What went well. This is one of my FAVORITE practices to use with clients, especially if they are stuck in a stressful situation that they cannot change. Everyday write down three things that went well today and why they went well. It’s like a gratitude journal, but a little different. According to work by Dr. Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, this simple practice trains our brains to see more of the things that are going well, which eventually helps us to notice all of the bad stuff a little less. It’s a great tool for building resilience because while we will still notice the bad stuff, it will just impact us less.
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 Ellen Leonard, Pillar Board Accredited Health & Wellness Coach.
Ellen Leonard is a speaker, stress management consultant + coach, and expert who teaches and coaches business leaders, teams and entire organizations how to manage and prevent stress. Ellen’s professional background and expertise includes 12 years as a published scientific researcher, 9 years as an award-winning university instructor, and 8 years leading The StressLess MethodⓇ. She has a master’s degree in Adult Education, is an ACC ICF Certified Coach, National Board Certified Health + Wellness Coach, a Pillar Board Accredited Health + Wellness Coach, and a Wellcoaches Professional Health + Wellness Coach.
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 was a scientific researcher studying kidneys (yes, kidneys!) when I realized that I could do anything I wanted to do — instead of just what I was supposed to do. And so, I transitioned into the health and wellness field. Early on, I was hired to teach stress management lunch-n-learn sessions for employees of a large academic institution. I was discouraged from incorporating experiential aspects into my presentations and encouraged to focus on education only. Not surprisingly, the employees attending the sessions were not engaged. They did not want to sit and listen to me lecture about the dangers of stress and how a variety of stress management techniques had worked for other people. They wanted something relevant to them.
I decided to rethink the traditional wellness and stress management models, which focused on education. How could you help people integrate lasting behavioral changes into their lives? With an M.S. in Adult Education and extensive coaching training, I was uniquely suited for considering what motivates adults and how to help them. Adults already know about stress, experience stress, and that they should do something about it.
The old way of doing things wasn’t working. I created The StressLess Method® in 2013 to give employees a solid foundation of stress management techniques through a human-centered approach that includes guided practices, repetition and personal experience, and support and accountability helping to create lasting change.
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?
I’ve helped thousands of people learn how to manage their stress more effectively and I’ve learned so much over the years. But one thing that I never expected was learning that people struggle with the idea that they can do something about their stress. There is a common underlying assumption that, “I’m so stressed,” is a default way of being. Almost a learned helplessness. A powerlessness. When I was teaching stress management to undergraduates, I would often hear feedback like, “I didn’t know things could be different,” and “I wish I was taught this earlier.” It’s like we are all fish swimming in water of stress and we can’t see the water because it surrounds us. Stress is an almost ubiquitous part of our lives. That’s why my favorite part of my job is getting to see that moment when clients and students realize that things can be different. That they can sleep through the night or not be so angry all the time or not have that constant pain in their neck. There’s another way of being. My clients teach me so much.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Clients are often surprised that I encourage them to do what’s right for them when it comes to stress management, that I’m not pushing an agenda of “the right way” to do something. The only way to manage your stress is the way that works for you — we just have to figure that out.
I was working with the CEO of a financial institution. We were in one of our first one-on-one coaching sessions discussing his stress management goals and what he’d like to be different. And he says to me, “You know, I’d really like to learn how to meditate.” I say, “Awesome! I’ve taught meditation for years, we can try several different types of meditation, and see what works for you.” And then I asked him about what had sparked his interest in meditation. And he described how a colleague at a competing firm was always talking about meditation and how well it worked for him. It’s wonderful to get ideas from other sources — friends, colleagues, your favorite podcast — but none of it matters if it doesn’t work for you. And my client really struggled with the idea that he was allowed to do things because they worked for him. I find this a lot with high achieving people. They’ve done everything right. They’ve done everything they’re supposed to do and that’s how they’ve gotten to where they are now. And it’s hard for people to understand this idea that you’re allowed to really decide for yourself if something works for you or not. The CEO ended up finding a meditation that he loved and that helped him to achieve his specific goals. And he felt a sense of ownership about the practice, he had genuinely made it his own. It wasn’t something he was doing because he was supposed to or because everyone else was doing it, he was doing it because it worked for him. That’s what I want for all of my clients.
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?
Funny story. My high-school sweetheart and I were going to different schools freshman year — and we totally thought we would be together forever. I know! It’s like I had never seen a movie or CW show before. I ended up transferring to his school midyear during our freshman year. I followed a boy to school. Ugh. And it was the best decision I ever made. Not because of the boy (that relationship predictably quickly imploded), but it was how I ended up at a much better university far from home having experiences that would have NEVER happened otherwise. It shaped how I am now in profound ways that I’m still discovering. I’m so grateful for that experience. It’s funny how things that seem like such a bad choice (following a boy to college) can end up being something awesome.
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 think that resilience is your ability to maintain the best version of yourself even (and especially) in the face of challenges. But so often it’s framed as being resistant to challenges, like you are obtaining some magical power where things just don’t bother you or affect you. I think of it more as your ability to make sure that you are properly resourced and supported so that you can keep going. What kind of traits does a person like that have? Oh, it can be so many things. I think that self-compassion is essential, an ability to be kind to yourself even when you fail. Self-compassion also allows you to bounce back and not get lost in a cycle of negative self-talk when you are facing challenges and fail. Being ambitious and driven can be traits of resilient people, but there’s a thin line between being driven and perfectionism. I think that perfectionism is the enemy of resilience. Yes, you keep trying, not from a place of resilience, but from a place of lack. I think resilient people know how to rest and take a break. If you keep pushing and pushing, you are going to get burnt out. Resilient people take time to recover, so that they can keep moving forward.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
A part of resilience is being afraid and doing it anyway. That takes courage. It’s courageous to know something is hard and deciding to just go ahead and do it.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Anyone who has been through a divorce. I’m not married, and I’ve never gone through a divorce. But several of my closest friends have been through divorces in the past few years and they all demonstrated phenomenal resilience. What we ask people to do through that process is unbelievable. The system of how we get divorced in the U.S. wasn’t really designed with humans in mind. The stress, the grief, the loss, the anger, just the entire thing. And if you want to get to the other side, to be divorced, then you have no choice but to keep going even when it’s awful and unjust. And somehow people come out on the other side and thrive. It’s amazing.
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?
Yes! I think when people tell me that something is not possible that it just makes me want to do it more. One great example is my garden. I had multiple landscapers tell me that what I wanted to do was impossible and insane. I wanted to get rid of all the lawn of grass and replace it with native grasses and perennials. I heard: “It will be too much work for you,” and “Why would you want to do that? That’s stupid.” I think they couldn’t imagine not having a lawn of grass, especially in the front yard, which is the norm in the suburbs where I live in the U.S. Lawns are a thing. People take them very seriously. It’s taken the past five years, but I’ve almost gotten rid of all of the grass, replaced it with beautiful native perennials that are virtually self-sufficient. Bonuses: no mowing, lots of butterflies and bees, hummingbirds and finches, and pretty flowers.
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?
One of my biggest setbacks in business happened in March of 2020. Pre-pandemic, The StressLess Method was a face-to-face B2B. I would physically come into your business and run sessions (workshops, coaching, etc..) to help your employees manage stress. While I did have several remote clients and was already teaching extensively using Zoom, ALL of my face-to-face clients were unable to transition online when everything shut down. It was a disaster. Most of my business disappeared within a few weeks. On the one hand, I totally get it — these businesses were not set up to be online at all, so working with me online would not have worked. Also, it was an unprecedented crisis, and my services were not a priority when you are trying to figure out how to stay open. But it was rough. I knew it wasn’t personal, but it did feel that way for a while because I had been with several companies for years. I was so grateful for what I did for a living because I had all of the tools to deal with it — it’s what I helped clients do all the time. It all worked out. I only work remotely with clients now and it’s allowed me to work with clients all over the world! I had always intended to eventually switch to being only online, this forced me to do it. And, in the end, I’m much happier and stronger because of it.
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?
The most challenging experience of my life was being the primary caregiver for my mother during the last year of her life. She died from pancreatic cancer. We got the diagnosis and hit the ground running. I remember that the day before she’d been talking about how much she hated my latest haircut (it was pretty bad) and everything was normal, and now our lives were this. Doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmacies, insurance companies. Surgery and chemo and radiation. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to help her if I was continually breaking down or being frustrated or angry. I wanted her to feel supported and loved and cherished. And to laugh. The resilience was me continuing to show up every day when everything was beating me down. I think it was the practice of showing up every day that helped me to build resilience, the repetitive nature of it. And I also think that because I sincerely wanted to do it. I was grateful to be able to be there for my mom. To be able to spend so much time with her in the last year of her life. It’s both the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the most important thing I’ve ever done.
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.
Here are some ideas about how to build resilience (to stress):
- Connection. Your friends and family are an amazing way to build resilience. It turns out that humans need other humans. Relationships and connections help us to navigate the toughest of situations. Think back to the early days of the pandemic, when you couldn’t see your friends and family in the same way. Remember how hard that was? One of my clients was pregnant while homeschooling her teenager, all while running her own business from home during 2020. She was incredibly stressed. Together we devised a plan for her to prioritize her relationships outside of the home again using an app called MarcoPolo (video messaging). This allowed her to make videos for friends and family when she had time, in between the chaos and when she needed it most. It re-integrated these relationships into her daily life again and she felt so much less isolated. Re-engaging in those relationships helped her to become more resilient against the stress in her life.
- Physical activity. One of the easiest ways to boost resilience, to remain strong in the face of challenges and keep going, is to make sure that physical activity is a part of your life. I used to say “exercise,” but so many people have negative connotations with that word thinking that I’m asking them to run a marathon or go to the gym every day. A recent client was surprised to learn that physical activity can be something like working in the garden or walking your dog or going on a hike with your family. She was excited to start to rethink some of the activities she was already doing and use them strategically. For instance, she now schedules time working in the garden during the week (which was previously only a weekend activity) because she found it so beneficial to her stress levels during the week. It had never occurred to her that her “chore” of working in the garden could be a strategy for increased resilience!
- Self-compassion. What would it be like if we were all just a little nicer to ourselves? I think about this all the time, especially when I hear how hard clients are on themselves. A few months ago I was working with a client who was being incredibly hard on herself for only working out 3 times the previous week instead of her goal of 5 times. That same week she had two sick kids, a water heater break, and her computer stopped working. Yes! That happened all in one week and she still managed to work out 3 times! I introduced her to one of my favorite exercises from self-compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff called “how would you treat a friend.” I asked her, if her best friend had called her to discuss this rough week and was feeling badly that she’d failed to meet her workout goal of 5 times, what would she have said to her friend? Of course, she had incredibly kind and supportive things to say to her best friend. And then she got it. It was like a light bulb went off in her head — that she could also treat herself with this same kindness. It’s probably always a good idea to be nice to ourselves, but it’s even more important during stressful times.
- Sleep. Getting enough sleep is one of the easiest things we can all do to build resilience, but also to just be happier and healthier in general. When we are exhausted and burnt out, it depletes our ability to be resilient. We’re not going to be able to keep going during challenging times if we are sleep deprived. I had a client who was starting a new business and was thinking all the time — the kind of thinking that makes it hard to fall asleep. Checking off lists, jumping out of bed to check things, just non-stop. She was getting less and less sleep, and in turn she was getting more and more stressed. It was a terrible cycle that was starting to affect not only her productivity and focus, but also how she was interacting with her kids and husband. Once she started prioritizing sleep, it transformed her life. She was not only less stressed overall, but she found her motivation in her business in places she’d been stuck. She told me it was like everything had actually become easier. Sleep is an amazing resource!
- What went well. This is one of my FAVORITE practices to use with clients, especially if they are stuck in a stressful situation that they cannot change. Everyday write down three things that went well today and why they went well. It’s like a gratitude journal, but a little different. According to work by Dr. Seligman, one of the founders of Positive Psychology, this simple practice trains our brains to see more of the things that are going well, which eventually helps us to notice all of the bad stuff a little less. It’s a great tool for building resilience because while we will still notice the bad stuff, it will just impact us less.
- I know I was only supposed to get 5, but this is a bonus one. LAUGH. Just laugh whenever you can. Cat videos have been scientifically proven to be good for you (no, really, there is research from Indiana University that says this). Laughter is a simple way to build resilience, but also it just feels good.
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. 🙂
That stress is something we can do something about. Yes, humans will always be challenged and encounter stress, but I believe that if people knew how much power they had to manage it then it could change the world. I see it all the time with people who go through my programs, it transforms their entire lives. I’d love to see kids learning from an early age how to manage their stress and become more resilient. Then it could become a life-long skill.
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 know he’s fictional, but I’d love to meet Ted Lasso. Just to talk over a pint. He knows a lot about resilience. He said, “You know what the happiest animal in the world is? It’s a goldfish. It’s got a 10 second memory. Be a goldfish.” Ok, so maybe I need to meet the writers of Ted Lasso because they are real humans who clearly know a lot about resilience because that entire show is about resilience.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
If you’re interested in stressing less, you can find more details on my website: https://www.ellen-leonard.com/
You can find me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ellenleonard/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!