From taking a new route home to starting — or asking for help to start — a new business, learning a language, making a video, having a brave conversation, or even auditioning for a play. When I first thought about auditioning for a local production of Steel Magnolias — easily my favorite chick flick & go-to tear-jerker — the nasty self-talk that followed sounded something like, “Who do you think you are? This isn’t in your wheelhouse…You don’t look the part…No one is going to cast you in a play,” and on and on. That is how I knew it had to be done. So, I sweat, cursed, cried a little, but ultimately: I did it. I also got a callback! And even though I didn’t get cast, what mattered was that I auditioned. Proving to that critical inner voice that it was wrong, and to myself that I can be afraid AND still do the thing I am afraid of at the same time.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Kendra Davies. She is a Positive Psychology Coach, Professional Certified Life Coach, and the proud Founder & Owner of Stellar Life Coaching (Orlando, FL). Kendra has developed a workshop series called The Science of Happ-E-ness and Employee Wellbeing™. Using scientifically-validated practices, the series aims to smash the mental health stigma by simplifying and normalizing the integration of whole-life employee wellness as a necessary business practice. Kendra holds a BA in Organizational Behavior from Rollins College and a Certificate of Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP).
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Last November, I celebrated 18 years of sobriety. For me, and the millions of people like me, I have worked against the stigma associated with the disease of addiction. Unlike my “normie” counterparts, who may have had greater ease accomplishing some of life’s milestones, each of my achievements are best appreciated by acknowledging a difficult past and how incredibly — statistically — unlikely it was that I would flourish personally & professionally. From high school dropout who couldn’t keep a job…to collegiate valedictorian with a thriving, contributive business. My work related to recovery: 12-Step program, outpatient treatment, therapy, mentoring, and coaching has been, in some form, an integral part of my life since I was 14 years old.
In my formative, developing teen years, while other kids were still skipping school and “experimenting,” the severity of my experiences brought me face to face with a fearless and searching moral inventory. Fun childhood, right? Try not to be too jealous. Therapy was a truly invaluable tool, which brought me to a place where I began to mentally understand the roots of my issues with and related to addiction. Addressing trauma and dysfunctional family dynamics filled my long-empty wellness tank from -5 to 0, or neutral. But knowing was only half the battle. Though remaining sober was non-negotiable, I remained stagnant in or around neutral for what felt like an eternity, until 10 years ago, when I found Positive Psychology. In some moments of grace and gratitude, an idea will resonate deeply, inspiring action and forward movement. This study was, viscerally, the next step for me.
Through intensive study of positive emotions, love, emotional intelligence, gratitude, and courage — combined with the practices I developed early in sobriety — I grew exponentially. I developed new, powerful coping skills. I began to soften the edges of my communication skills while also setting healthy boundaries, and even learned to appreciate my true badassery. Effectively, shifting my focus from “what is wrong” to “what is possible”. It is by no means a perfect science that I have somehow, superhumanly mastered. Spoiler Alert: The work is never done, and you cannot get it wrong. I strive for it daily.
When I decided to start my business, I knew I wanted to do 3 things: Talk, Help people, and Travel.
At first, self-doubt and the pragmatic need to make a living crept up, asking ‘why would anyone pay little ol’ me to do this?’…but I soon realized the root of that classic fear was not really about money at all, but about old, deep wounds around my personal worth. Was I cut out for this? Would my past tarnish my credibility? Or worse, drive away potential clients & professional relationships? My then-mentor told me to “think smarter, not harder.” So, when I learned about life coaching, there was a significant shift in the way I viewed my qualifications to help facilitate real and lasting positive change for people, and one month later Stellar Life Coaching was born (April 2013).
I believe mental health counseling and therapy are life-saving, and appropriate for the storm — addressing those deep seeded wounds from the past. Whereas coaching is most appropriate for addressing the challenges that arise in our daily living and planning for our future. Today, I am passionate about — the messy middle stage, after we find our balance in neutral, and begin to rebuild our lives & identities. Coaching is more closely aligned with my most ambitious (scariest) dreams, to walk with people in the stages after the storm settles: When we are most aware of who we are, what brought us to this point, and are ready to move forward, into the unknown, with new optimism. It’s the most heartening, life-affirming part of being a Positive Psychology Coach.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I believe the stigma lingers for a few reasons:
• The majority of folks have an understanding of mental illness as incurable, unmanageable, and marginalized. Possibly envisioning homeless addicts, soldiers with PTSD, a combination of both, or other extremes, obvious and visible cases. Unless and until mental illness finds us, or our families or friends, we might not recognize that 1-in-4 Americans struggle with mental illness; while simultaneously working diligently with their diagnoses, living whole lives, keeping jobs, sustaining healthy relationships, making art, and raising smart and emotionally intelligent children.
• We are a society consumed with binaries and compartmentalization. Nowhere does this seem to be more pervasive than in our work culture. We must develop an understanding that our mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing are interconnected. “Work-Life Balance” is a cute buzz phrase, but we are not compartmentalized beings. We are whole people, everywhere we go. There is only Balance. We attribute what people do and how much potential for productivity we believe them to have, to who they are. But every aspect of human life can and should be placed on a spectrum, nuanced as we are. Defining people by their mental illness, especially in relation to their contribution to the bottom line, relieves us from the burden of having to learn compassion, understanding, and inclusiveness.
• We live in a culture that is under- and misinformed about mental health and trauma. Happiness, flourishing, purpose, and living bravely are not only reserved for those on a “self-help” journey. And trauma isn’t reserved for extreme cases, such as going to war, living through horrendous natural disasters, or surviving violence. Trauma is an experience for which we do not have coping skills with which to recover. The loss of a loved one; having a child; getting divorced; enduring that boss who bullied you for a year, and the struggle to find a new job after you quit or got fired. These are all potentially traumatizing experiences, with a variety of side effects that touch every part of our lives. We downplay our own suffering by comparing it to the seemingly much worse suffering of others — a pain Olympics if you will. But the comparison is the death of compassion and empathy. There is always someone who has it worse than you, but that doesn’t make your own suffering invalid.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I’ve created a workshop series delivered to businesses called The Science of Happ-E-ness and Employee Wellbeing™, where the aim is two-fold:
First, we inform companies how to remain relevant, progressive, and competitive, and increase creativity & innovation by tending to employee wellness, beyond time spent at the office. People are not machines! But if you want your car to perform at its best, you change the oil every once in a while, am I right?
Second, we empower and instruct employers and employees, with scientifically-validated methods, how to easily integrate positive mental wellness initiatives that improve their connections to others, to their work, and to the whole of their lives.
This workshop leverages the research and findings of Positive Psychology to provide effective, tangible ways for employees to re-engage with their lives and their work. It is like a new pair of glasses. So many employees are at — or dangerously close to — burnout. When companies don’t know how to spot these signs — or use preventative measures to avoid them altogether — turnover is high. We discuss the necessary and vital role of negative emotions (yes, negative emotions), learning how to be accountable to ourselves and others while living within our own values. We teach authentic communication skills, moving away from blame and shame, towards vulnerability and a true sense of belonging.
Ultimately, by ignoring the universal wellness needs of employees, businesses lose time and money when they could be cultivating a thriving, profitable, work environment. We simply must learn a new way of seeing ourselves at work. It’s time to smash the mental health stigma because stress, depression, anxiety, and burnout are real. They cost employers money, and people their health and happiness. With this workshop, we share a broader vision for effective business models, making these practices accessible to all. At work: where we least expect it and need it the most.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
In one extremely conservative estimation, from ages 16 to 65, we spend some 91,249 hours in a work environment, which comes to nearly 11 full years. And that calculation only accounts for a consistent, Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm job — more time than with any other single part of our lives. It doesn’t even include commuting hours, weekend shifts, overtime, or work that inevitably spills over into home and personal life. In short: How we feel at and about work matters.
When I consider how much of their lives employees give to companies, there is an undeniable opportunity, responsibility, and benefit for businesses to ensure their workplaces are conducive to human flourishing. There are clear indications that happy and engaged employees are beneficial to the bottom line. We have to foster environments where inclusion, honesty, compassion, and brave conversations pave the way for employees to do their jobs. At the end of the day, business is not responsible for choices that the employee makes to flourish — that is on the employee. But there is no denying that when an employee feels and believes they are valued, based on the action and encouragement of their leaders and stakeholders, they are more likely to make choices that lead them to thrive.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
I do not believe that individuals are separate from work — work is not separate from society — society is not separate from government — the government is not separate from the health of our communities. As humans, we have a personal responsibility to address our own biases and beliefs around mental illness, and what we believe mental wellbeing is. Bryan Stevenson has a beautiful quote, “It is hard to hate people up close.” To support those suffering from a mental illness we must be willing to see them as whole people, too. With experiences, perspectives, and ideas that are different from ours, and necessary to build a better us.
There is no simple way to answer this question. Mental illness is complex, and the variables are many. I would make two specific suggestions:
1. Be curious about their experience, and avoid judgment. For instance, if you know someone who is “always anxious” or overwhelmed say something like, “I want to know more about your experience of this change at work. I am curious to know how it has affected you?” This act of kindness may be transformational for both of you. Pay special attention to any moments of judgment which may be masked as disbelief or blame. Aim to understand, not to evaluate as true or false, right or wrong.
2. Be a friend and an ally, not a therapist. In most cases, we want to say the right thing that will “fix” people or end the suffering for those we care about. As kind as our intentions may be, it is simply not helpful and can be dismissive and hurtful. Therapists have a role in supporting folks with mental illness, one that precludes them from being a friend. That is where you come in. You get to love them support them, and even advocate for them in their daily lives.
What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
• Daily prayer and meditation, or daily rituals. I personally practice daily prayer and meditation. It began in recovery, so I’ve been doing it for a really long time. Sometimes I can do a solid 15 minutes, sometimes I am lucky if I get to 2 minutes. What matters is I sit, talk to a power greater than myself, and then I listen. Maybe your daily ritual is to sit with your coffee, watch the sun come up, and listen as the traffic and hustle builds around you. What matters is the priority to care for yourself is as natural and important as getting a drink of water if you are thirsty.
• Gratitude. It cannot be stressed enough: There is magic in naming and/or writing down a gratitude list. This practice has evolved for me over the years, from an ongoing list of “things that are good,” to three specific things I am grateful for and why, to finding one thing I am grateful for about at least one person per day, to interacting with them and telling them exactly what I love & appreciate about them. Gratitude truly has a momentum of its own and begets more and more things for which to be thankful.
• Challenging myself to do things I am afraid of. From taking a new route home to starting — or asking for help to start — a new business, learning a language, making a video, having a brave conversation, or even auditioning for a play. When I first thought about auditioning for a local production of Steel Magnolias — easily my favorite chick flick & go-to tear-jerker — the nasty self-talk that followed sounded something like, “Who do you think you are? This isn’t in your wheelhouse…You don’t look the part…No one is going to cast you in a play,” and on and on. That is how I knew it had to be done. So, I sweat, cursed, cried a little, but ultimately: I did it. I also got a callback! And even though I didn’t get cast, what mattered was that I auditioned. Proving to that critical inner voice that it was wrong, and to myself that I can be afraid AND still do the thing I am afraid of at the same time.
• Practice emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to accurately identify emotions, by name and sensation, to recognize those same emotions in others, and to use emotional information to make better intellectual decisions. I ask a lot of questions about myself and those around me. I may journal or reflect using a list of feelings to expand my feeling vocabulary. It helps me see the facts, the reality, and the perspective of others more clearly.
• Connect to something greater than myself. It matters little whether that is God, Nature, Friends, Travel, a good book, or service work. Meaning is made when we see what we do as a valuable contribution to something greater than ourselves. For me, being active in my community, serving others, and getting out of myself is critical for my wellbeing.
• Write. In all honesty, this has been the hardest one to maintain since my son was born. However, much like the practice of Gratitude, there is always magic when I write. Just writing a few times a week is enough to make something in my brain click. Sometimes I journal about my day, my dreams, or my feelings. Other times, I write what author Anne Lamott calls “my sh*tty first draft” — the petty, honest, self-righteous, and un-enlightened nonsense mind-garbage that accumulates between my ears. I get it out so it doesn’t linger. Then, I can circle back and write what is at the heart of the matter.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Here are some tools I have found helpful:
Insight Timer is a free meditation app. There are some in-app purchases available, but you can legit search and listen to free meditations.
MoodMeter is an app that makes it simple and easy to monitor your mood/emotions, as well as notice patterns and themes.
Growth Mindset, by Carol Dweck
Change your Questions, Change Your Life, by Merilee Adams
Non-violent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg
Anything written by Harriet Lerner,
and also, anything written by Brene Brown.