your thoughts into the future and all of the “what ifs?!”. Meditating is not easy, but it’s not supposed to be, it challenges you to sit in discomfort and to be with your thoughts and emotions in the moment. Even a short 10 minute practice every day can help you to learn how to be with what’s going on without fighting against it. My most recent surgery I was alone at the hospital due to COVID protocols, when my anxiety and nerves started up, I meditated. Trust me when I say that it helps.
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. 🙂
One of my goals for The Mindfulness Journey is to help more people learn how to calm their minds so that they can get out of their heads and into their lives. Learning mindfulness changed my life and I truly believe that everyone should learn how to be more present. Not only has it helped me to manage my anxiety and assisted my recovery from being hit by a bus but it took me from being someone who was too shy and socially anxious to speak to anyone to teaching workshops and becoming a public speaker. Before mindfulness I would never have agreed to give an interview — I would have been too caught up in thoughts and judgements from my inner critic. Now, I’ve learned how to notice my thoughts and to not let them keep me stuck and playing small.
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 🙂
Brene Brown, her work in the leadership space on shame and vulnerability has been incredibly inspiring. Learning how to be vulnerable and share my story with my clients has been a gift for both me and them. I would love the opportunity to sit down with her for a cup of coffee and just soak in her wisdom.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can find me at The Mindfulness Journey where I share tips and strategies and I have a 7 day free challenge that teaches you how to calm your mind in just 10 minutes a day so that you too can strengthen your resiliency muscle and reduce your anxiety. .
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!