Dr. Menaca Pothalingam: “You need to understand it’s normal to be scared”

The most important lesson I learned is to accept my feelings. It’s normal to feel anxious when you experience uncertainty, unpredictability or unexpected change. I remember a kind practitioner saying to me during my recovery “you need to understand it’s normal to be scared.” That was the best advice I got and recall that whenever […]

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The most important lesson I learned is to accept my feelings. It’s normal to feel anxious when you experience uncertainty, unpredictability or unexpected change. I remember a kind practitioner saying to me during my recovery “you need to understand it’s normal to be scared.” That was the best advice I got and recall that whenever I go through a period of change now.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Menaca Pothalingam.

Dr. Menaca Pothalingam is a Leadership Coach, Corporate Resilience Trainer, an entrepreneur, multi-award-winning international speaker, #1 International bestselling author of ‘Resilience Learned’, Ambassador for Women Empowerment (AWE) and Advocate of Mental Health. Menaca successfully entered the world of coaching and training after decades in the healthcare industry as a dentist and a practice owner. She moved into coaching, putting her personal and professional experiences into practice. Menaca has overcome adversity including escaping the Sri Lankan Civil War, battling stress-related illness and succeeding as a migrant Asian woman in business alongside being a single mother. With qualifications in NLP, hypnosis, coaching, leadership and education, Menaca is helping others to take control of their lives, break free from a victim mentality. She helps turn their dreams into reality, enabling them to become the Director of their Destiny. She promises to help others overcome stress, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed and increase their performance, productivity and profit.

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?

As a dentist for decades, after being a clinician, lecturer and trainer including being a business owner of a six-figure business turning it into 5X I moved into the world of coaching and training. Despite being perceived very successful and happy by everyone around me, I felt stressed, anxious and in a state of overwhelm, having a hamster wheel lifestyle.

After being signed off from work for a significant period, I decided to share the skills, tools and strategies I used to emerge from the circle of darkness and transform my life to inspire others to become their best versions.

As someone who has experienced war, migration and mental health challenges, I understand the importance of Resilience only too well. From overcoming the survivor’s guilt, being signed off due to burnout and stress-related illness to now becoming a bestselling author of ‘Resilience Learned’ & becoming a Leadership coach and Resilience strategist, I now share the tools and strategies I used to transform my life. I believe “Your test becomes your greatness” and everything begins with the thought the outcome of any situation largely depends on how we respond.

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?

When I joined a speaking academy to develop my speaking skills, we were each asked to share a story following the structure which was taught on the training. My answer was “I don’t have a story.” So, my coach encouraged me to find something as a business owner and I spoke about, how I had to deal with a £50,000 fraud in my business during my divorce.

After a while, when people slowly realised how I had to leave Sri Lanka due to war, linguistic barrier, relationship breakdowns and stress related illnesses I suffered, they were astonished. The thing is, I didn’t see those experiences as my story, instead I saw them as my weaknesses and failures. When people around me and my audiences started to say how they felt inspired and my story gave them hope, I realised the need to share it. This prompted me to write and publish my book ‘Resilience Learned’.

My coach and some peers remind me to date about my declaration that I didn’t have a story.

Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

The fact is each of us has a story; the variable is how we perceive it. We need to align and accept our experiences as our biggest teachers and learn from them. When we start seeing our setbacks, challenges, adversities as opportunities to learn, we notice possibilities rather than focusing on problems. Today, my experiences remain the same, yet my perspective has changed completely. If not for all these events in my life, I would not be who I am today.

Our challenges can provide us with the opportunity to develop and expand our horizons, provided we can learn the skills of psychological flexibility and Resilience.

“Your test becomes your greatness”- Menaca.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

In my opinion, what my clients say time after time is they find it easy to talk to without being judges, they find me empathetic and uniquely, every client, and my team members comment on my smile. Though my Dental practice is associated with the name Smile, my current organisation is named ‘SMILE Leadership Academy’ for that very reason. I think it’s a must to under promise and overdeliver and bring the human factor into every part of the business whether it’s your team, clients or stakeholders. I believe when you are passionate about what you do and continuously try to improve how you deliver, with the true intention of helping someone, success is your bi-product.

During the Covid-19 quarantine, I was coaching many for free and being part of some organisations to take distress calls from the community. One of my clients then introduced me to a host on a platform in the UAE as a speaker. Following which a few in the audience instantly signed up for my group coaching. At times when we keep doing what we do best doors start opening for us.

I continue to do some free coaching and voluntary work to contribute in some little way I can. As a thought leader and change-makers, we need to contribute the society, particularly during difficult times, like the one we are experiencing right now.

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’ve had many people help in various ways, and I’m immensely grateful to all of them.

My maternal grandmother (Mummy) who taught me as a child that I can be whoever I want to be, my parents, brother and my daughter who supported me regardless I was a success or failure, my daughter who is my strength and my teacher at times.

In the UK, my mentor Dr Russ Ladwa throughout my career in dentistry and otherwise, my consultant who gave the first opportunity to work in secondary care. Many of my lifelong friends stood by me through thick and thin, cheered me when I succeeded and were there to lend a hand to pick me up when I fell.

I am immensely grateful for each of them, and many more as the list is ever so long.

Can you share a story?

My mentor Andy Harrington in my speaking journey and my friends, coaches and trainers who encouraged me to follow my heart and fulfil my purpose and continue to do so. People and organisations who thought I was worthy of recognition, who gave me the confidence to step out of my comfort zone, heal my wounds and spread my wings.

When I went for a training session, my mentor Andy asked me how I was doing and suddenly my mask, my SMILE dropped, and the floodgates opened. When he said he understands what I am going through, I wasn’t really sure. But when he went on, “you have been writing and speaking about Resilience, so the universe is testing you whether you can survive and show up for yourself and live your life on your own terms” I knew he understood me well. His encouragement to complete my book, including agreeing to write my foreword for me was a gamechanger in my author journey.

That conversation and the faith he showed in me, made me complete my book and publish it within a few months and top it all it became the bestseller.

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?

The definition of Resilience by the ‘experts’ is the ability to bounce back to your previous state after facing some form of adversity. Gaining greater mental durability is essential, given the fast-paced, nonstop working culture of many leaders and organisations. For me, it is the ability to remain calm under the storm, being able to see through all the chaos and still find your feet and being able to adapt in a positive way to overcome adversities.

Who better to quote than Viktor Frankl, when he said “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.

Awareness that any event doesn’t necessarily lead to the outcome, as it is our individual reactions to these events which ultimately define the result. Taking greater responsibility for how you react, what drove you to respond this way and how a different approach could have mapped out a different outcome is essential to approaching future situations in a more constructive manner.

Furthermore, Fredrickson is a positive psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, published a paper about how positive thinking actually impacts on our ability to see more possibilities and learn new skills in a ‘broaden and build’ theory. She shows how people who have a positive attitude and mindset see a broader range of possibilities and are able to learn and develop the skillsets for the future.

This relates to the words of Eckhart Tolle, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but the thoughts about it, be aware of the thoughts you are thinking

I believe the traits of resilient people are to be able to maintain a safe distance from the situation while accepting and acknowledging the reality for what it actually is. They are able to analyse the problem objectively, and not reluctant to ask for help and advice from experts when they require it. They focus on solving the problem and concentrate on the ability to respond in the best way by taking responsibility for the situation rather than shifting blame.

The take away is the path might not be easy, but that’s what makes the journey worthwhile.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah has continuously demonstrated how to stand up for herself and others by sharing powerful stories, being vulnerable and lettering her inner light shine. She has shown how important it is to let go and show compassion and forgiveness to those who let her down and at times were abusive to her. She has reinvented herself many times and has shown us everyone can write their own story the way each one intends to. Oprah is my all-time 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?

I was told by someone I know well; it will be impossible for me to become a speaker or a coach. The explanation given to me at that time was “It’s an English man’s job & your fluency and accent will be a problem.” The state is partially true as I didn’t study in English until I went to university and yes, I don’t speak like a native English. Now my truth is the message I share is more important than how well I speak a language. I reinvented my childhood passion for public speaking, and now I focus on the impact it will have on others.

Hence, I now say, “Someone’s’ perception of you is not your reality; let it remain theirs” — Menaca.

When I started my personal development journey, I started to associate with people, who thought my story was powerful, and I could inspire many others and help them change their mindset. Slowly but surely, I developed my confidence and courage to do that. They say if the environment is not conducive, the best thing to do is to change it. I can totally resonate to that. I tell my mentees, if we don’t like the environment we can move and create a different environment for ourselves. We are not trees, we don’t have to be rooted like trees, we always have a choice.

As Oprah Winfrey says “Surround yourself with those who only lift you higher” has helped me grow into the person I am today.

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?

A few years ago, I felt my world was dismantling around me; I felt lonely, almost lost everything personally and professionally and thought I hit the lowest point in my life. When I was signed off from work due to stress-related illness, I felt as if it was the end of the tunnel. As someone who survived the war, relationship breakdown and migration, I always thought I could weather any storm.

This experience taught me how we respond to different experiences varies, and sometimes the compound effect of various aspects of your life can have a disparate impact on someone.

I was fortunate to have supportive parents, brother, daughter and my lifelong friends to be there for me through that phase of life. I’m grateful for my peers, coaches and mentors who encouraged me to grow from that setback.

The experience has taught me we are stronger than you think, and the most critical factor is our perception of ourselves and our self-worth. A study by the National Science Foundation states we have averagely 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts in a day, and eighty per cent of them are negative. In a later study by Cornell University, 85% of what we worry never happens and within the 15% of what happened 79% felt they could either deal with it better than expected or they learnt something. Hence, 97% of our worries seem baseless.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

During the war in Srilanka, I had witnessed, death, loss of livelihood and grief. In fact, I had to uproot myself to India to continue my education after experiencing it personally at the age of nine and then as a young adult.

For someone who fainted on the sight of blood, I was caught up in a situation where a woman was injured within a foot in the middle of nowhere. Strangely I mustered up all the strength I could draw on and provided first aid for that lady. Witnessing these experiences, I learnt at a young age how temporary our lives can be and what a privilege to be alive each day.

As a community, I learnt the importance of Resilience, and life can throw curveballs at us at the stage. The biggest lesson I learnt was, we can show compassion, be kind to one another and share what we have with others regardless of how much or how little we possess.

The influence of my teacher and my mother has taught me the vital role we can play in our society through charities and other non-profit organisations. I’m blessed I had people in my life I could learn the valuable lessons early on.

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.

1. Acknowledge your Emotions:

In the current desire for positivity, we often want to suppress our feelings what we perceive to be negative. Accept you are anxious, overwhelmed or stressed and take time to understand the underlying reason for it.

The most important lesson I learned is to accept my feelings. It’s normal to feel anxious when you experience uncertainty, unpredictability or unexpected change. I remember a kind practitioner saying to me during my recovery “you need to understand it’s normal to be scared.” That was the best advice I got and recall that whenever I go through a period of change now.

During the lockdown, I could understand the emotions of others as we had experienced this often during the war. It is the feeling of being controlled, the uncertainty and the lack of freedom.

Earlier I wore my smile as a mask and didn’t connect to my emotions well nor addressed them. As they say, what you resist persists and accumulate over time.

My take-home message is “it is sometimes normal to feel threatened, scared, angry, hurt, as it’s normal to be happy, elated and peaceful”.

2. Make writing a routine:

Getting every single thing which is causing stress, anxiety and overwhelm out of your head and onto the paper is a simple yet powerful exercise.

A few years back, a coach had given me a tip to write down everything as soon as I was worried about something or a thought started to linger around. When I started practising it, I instantly felt as if the weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It has also brought somethings to surface what I was reluctant to deal with at the time.

Brain Dump: This is a skill which has served me well during challenging times. This exercise has not only made me face up to challenges I wanted to shy away from it also made me understand why I am overwhelmed. It also gave me space between myself and my thoughts.

3. Step Outside the box:

Often, we try solving problems, from the same stressful, anxious and overwhelming state and place. You need to step away from the situation, the environment or even people around for a short while. The distance will aid you to have an objective view of your circumstances and a fresh perspective

Stepping out will interrupt your state of mind, change your perspective and help you refocus better. The interruption could be as simple as sitting in a different chair, different room, going for a walk or even having a tea break. Taking a step back and concentrating on something for a short time gives you the time and space you need to break the cycle of being overwhelmed.

Take a break: For some, it is walking, running or exercise, for others it is having a conversation with a loved one or relaxing. What you do in that time is not the important thing; what matters is the break from that mental state of overwhelm.

4. Stay in the present and delete multitasking:

Delete multitasking start Single-tasking from your vocabulary and learn to focus on one thing. This shift in mindset helped me become more productive by prioritising what I needed to get done. Scientists now say multitasking triggers our body to produce more stress hormones. The aftereffects could range from feeling lethargic to short term memory loss.

Practice Meditation and Mindfulness: Stillness and quietness is essential for your mental and emotional health. When you start focusing on the present moment, you become more efficient, and your ability to problem solve improve.

5. Asking for help:

Asking for help is something most of us struggle with or fail to do. We overanalyse, make assumptions and refuse to ask. A skill I wish I learnt much earlier. Whenever I had gathered the courage to ask, people have been amazingly helpful. My friends, family, even my coaches and mentors have been generous and very supportive. The only ones in our way are ourselves mostly. Go on, challenge yourself, try asking for help for the next few days and be ready to be astonished how many people will come forward.

Stop trying to be a superhero: None of us can do everything or be an expert in everything. We all need help from time to time, and it’s ok to ask for help. Most people are willing to lend a hand and help out when asked. So next time you feel overwhelmed, Just Ask!!!

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. 🙂

In fact, I’m launching a talk show called ‘Soul Strings’ online next month to share stories which will inspire others and have an impact on essential topics socially. Though this concept was there for the last few years, the Covid-19 was an impetus to bring this project forward by many months.

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 🙂

Oprah Winfrey. Oprah has been my inspiration for many decades. I relate to the fact how she transformed her life from humble beginnings and stands up for important social issues with courage. I respect her for being humble despite being one of the truly self-made savvy business women and an unparalleled leader.

How can our readers follow you on social media?



Facebook: SMILE Leadership Academy


This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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