Noticing — You can expand your awareness by noticing what you’re sensing in the moment. Even if we say “I’m feeling numb”, all of that is really good information for us to orient towards how we can expand our resilience.
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 Thérèse Cator.
Thérèse Cator is a trauma-informed and grief-informed Embodiment Practitioner, Leadership Coach, and founder of Embodied Black Girl, a global community that stands for the embodied liberation and healing of Black women and women of color everywhere. Thérèse’s work bridges leadership, spirituality, healing, somatics, mindfulness, decolonization and social change. Her work has been featured in Forbes, MindBodyGreen, Motherly Magazine among others.
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?
Sure, I would love to. First, My name is Thérèse Cator, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I am a grateful inhabitant of the land of the Lenape of the Delaware speaking people. I currently reside just outside of New York City. I’m the founder of Embodied Black Girl. I’m also a Decolonial Leadership Coach, and an Embodiment Practitioner and Facilitator. I’m also a mother to an amazing energizer bunny little human.
As far as my backstory, I guess I’d start almost at the very beginning.
My mother immigrated from Ayiti, and I’m actually first generation raised in the United States and also in the city, specifically I was raised in New York City. There were many beautiful and challenging things about my upbringing.
We grew not having many material things — but we had community. And I also felt a bit like an edgewalker between two worlds. One world of modernity and the allures of the illusion of the American dream, and the other world being the natural world that my mother always reminded me of. Even growing up in NYC my mom would take us on nature walks, and would show us the medicine that is literally all around us. She made sure we knew our history and really tried as best as she could to pass down the medicine in our family line. I was raised by medicine people, by activists, by artists — but because of racism many people in my family including my mom didn’t have the same opportunities I did. Many of them came here with nothing and did whatever job they could find whether it was cleaning, or taking care of elderly folks to make a living and support their family. I remember my mom always saying that there’s no such thing as menial work because all work matters, and I really understand that now. And on the weekends my mom would take me to protests and all of the community efforts she was a part of. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this definitely shaped who I am. Other things that have influenced who I am are attending predominantly white universities and understanding how the world views me as a Black woman. So entering what’s called “the real world” where often I wasn’t treated equally was a rude awakening in many respects. Even though my mom did her best to prepare me, there’s really nothing like experiencing the reality firsthand. So much of what’s happened to me and to my family is what led me to go on a healing journey and use my story as a catalyst to heal and to help others as well.
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 think an interesting story about my career is that I’ve had a lot of diverse experiences. In fact, a lot of people might think I’ve had nine lives if I were to list every step of my collective career . I’ve worked in non-profits, in corporate, in education as a teacher in South Central LA and then the other end of the spectrum working on Hollywood sets. In college I got to create my own major in many ways, and I had the opportunity to study a wide array of things that I was genuinely interested in, from African art to opera to genetics. I’ve always been naturally curious, and I gave myself the permission to explore and create my own unconventional path. I literally moved to California after making that decision less than three months prior; I don’t know if I would recommend that, but I took that leap. And thinking back on it, wow — I didn’t have a family with money or a trust fund that I could fall back on, so my parents were definitely concerned many times. However, all of those experiences inform who I am and the work I do. But if I look at the threads in those stories on a deeper level, I can see that I was always the one who spoke truth to power in many situations and that got me in trouble and scapegoated. I stood up for myself and others, I spoke my mind, I fought for equality in all situations. It didn’t make me popular but it taught me about integrity and not losing who I am at the core. And it ties into my work now that I name things that people aren’t comfortable naming. I will speak about what bell hooks calls the white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriachy and the way it impacts our ability to show up as embodied leaders. I learned that there’s power in naming a thing because you then create the opening for change and that’s how we weave the new world.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Embodied Black Girl’s work is rooted in individual and collective healing and liberation. Healing and mental health isn’t just personal, it’s political, so we don’t separate the two. We believe that we are all leaders and seek to activate the next generation of leaders and healers. We approach healing through an embodied and decolonial lens; in other words, we bridge spirit, science and somatics. Our work is very much body-based, learning about our nervous system and secure attachment and reclaiming and remembering practices of our ancestors.
It’s also important that our work is accessible. One of the ways we do this is through our free Global Healing Day event, which is going into its third year and at this point has reached thousands of Black women and women of color. Global Healing Day was created for Black women and femmes and women of color to come together and center our healing and our joy and create a deeper sense of community.
We hear a lot of beautiful stories from our clients and it never gets tiring to hear someone say, “I’m making choices that are rooted in loving myself. I’m centering my joy.” Whether it’s getting out of an abusive relationship or work situation, forgiving themselves or someone they love or transforming a deeply embedded intergenerational pattern that was rooted in trauma. Hearing these stories brings tears to my eyes. When I see women making choices that are rooted in their worthiness and seeing themselves as leaders when they never saw themselves as leaders… That’s powerful.
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?
That’s such a wonderful question. I’ve had many amazing teachers and mentors who have helped me. However, the story that stands out in my mind is the day my middle school teacher gave our class an assignment to write a speech on any topic to be read aloud in front of the class.
I worked on this assignment really hard and when the day came to give the speech I was nervous. But I did it. The heart of my speech was about a woman’s right to choose. After everyone had given all their speeches, my teacher announced to the class that two students would be representing our school in a city wide speaking contest and I was one of those students.
I was pretty shocked. I continued to refine my speech; my dad would stay up at night with me to help me memorize and practice it.
I went on and won the contest, and went all the way to the highest level of that competition and won first place. However, it was more than winning. That experience taught me that my voice mattered. And to have both my dad and my teacher supporting me especially when the topic was centered around women’s rights was powerful. And I’ll never forget it.
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 really love this question because at Embodied Black Girl I tell our clients that we do the work of expanding our resilience. I must name that the word resilience can be triggering. That’s because resilience has been weaponized historically as a way to legitimize oppression. Too often when the word resilience is used it’s about telling people who are marginalized that it’s up to them to overcome abusive and violent situations whether personal or systemic. That has nothing to do with resilience, that’s gaslighting. Again, resilience is not about our capacity to withstand abuse.
To me, resilience is expanding our capacity to love — ourselves, one another and our Earth — so that we can transform our personal and collective futures. Resilience is something that happens in our bodies and that happens in community. We do this work so that we can all live with dignity in an equitable world.
To me, a person who’s resilient is attuned to themselves, others and their environment.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
That’s such a great question. Similar to resilience, courage is also one of those words that can bring up a lot of triggers for a lot of people, but I’ve noticed this one is below the surface. For many people who hold marginalized identities, myself included, I remember that growing up, I didn’t see people who looked like me being defined as courageous. So I really have to name that. I think it’s really important to decolonize our definition and decolonize who is viewed as courageous as well. In terms of courage and resilience, I feel like it can take courage to be resilient. Courage doesn’t necessarily have to look like running into a burning building like on television. Courage can actually be silent. Courage can actually be holding space. And so I think that courage can be similar to resilience, but I feel like they have two different emotional notes.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
The person who comes to mind immediately is our dear ancestor Maya Angelou, who I absolutely adore. I can’t help but think of her poem, Still I Rise, where she writes,
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.”
Maya Angelou is someone who’s overcome so much adversity. However, what inspires me about her is she didn’t allow the violence of racism to limit her imagination and her expression. Her legacy as an author, activist, performer, director and much more continue to inspire new generations of Black women and girls.
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?
I feel like I have been told many times, both verbally or non verbally in my life, that something I wanted was impossible. However, being my mother’s child, the daughter of revolutionaries, I just haven’t let it stop me.
Years ago, a lot of people didn’t understand the work that I do. Bridging healing and leadership and working at the intersection of spirit, somatics and science with a decolonial and anti-oppression lens is not the norm. Centering Black folks is not the norm. Being vocal about uprooting white supremacy is not the norm. Yet, I knew deep down this was the collective shadow work that we’re being called to do at this time. And I’m glad I honored that because a lot more people are catching on.
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 the moments that brought me to my knees and tested my strength was when my father passed away suddenly. At the time, I was living on the West Coast and had to fly back home to see him in the hospital. I made it in time to say goodbye.
Our relationship wasn’t perfect, but I loved him. And I knew that he loved me.
My dad was a deeply spiritual person, a medicine man, a brilliant mathematician, a writer — and losing him was devastating. I didn’t know how to survive in a world where he didn’t exist. I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t know if I could do it, I didn’t actually want to do it. I didn’t want to be in a world where he didn’t exist and that’s the truth.
For me, it was really a process of honoring my grief. I learned in that process that although he was not in the physical world, he was in the spiritual world. And he is one of my greatest allies and my greatest cheerleader, my master teacher. So it’s taught me there’s the world where we can see with our physical eye but there’s also a world that we can only see with our spiritual eye and they are both in communication with one another and both are important.
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?
Being a Black woman who centers my joy and pleasure and knows I am soft as much as I am strong is what has contributed to building my resilience.
Growing up, naps were huge in our house. I remember all throughout our entire schooling my mother always telling us to take a nap and rest. I didn’t realize at the time that she was teaching me that rest is resistance. In a society that has exploited the labor of Black folks, rest is actually a liberatory tool.
Storytelling, music, dancing and joy were pillars in my upbringing. Although we faced so many challenges as a family, our joy couldn’t be stolen.
So I really want to contribute to the conversation of how we can also expand our resilience through joy.
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.
Resilience is actually embodied experience, so I’m going to share these steps that can be done in order, or you can choose your own adventure and do just one. A little bit goes a long way.
Five steps you can do to become more resilient during turbulent times:
- Noticing — You can expand your awareness by noticing what you’re sensing in the moment. Even if we say “I’m feeling numb”, all of that is really good information for us to orient towards how we can expand our resilience.
- Land in Safety — Many folks, especially for those who hold marginalized identities, can operate in a state of constant hyper-vigilance. Sometimes we need to be aware of our surroundings, but for some of us, there are times when we don’t. Allowing ourselves to land in safety gives our nervous system a break. You can do this by imagining yourself in a beautiful place in nature.
- Breathwork — Our breath doesn’t lie. Tuning into your breath in the moment can tell you a lot about your state. Are we in fight or flight or freeze? Through practicing breathwork, we can change our state and orient our nervous system towards safeness.
- Self-touch — With an on-going pandemic many people are touch deprived and crave touch. And at the same time touch can be triggering for many people because of the violence that we have experienced. Living beings need touch and giving ourselves self-touch that feels safe is an important practice for expanding our resilience. You can do this by bringing your hands to a part of your body that needs your attention and applying pressure that feels just right.
- Community — Creating intentional spaces that can hopefully evolve into a true community where we can practice what it means to be human together is a lost art in many respects and is foundational in cultivating our resilience. Finding communities that understand the ecology of healing is important.
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.
That’s such a wonderful question! What’s most present is that I’d want to inspire a movement where we center justice and create a culture devoted to coming into right relationship with power. As we do we can truly embody healing and liberation for all. The truth is we are all interconnected and the pathway to collective dignity and equity for all beings needs to be rooted in L.O.V.E. — love for ourselves, our village and our earth.
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 would love to have a sit down lunch with the one and only Michelle Obama, our Forever First Lady! She’s brilliant and I deeply admire the work she did as the First Lady and continues to do around food equity and empowering girls through education.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for asking. I’d love to first invite your readers to a free workshop I’m hosting entitled Get Free: How to Break the Cycle of Intergenerational Pain and Reclaim Healing and Joy as Your Birthright. They can sign up at: www.getfree.me
I also host the Embodied Black Girl Podcast which can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you so much for inviting me and asking such thoughtful questions.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!