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What One Courageous Woman’s Life with Chronic Illness Can Teach Us About Thriving During These Challenging Times

5 Tips for Thriving During Unprecedented Times

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Every year in December, I make it a practice to reflect on the prior months, to see what lessons I can glean to help in the year ahead. In this regard, the end of 2020 is no different, and yet at the same time it couldn’t be more different as the world we have come to know has changed drastically because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

This has been the most challenging year ever for me personally, and arguably almost everyone else on the planet will feel this way also.  Given the current state of affairs, and continued state of uncertainty which clouds so many areas of our lives, it’s clear that 2021 also has the potential to challenge us to limits we never thought possible.

As a firm believer in thriving in, not just surviving through whatever crisis we may face, for my yearly reflection practice, I decided to seek inspiration from someone who is the epitome of thriving in the face of great difficulty, Anne Welsh, Author of the powerful book Painless, CEO of Painless Universal, and Sickle Cell sufferer.

In my recent interview with Anne, she shared about being born with this debilitating chronic blood disorder, which could at a moment’s notice strike her with a crisis of crippling pain which she likened to a hammer slamming repeatedly against her bones. These crises were sadly a common occurrence in her life growing up, and lead to her being hospitalised for days to receive lifesaving blood transfusions.  

These terrible experiences and hospitalizations were so traumatic and disruptive that many people told her she would never be able to have a relationship, kids, or do any meaningful work.  Yet today Anne is a proud wife and mother, whose work is positively impacting individuals, businesses and governments globally.  

Through our conversation I discovered 5 things from her journey that can help us all thrive in difficult circumstances. 

1 – No Matter What You See Or Hear, Dream Big, and Believe In Yourself

As Anne was almost always sick growing up, well-meaning people would say things like “you shouldn’t get married”; “you shouldn’t have kids”; “just stay with your mum and let life take care of you”; “you’re disabled, and an ethnic minority, it’s going to be impossible for you to get the kind of job you say you want.”  

The facts surrounding her circumstances certainly looked bleak, however, she has been able to consistently overcome them by getting clear on what she wants, holding on to that dream, believing in herself, and creating another way when she met dead ends.  Having accomplished everything she was told she could not do, and so much more, including working with the former Head of state of her country Nigeria, and other world leaders she advises, “don’t let anything or anyone tell you you can’t, you have to find the channel that will work for you to reach your dream.” 

For Anne, turning dreams into reality manifested itself in her commitment to very hard work.  Her accomplishments did  not happen overnight, and it took years of  discipline before those dreams became a reality.  Anne accomplished this by coming to the UK from Nigeria, achieving A levels and going on to graduate with an Accounting and Finance degree from the University of Hertfordshire – all things she had been told were not possible for her. But that was not enough,  and she graduated with a Masters in Investment Management from London’s Cass Business School.  This was the gateway to her investment banking career with Lehman Brothers.  Coupled with her dreams of family, business and charitable endeavours these experiences have led Anne to the point at which she is at now. 

2 – When So Much Is Out Of Your Control Focus On What You Can Control

This year, many of us felt the frustration of being on lockdown, even if we could appreciate that it was in an effort to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19.  Having her movement massively restricted is something Anne experienced before the word lockdown became so widely used.  She shared of many long frustrating days spent in hospital after having one sickle cell crisis after another.  She pleaded with the doctors to let her go home so she wouldn’t have to just lie in a confined space for days on end.  The answer was no day after day because in the doctors’ opinion, she looked so frail, weak and tired.  

One day, she had the thought, I may not be able to change my blood results or any other medical facts, but I can change the way I look, and my energy and attitude when I speak to the hospital staff.  In doing that, she not only felt so much better as the frustration lifted, but it led to the same doctors who were nervous about discharging her, to do so the very next day.  She described it as a miracle that she proceeded to repeat during future hospitalizations. 

During these current unpredictable days, she is thankfully seldom in the hospital because she has discovered a way to maintain her physical and mental health with a controllable daily routine which includes exercise, meditation, healthy eating, and drinking lots of water.

3 – In Times Of Crisis, Look Back To Move Forward With Confidence

It can be tempting, and quite frankly understandable to want to shrink back and hide when faced with the unprecedented times we have this year. Anne however suggests looking back to the unprecedented challenges you faced in the past to find the courage, confidence, and potential strategies to move forward.  She shared that complications with sickle cell meant she couldn’t do something as simple as get a part time job at the supermarket like her younger sisters as a teenager.  She joked that this forced her to hone her leadership and money management skills as her siblings’ treasurer.  This experience helped give her the confidence to apply for and land a prestigious post-graduate job in investment banking when the stakes were much higher, and the odds much more impossible.  

4 – Build resilience by reframing knock-backs

Working with my coaching clients to increase their resilience has been such an important focus this year, so I was keen to learn how Anne approached this on her journey battling chronic illness.  She shared that “living with sickle cell, you’re always knocked back, no matter how much you try things, you get knocked back – A LOT. So, I stopped seeing these incidents as knockbacks. Instead, I reframed them as I was going back to the hospital to rest. I was tired. My body needed rest. And when I finished resting, I got up and started the engine again to keep moving towards my dreams. I saw myself as a car, never felt pity on myself like, Oh, I can’t do this. What people tend to forget when faced with difficulties is that no matter what it looks like, there’s always so much opportunity, but it’s up to you to accept the responsibility to look for, and go for it.”

5 – Don’t let wanting make you forget thanking

A key thing that struck me about Anne as I read her book, and interviewed her is her refusal to feel sorry for herself, or blame anything or anyone for what she has been through. In her book she shared that giving birth to her second child Caroline, was an extremely difficult physical experience. In fact, it was a miracle she survived the birth of either of her children.  In the excruciating pain of Caroline’s birth, she was tempted to feel depressed, when she remembered that “she was the luckiest woman in the world.” She credits her winning and optimistic mindset to “never letting her wanting make her forget thanking”.  Focusing on, and being grateful what she has is a powerful daily practice that she says helps her thrive especially during these days.

None of us knows exactly what 2021 will hold, but I am confident that these tips can help us all thrive and navigate the days ahead with courage, come what may.

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